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Milk Screenwriter Dustin Lance Black on Milk, 30 Years Later

ABOVE: Harvey and Jack Lira on the day Milk was sworn in.
(c) Jerry Pritikin 1978

I hope you enjoyed yesterday's foreword by Armistead Maupin from the just published
. As we look forward to the Academy Awards tomorrow, we're also happy to present the first online publication of the introduction to that book by Milk screenwriter and Oscar nominee Lance Black.

30 Years Later

Dustin Lance Black

Black I grew up in a very conservative Mormon military household in San Antonio, Texas. I knew from the age of six what people would call me if they ever discovered my “secret.” Faggot. Deviant. Sinner. I’d heard those words ever since I can remember. I knew that I was going to Hell. I was sure God did not love me. It was clear as day that I was “less than” the other kids, and that if anyone ever found out about my little secret, beyond suffering physical harm, I would surely bring great shame to my family.

So I had two choices: to hide—to go on a Mormon mission, to get married and have a small Mormon family (eight to twelve kids)—or to do what I’d thought about many a time while daydreaming in Texas history class: take my own life. Thankfully, there weren’t enough pills (fun or otherwise) inside my Mormon mother’s medicine cabinet, so I pretended and I hid and I cried myself to sleep more Sabbath nights than I care to remember.

Then, when I was twelve years old, I had a turn of luck. My mom remarried a Catholic Army soldier who had orders to ship out to Fort Ord in Salinas, California. There I discovered a new family, the theater. . . and soon, San Francisco.

That’s when it happened. I was almost fourteen when I heard a recording of a speech. It had been delivered on June 9, 1978, the same year my biological father had moved my family out to San Antonio. It was delivered by what I was told was an “out” gay man. His name was Harvey Milk.

Milkthumb "Somewhere in Des Moines or San Antonio, there is a young gay person who all of a sudden realizes that she or he is gay. Knows that if the parents find out they’ll be tossed out of the house. The classmates will taunt the child and the Anita Bryants and John Briggs are doing their bit on TV, and that child has several options: staying in the closet, suicide. . . and then one day that child might open up the paper and it says, “homosexual elected in San Francisco,” and there are two new options. One option is to go to California. . . OR stay in San Antonio and fight. You’ve got to elect gay people so that that young child and the thousands upon thousands like that child know that there’s hope for a better world. There’s hope for a better tomorrow."

That moment when I heard Harvey for the first time . . . that was the first time I really knew someone loved me for me. From the grave, over a decade after his assassination, Harvey gave me life. . . he gave me hope.

At that very same moment, without knowing it, I became a pawn in a game of political power wrangling that is still shedding blood from DC to Sacramento, El Paso to Altoona.

Continued, AFTER THE JUMP...

Milk2 In the following years, I watched careers, political and otherwise, cut short through revelations of this or that official’s sexuality. And in 2004, I looked on with horror as a President won re-election by pitting homophobes against gays and lesbians. If there had been a Harvey Milk, if there had been a movement of great hope and change, I certainly couldn’t see it from where I stood four and a half years ago when I started this journey to tell Harvey’s story.

Thirty years after Harvey Milk was assassinated, in the summer of 2008, with antigay measures on the ballot in several states, I tuned in to the Democratic National Convention to see how his message had fared. Back in 1972, Jim Foster, an openly gay man, stood up in front of the convention and on prime-time national television said, “We do not come to you pleading your understanding or begging your tolerance, we come to you affirming our pride in our life-style, affirming the validity to seek and maintain meaningful emotional relationships and affirming our right to participate in the life of this country on an equal basis with every citizen.” What did I hear at the DNC in 2008? Almost nothing. And then there was the Republican National Convention: Sarah Palin, John McCain, flashy, divisive, patriotic speeches. And even there, not a mention of gay or lesbian people. . . bigoted or otherwise.

Milk3 I left those conventions with a deep, sinking fear. They’ve found the surefire way to kill the gay and lesbian movement for good. They’ll make us invisible. They’ll make us all disappear. It’s happened before. Reagan did it in the 80s with six years of silence about the AIDS crisis.

You see, one of the biggest hurdles for the gay community has always been invisibility. Unlike the black movement and the women’s movement, gays and lesbians are not always immediately identifiable. People still go their entire careers without coming out to their co-workers, not to mention their relatives or their neighbors. Harvey Milk saw this problem, and shouted out the solution, “You must come OUT!”

The entire concept of coming out was devised and pushed for by leaders like Harvey Milk back in 1978 as a way to counter this visibility problem. If people don’t know who they are hurting, they don’t mind discriminating against them. Watching these two conventions, I got a sinking feeling that Milk’s beloved gay and lesbian movement was off the table. I felt myself slowly vanishing, and for gay and lesbian people, invisibility equals death.

Milk4 Thirty years after Harvey began his fight for GLBT (Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender) equality, I am still “less than” a heterosexual when it comes to my civil rights in America. If I fall in love with someone in a foreign country, I can’t marry him and bring him home. I can’t be out in the military, there are inheritance rights issues, adoption rights, social security, taxation, immigration, employment, housing, and access to health care rights, social services, and education rights, and on and on. The message to gay and lesbian youth today is that they are still inferior.

Today, in 2008, The Gay and Lesbian Task Force reports that a third of all gay youth attempt suicide, that gay youth are four times more likely than straights to try to take their own lives, and if a kid does survive, 26 percent are told to leave home when they come out. It’s estimated that 20 to 40 percent of the 1.6 million homeless youth in America today identify as gay or lesbian. Harvey Milk’s message is needed now more than ever.

So much of what I’ve done in this business up to this point has been to make myself ready to take on the overwhelming responsibility of retelling Harvey’s story. It took many years of research, digging through archives, driving up to San Francisco in search of Harvey’s old friends and foes, charging a couple of nights at the Becks motor lodge on Market and Castro with my principal source, Harvey’s political protégé, Cleve Jones.

Milk5 What I discovered on those trips wasn’t the legend of the man that I’d heard in adolescence. What I discovered was a deeply flawed man, a man who had grown up closeted, a man who failed in business and in his relationships, a man who got a very late start. Through Harvey’s friends, foes, lovers, and opponents, I met the real Harvey Milk.

Those I interviewed also shared stories of a time in San Francisco when it seemed anything was possible. The Castro was booming. Gay and lesbian people were making headway in the battle for equal rights. And from the ashes of defeats in Florida, Kansas, and Oregon rose a big-eared, floppy-footed leader who was able to reach out to other communities, to the disenfranchised, and to unexpected allies. He convinced an entire people to “come out,” and against all odds, he fought back and won on Election Day.

So what happened on Election Day, November 4, 2008, thirty years later? When I began this project, I could never have predicted the parallels between Proposition 8 in California in 2008 and Harvey’s fight over Proposition 6 in 1978. Both statewide initiatives sought to take away gay and lesbian rights. By the early hours of November 5, though, it became clear this modern-day fight wouldn’t echo Harvey’s victory in 1978. Only weeks before Milk’s biography would hit the big screen, Proposition 8 in California passed. It changed the state’s constitution to revoke the right of marriage to gay and lesbian citizens who had already been enjoying that right. Thirty years, almost to the day, after Harvey Milk had successfully defeated Proposition 6 in California, the pendulum had swung back.

One week later, Cleve Jones and I picked up the torch of his former mentor and father figure with these words (as published in the San Francisco Chronicle):

We have always been willing to serve our country: in our armed forces, even as we were threatened with courts-martial and dishonor; as teachers, even as we were slandered and libeled; as parents and foster parents struggling to support our children; as doctors and nurses caring for patients in a broken health care system; as artists, writers and musicians; as workers in factories and hotels, on farms and in office buildings; we have always served and loved our country.

We have loved our country even as we have been subjected to discrimination, harassment and violence at the hands of our countrymen. We have loved God, even as we were rejected and abandoned by religious leaders, our churches, synagogues and mosques. We have loved democracy, even as we witnessed the ballot box used to deny us our rights.

We have always kept faith with the American people, our neighbors, co-workers, friends and families. But today that faith is tested and we find ourselves at a crossroad in history.

Will we move forward together? Will we affirm that the American dream is alive and real? Will we finally guarantee full equality under the law for all Americans? Or will we surrender to the worst, most divisive appeals to bigotry, ignorance and fear?

I imagine Harvey would be surprised that words like these would still be needed in 2008. What went wrong? Why did the GLBT community lose a civil rights fight that Harvey could likely have won thirty years ago?

To me, the answers are clear. GLBT leaders today have been asking straight allies to stand up for the gay community instead of encouraging gay and lesbian people to proudly represent themselves. The movement has become closeted again. The movement has lost the message of Harvey Milk. Who is to blame? The philosopher George Santayana said so long ago, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

I didn’t grow up with any knowledge of GLBT heroes, but there are many. I didn’t grow up with any instruction about GLBT history, but it is a rich history, filled with valuable, universal lessons. It is only in recent years that Hollywood has agreed to risk its dollars on films that depict gay protagonists, and only now, thirty years after Milk’s assassination, that Hollywood has agreed to risk its dollars to depict one of the gay movement’s greatest heroes.

Milk6 Now, thanks to the bravery of directors like Gus Van Sant, producers like Dan Jinks and Bruce Cohen, and companies like Michael London’s Groundswell and Focus Features, I was given a shot at creating a popularized history that young people, GLBT leaders, and our future straight allies can look at and learn from. With this and the many other films I hope will follow, perhaps we are not doomed to keep repeating the same mistakes of our past.

But even in these difficult times, all is not lost. By example, Harvey taught us that from our darkest hours comes “Hope.” The night after this year’s election, I attended a rally against the passage of Proposition 8, and the speakers onstage were mostly the folks who had waged the failed, closeted “No on 8” campaign. Yes, they were saying inspiring, fiery words about the injustice. Yes, there were some cheers, but mostly the mood was restless. And then something magical happened.

The young people in the crowd started to move. Perhaps it was instinct, perhaps they knew more about their own movement’s history than the folks onstage, perhaps they just weren’t willing to continue the current leadership’s policy of closeting and good behavior. They started to move. They marched away from the stage. They started to march out of the gay ghetto of West Hollywood and up to a straight neighborhood. Within minutes a public march, eight thousand strong, had begun. It looked almost identical to Harvey’s marches up Market Street in San Francisco in 1977. Young people, old people, gay people, lesbians, bisexual folks, transgender ones, and many, many straight allies marched up to Sunset Boulevard, took over the city, and started doing what Harvey had talked about. They started giving a face to GLBT people again. They showed the world who was hurt at the ballot box the night before. They came out. They weren’t asking straight people to advocate for their rights. In their chants and on their signs, they demanded equality themselves.

In 1977, Harvey Milk claimed Anita Bryant didn’t win in Dade County when she overturned all of their gay rights laws. He claimed that the defeat in Florida had brought his people together. It seemed the same thing had happened thirty years later.

Black And yes, those demonstrators on television, and Harvey’s message in theaters, are exceedingly important in the continued fight over Proposition 8, but they are important to me for another, more personal reason. . . because I feel certain there is another kid out there in San Antonio tonight who woke up on November 5, 2008, and heard that gay people had lost their rights in California, that they were still “less than,” and I know all too well the dire solutions that may have flashed through his or her head.

Those demonstrators on television sets all across the country aren’t just making a statement against the bigotry of Prop 8; they are sending a message of hope to that child in San Antonio: “You are not less than,” “You have brothers and sisters and friends, thousands of them,” “There is hope for a better tomorrow,” and like Harvey said, “You can come to California. . . or you can stay in San Antonio and FIGHT.”

These photos and the accompanying quotes from my research interviews in this book don’t tell the story of a man born to lead, but of a regular man with many flaws who did what many others wouldn’t . . . he did what his people need to do again today, thirty years later . . . Harvey Milk stood up and fought back.

Dustin Lance Black
November 2008
Los Angeles


Excerpted from MILK: A PICTORIAL HISTORY OF HARVEY MILK, published by Newmarket Press, Copyright © 2009 by Dustin Lance Black. All rights reserved

Photographer Jerry Pritikin has a new blog.

Special Thanks to Focus Features.

Feed This post's comment feed


  1. To Brendan Davis--I am truly grateful for your understanding and supportive comment. I am also freaked out because my son's name is Brendan Davis...

    Posted by: Jeff Kurtti | Feb 22, 2009 10:11:49 PM

  2. Way to go, Dustin! Woohoo!

    Posted by: GayRepublican | Feb 22, 2009 11:27:43 PM

  3. IT'S PENN!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    Posted by: K | Feb 22, 2009 11:48:44 PM

  4. As a man who was late to "come out" in life - one of the things that always struck me was the infighting and oneupsmanship I saw among the gay communities. So many folks are willing to criticize one another and note who did what first and how significant it is. I had the opportunity to march in Chicago last fall in the "no on 8" march that entered Michigan avenue on a Saturday and stopped traffic. At the age of 49 - near the anniversary of six years from when I came out I have worked hard to make up time the last six years and in working with community organizations I have learned that we make it is easy to divide us. We were together in Chicago, cold as it was, on November 15 and I will always remember it just as I remember watching a young man be assaulted for being gay on a city street in 2003. Correct the record, vent a bit, but come together and realize that DLB has a gift and he has shared it with all of us.

    Posted by: kjb | Feb 23, 2009 12:24:43 AM

  5. leland frances is hopeless. harvey milk gave me hope. even if he wasn't the first out gay elected official.

    Posted by: JD | Feb 23, 2009 12:34:42 AM

  6. Congratatulations to Lance (and to Sean). Wonderful speech too. Here is the conclusion:

    "I heard the story of Harvey Milk and it gave me hope. It gave me the hope to live my life openly as who I am, and that one day I could even fall in love and get married.

    "I want to thank my mom, who has always loved me for who I am even when there was pressure not to.

    "But most of all, if Harvey had not been taken from us 30 years ago, I think he would want me to say to all of the gay and lesbian kids out there tonight who have been told that they are less than by their churches or by the government or by their families, that you are beautiful, wonderful creatures of value, and that no matter what anyone tells you God does love you and that very soon I promise you, you will have equal rights federally across this great nation of ours.

    "Thank you and thank you God for giving us Harvey Milk."

    Posted by: Patrick M | Feb 23, 2009 12:45:22 AM

  7. Congrats to Lance and Sean. Here is the conclusion of Lance's speech:

    "I heard the story of Harvey Milk and it gave me hope. It gave me the hope to live my life openly as who I am, and that one day I could even fall in love and get married.

    "I want to thank my mom, who has always loved me for who I am even when there was pressure not to.

    "But most of all, if Harvey had not been taken from us 30 years ago, I think he would want me to say to all of the gay and lesbian kids out there tonight who have been told that they are less than by their churches or by the government or by their families, that you are beautiful, wonderful creatures of value, and that no matter what anyone tells you God does love you and that very soon I promise you, you will have equal rights federally across this great nation of ours.

    "Thank you and thank you God for giving us Harvey Milk.

    Posted by: Patrick M | Feb 23, 2009 12:47:35 AM

  8. Leland, you're a real dickbag. Lance Black made a movie about his hero. That doesn't take away from any other LGBT activist. Just because Martin Luther King Jr. is the most celebrated activist of The Civil Rights Movement doesn't mean that others didn't exist, or that by highlighting MLK's achievements you are somehow denegrating the achievements of others.

    No movie is going to fit the plot into perfect context with history. This is entertainment buddy, not history class. If you want to spread the word about all of the leaders of the LGBT movement prior to Milk, go out and make a biopic like Black did, or you could make a documentary, or you could write a novel, or article, or pamphlet. I don't care what you do, just stop being such a freaking dick about Milk and Lance Black. Your comments make you seem really bitter.

    Posted by: Jon B | Feb 23, 2009 2:12:04 AM

  9. His careless, willful mistakes with the script and the book's introduction remain, but I was EXTREMELY impressed and moved by Black's eloquence tonight in his acceptance speech. It was close to perfect, and much more focused than the film from which different viewers take different "Harveys."

    Such "witnessing" does/will indeed literally save the lives of kids still hungering for just a few words of affirmation.

    BRAVO to Mr. Black!!!!

    And Penn's win will draw a few more nongays into the theatre. Hooray for that, too.

    I was just about to start painting my protest sign about the exclusion of gay images from the romance montage when "Harvey" and "Scott" suddenly appeared, and several seconds later were shown in full-on lip lock. Bravo for that, too, albeit I think we deserved more screen time than the ROBOT lovers got.

    Progress nonetheless.

    And I firmly believe that the many teary eyes we saw when Heath Ledger's family accepted his posthumous award were because most of those people were recalling his shattering performance as Ennis del Mar in Brokeback which, regardless of his own sexuality, finally made gay love real for millions of movie goers around the world.


    Posted by: Leland Frances | Feb 23, 2009 2:28:57 AM

  10. Hawt! U gays need to calm the fu** down!

    Posted by: Daryl | Feb 23, 2009 3:09:51 AM

  11. "His careless, willful mistakes with the script and the book's introduction remain" Careless, willful? Honestly Leland, take out your anger with a psychologist, not with someone celebrating a gay hero. Any mass consumption media product is going to be compromised. But sir, give Mr. Black his due reward. Black just reinforced the cause of gay rights to the world stage tonight! That is no small task.

    Posted by: Ron | Feb 23, 2009 3:20:01 AM

  12. ...Ode to Harvey Milk

    " No Milk Today "

    Your time so brief we hardly knew
    the depth of Love inside of you
    a truth for all those fellow souls who watched intrepid plans unfold

    A Milk of human kindliness
    your heart it yearned for truth no less
    you gave your life
    to free a knife
    plunged deep within our souls

    You showed us how to be ourselves
    to be so truly free
    to want no more or less in life
    than pure equality

    The hope you kindled in our hearts
    exploded into times to last
    if future were to be our past
    untimely death may not be cast

    Then sadly with your life you paid,
    tore hearts and minds and dreams away
    but left us with our self respect
    exposing all our past neglect

    Five bullets sent you to that place
    where life meets death with all it's haste
    your dreams will live on through the years
    amongst the stars who know your tears

    Your soul has gone to places new
    crossed over thresholds not for view
    until we reach that sacred place
    where life began with all it's grace

    There is no freedom worth it's par
    that does not come from pain
    to out oneself, fall off that shelf
    it is the bravest gain

    Your sparks of life still live today
    in hearts and minds of those who say
    thank God you came along this way
    with visions for a better day

    TK Feb 09

    Posted by: TK1946 | Feb 23, 2009 3:27:16 AM

  13. I'm sure, if we all looked hard enough, we can find plenty of faults with the script. There's no such thing as a "perfect" script anymore then there's a "perfect" movie.

    For example, I thought Mayor Moscone (Victor Garber) got the raw deal. We barely saw enough of him to care when the "reckoning" came. He had little more than a cameo in the movie. Assembly Speaker (deputy speaker at the time) Willie Brown - the African-American lawmaker who pushed for sodomy decriminalization and loathed Dan White - didn't even appear in the movie.

    Regardless of my personal feelings about certain aspects of the storytelling, however, I recognize that an Oscar win is a considerable achievement. And there's a thin line between constructive criticism and sour grapes. Just because it wasn't exactly the movie I wanted, doesn't mean it wasn't effective. The Academy apparently liked it enough. And they're the ones who count.

    Posted by: John in CA | Feb 23, 2009 4:42:09 AM

  14. It was the gayest Oscars ever, and would have been with or without Hugh Jackman. They actually put creative thought into it---amazing!

    Leland, I'm glad you've made your peace with Black.

    On a side note, has anyone ever met a straight guy named Lance?

    Posted by: Paul R | Feb 23, 2009 5:45:01 AM

  15. Everyone's said it all.


    Though I'd like to say 'spot on' to TANK's comments and 'exactly' to comments made by the posters who said that their were many, many Rosa Parks before Rosa Parks and many, many MLK's before MLK but lets stop nitpicking, take what we can and FIGHT.

    Posted by: Rowan | Feb 23, 2009 6:37:40 AM

  16. I guess I’m the only one who appreciates Leland’s posts. The movie really did make me think that Milk was the first gay rights activist to enter politics as an openly gay man. And I have to say I’m grateful to hear about some of the unsung heroes who preceded him.

    I was even fascinated to hear that Milk’s lover in NYC had opened the first gay book store in the world and had encouraged Milk to be less closeted. Thanks Leland.

    I also have to say that I, too, hate inaccuracies in movies. But I realize that movies have to tell a story, which means that sometimes several characters are condensed into one, or time periods are fudged a little, or events are altered to heighten drama. This has the positive effect of better story-telling (and higher ticket sales), and the negative effect of distorting history.

    I appreciate people like Leland who remind us to separate fact from fiction. The inaccuracies in this movie may be innocuous, but there is always a potential danger, though it may not be immediately apparent, in believing things that aren’t true.

    Posted by: Bret | Feb 23, 2009 7:07:43 AM

  17. I just don't understand how we can hurt our own folks when everyone else is attacking us.

    Posted by: John | Feb 23, 2009 9:09:13 AM

  18. I think he gave a nice speech, but the fact remains for many, many of us that we are treated with respect by straight friends and with nothing but cruelty in the gay so-called community. If you are young or have money like old Gus, maybe you will find acceptance, but I have experienced brutal shunning and casual indifference as an over-40 man in the gay world. So, before you all go asking the straight world to accept you, maybe you better look at your own gay house and get your acts together. The Academy gave MILK a couple of awards to assuage their Prop 8 guilt.

    Posted by: Don Lakesider | Feb 23, 2009 2:47:56 PM

  19. What a beautiful speech he gave at the Oscars, and reading this was really moving :)

    Posted by: Paul | Feb 23, 2009 4:30:11 PM

  20. "Am I the only one who gets the feeling that LELAND FRANCES is an unsuccessful and frustrated writer who is jealous of Mr. Black's success?


    Nope you are not the only one.

    All I hear in Mr. Black's blah, blah, blah is:

    "Who me jealous? I've been on MTV!"

    Posted by: FunMe | Feb 24, 2009 5:50:24 AM

  21. Oops I meant that I hear in LELAND'S blah blah blah:

    "Who me jealous? I've been on MTV!"

    Posted by: FunMe | Feb 24, 2009 5:51:28 AM

  22. This has been an interesting thread. Leland Frances brought up some information I was not aware of, and I appreciate the pointers provided for more research.

    In my opinion, Milk was a big-budget Hollywood film and as such was not going to concern itself with presenting all the facts about gay history. That would have turned off the straights who were the target audience.

    Since the film, I've seen several articles stating Harvey Milk was not the first out gay politician. But for some reason, he had the personality, marketability, or historical circumstance (getting killed) to be the one that people remember.

    Posted by: Anthony in Nashville | Feb 24, 2009 2:36:27 PM

  23. You don't know your stats. Not 30% of people are gay.. that's ridiculous

    Posted by: Bob | Feb 27, 2009 6:29:30 PM

  24. We love Dustin! He is not only yummy but talented!

    Rants, Thoughts & Merde

    Posted by: NativeNYker | Mar 1, 2009 9:32:51 AM

  25. Mr. Leland - If you're all gung-ho on people like Kathy Kozachenko, Elaine Noble, Allen Spear, Jose Sarria, Frank Kameny, Oliver Sipple, etc. then write a screenplay about them, get it into a film production, and get it onscreen.

    Anybody can write a story. A few can get it published. Even fewer can get a film done about it. And, apparently, an infinitesimal number can have a film good enough to be considered for an academy award. The film "Milk" has a wider appeal than one for any one of those people you mention. Perhaps it's because those people were not murdered, and did not become martyrs.

    There's been thousands of kids beaten up by homophobic a--h0les over the centuries, but Matthew Shepard became national news in the U.S. "The Laramie Project" was written with that story, not the story of any other kid who may have been beaten or killed. Was Matthew any more deserving of a play than others? Maybe, maybe not. But at this point, there's a better chance of it becoming a movie than any story you're likely to write.

    If I'm wrong, I'll be first in line when it shows at the Castro Theater. And I'll wear a T-shirt that proclaims "I was wrong."

    In the meantime, switch to decaf.

    Posted by: NoCaDrummer | Mar 1, 2009 1:01:21 PM

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