Academy Award-Winning Screenwriter, Director & Activist Dustin Lance Black’s Stories Keep History Alive
by Dann Dulin
Photographed Exclusively for A&U by Sean Black
Dustin Lance Black needs a fix.
He’s in Los Angeles for a few days from his home in London. We arranged a meeting at his West Hollywood hotel. After my arrival, he firmly suggests we go out for some coffee. He inquires about the best place to go and I hesitate, as I’m not familiar with coffeehouses. I recall that I had driven past one on my way to meet him. Together we trek down Holloway Drive in the direct, late-morning sunlight, chatting like two old friends.
I interviewed Lance in 2001 after the release of his first feature indie, The Journey of Jared Price, which he wrote and directed. I was touched and inspired by the story of a gay teen coming to terms with self-discovery.
“It’s really good to see you again,” Lance expounds, as we momentarily take a whiff of a fragrant jasmine bush. “It’s been a generation since we’ve seen each other. A lot has changed in sixteen years….” I interject, “Yes, in your world!” I rattle off some of his achievements: On the Bus (a documentary about gay guys attending Burning Man), Pedro (about the life of Pedro Zamora, who was featured on MTV’s The Real World and died of AIDS-related causes), Big Love (an HBO series), J Edgar (directed by Clint Eastwood)—and now an Oscar (for Milk)!
Smiling modestly, Lance is a trifle surprised at my recall. “How much farther is this place?” he asks, perspiring from the intense sun. I point to the café just ahead on the corner.
When we arrive, Lance places his order and asks if I would like anything. I decline and look for a quiet table, nearly impossible in these lively places. I spot one back in a cozy corner. Moments later, Lance joins me, placing his black java on the table and snuggling back against the window that looks out onto a tree-shaded patio.
“Since we last saw one another, a lot has changed in our world [the LGBT community], including HIV,” Lance specifies, picking up from our earlier conversation. Several months ago, Lance’s seven-part miniseries When We Rise, based on LGBT and AIDS activist Cleve Jones’s memoir [A&U, January 2017], was aired on ABC over four nights.
Black undertook an ambitious task, presenting over forty years of gay history, from the Stonewall riots in 1969 to 2015, when the Supreme Court recognized marriage equality. The series covers the AIDS epidemic and the ensuing medical breakthroughs, the Harvey Milk assassination, ACT UP, and Prop 8. It’s told through a handful of characters and certainly is not a complete history. I mean, over the past fifty years homosexuality has evolved in the public consciousness from a deplorable illness to legal same-gender marriage! Many of the characters in When We Rise, though HIV-positive, survive. The all-star cast includes Guy Pearce, Rachel Griffiths, David Hyde Pierce, Rosie O’Donnell, Rob Reiner, Whoopi Goldberg [A&U, June 2000], Michael Kenneth Williams, and Mary-Louise Parker [A&U, October 1999].
Black was floored when a major network expressed interest in the project. “By airing it on ABC, it means cementing the series in history, lifting it up so more people find it. I wanted it to be accessible,” he remarks. “The big push now is to get it into high schools across the nation. It’s now streaming online at ABC.com.”
A friendly Italian waiter delivers Lance’s egg and Italian ham sandwich to our table.
Black has admirers, as well as naysayers. Some argue that he has taken too much on and left out important events and key people. Critics said it was uneven, too broad, and had the tone of an afterschool special.
But Lance is satisfied with the results. “We need more storytellers and more filmmakers,” he urges, being a bit affected by the negative press. “I’m a white gay man, and we need other people’s stories. Our diversity will come from diverse voices, telling stories from different perspectives. We gather strength by knowing our history.”
Lance says the most common thing he hears from teens and young adults after they watch When We Rise is that they never knew how horrible some parts of the movement had been. They are angry that this history has been hidden from them. “They are very emotional,” he points out.
Black excuses himself to get a refill. A sign above the counter reads, “Good Vibes Only.”
Clothed in his trademark gear, skinny black jeans and a form-fitting light grey sweater, Lance cuts a lean solid figure for his forty-two years. With his clean good looks and skyscraper cheekbones, he could be in a Norman Rockwell illustration or stepping out of the pages of GQ magazine.
In fact, Lance recently signed with Wilhelmina Models, a legendary agency that handles Nick Jonas and Nicki Minaj. He will be representing brands and his objective is to bring more diverse people into ads. “I want to lift up our differences,” he declares. “I find that hopeful and I will continue to do that any way I can.” He takes a hit of caffeine. “I think we are in grave danger if we assimilate. We need to celebrate the magnificence and value of our differences. We solve problems in this world by putting different perspectives on that problem, solving it quicker, better, faster and more permanently. Resist assimilation!”
Reared mainly in San Antonio, Texas, Lance moved to the California central coast at age thirteen with his two brothers (one older, one younger), his mom, and stepdad. His biological father deserted the family. Lance grew up in a military Mormon household.
“I was shy and closeted. I didn’t know there were people like me,” Lance laments. It was in theater that he found freedom. Lance went from high school theater to community theatre and graduated UCLA’s School of Theater, Film and Television in 1996. “Finding the theatre saved my life,” he admits, gazing away, his face resting upon his hand. It was during this period that he discovered Harvey Milk and began honing his writing skills.
Born in 1974, Lance came of age during the boiling era of the epidemic, when being diagnosed could mean death. “If you were positive, you started planning your last moves,” he mutters sullenly, raising an eyebrow. His mom being an immunologist (HIV/AIDS nurse), Black was well versed on safe sex. “We had a conversation about it early on, so I took vigilant care of myself.” During his senior year of high school he was tested for the first time. Two years later, Lance lost a dear friend in Los Angeles.
He got sick and a month later came down with pneumonia. Friends of mine took him to the Free Clinic where they were advised to take him to the emergency room. When they arrived at the ER, a friend went in to fetch help to bring him into the hospital. When he returned to the car, the guy was gone. He was twenty-one. This was a wake-up call for all of us.
“He got sick and a month later came down with pneumonia. Friends of mine took him to the Free Clinic where they were advised to take him to the emergency room. When they arrived at the ER, a friend went in to fetch help to bring him into the hospital. When he returned to the car, the guy was gone. He was twenty-one.” Kaboom! A symphony of chills swirl throughout my body. We sit for a moment in silence until Lance, eyes moist, utters frankly, “This was a wake-up call for all of us.”
“My [theater] mentors would get sick and then usually just vanish,” he says. “Only later did I understand what was going on.” It wasn’t until the late nineties before Lance would encounter hope. He used to frequent this business where he could buy “short-ends,” discarded ends of film stock from major movie companies, that he needed for his films. His contact there was Paul, who over time became thinner and thinner. Lance was concerned. One time he walked in and was confronted with a new employee. “Instead of a skinny guy, there was this jolly chubby guy. I asked about Paul. He replied, ‘Honey, I’m Paul! I’m on meds now and getting better.’ I gave him the biggest hug.” Lance exalts a toothy smile.
“Don’t floss your teeth [and exacerbate your gums to the point of bleeding] before you make-out with somebody because that might be a way to get infected,” recalls Lance of the status quo then. “I was my mother’s son, a very emotional, traditional guy. I didn’t have sex until I was in a relationship. I don’t regret that now. Since my group had lost friends to this disease, there was no question that we wouldn’t use a condom!”
Even so, he would get tested regularly at the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center. “It was free,” he recounts, “so a lot of people were doing it there. I knew I was all right, but it was my new gay duty. For the results you had to wait for about a week. During that time, there was this slow build of anxiety where I would analyze every little thing I had done over the last six months. I started convincing myself that I did something wrong.” He shakes his head back and forth then uses his hand to comb through his rich honey copper hair. “After a week, you’d return to get your results, sit in the waiting room until they called your name, and then go in with a counselor who would reveal your results. If you were negative, they would talk about how to keep yourself testing negative and if you were positive what your next step would be. I thankfully never got a positive result. It was so terrifying.”
At that time there was no effective treatment. “It was very plain to my generation what we needed to do to stay alive and healthy. There was little talk about unprotected sex. It was just taken for granted that a condom would be used. There was no choice!” he pronounces adamantly. “That was a very specific time, in a very specific generation.”
In 2012 Lance’s older brother, Marcus, forty, died of bone cancer. When their father abandoned them, it was Marcus who took over the patriarchal duties and became Lance’s protector, even warding off their first strict stepfather. Lance came out to Marcus in the early 2000s, and Marcus accepted him with open arms. A few years later, Marcus came out to Lance. “When I give speeches now, I usually have something of my brother’s in my pocket and I just think about how he’s holding me as I get up there in front of all those people.”
Two years later, Black’s beloved mother died. He’s currently writing about her in a memoir called Mama’s Boy: The Story of Two Americas. How does he deal with the loss? He replies in a flippant, wounded tone, “I don’t know. Get back with me in a few years.” He stirs his brew and gently plays with the swizzle stick. “It doesn’t get any easier. It feels like a plane went down and all the people I loved are in it.” He pauses. “I have one biological family member left.”
He soothes the grief through service. “I knew I was very different growing up. I had a mom who was paralyzed and she looked incredibly different. She certainly moved differently,” he relates, as his index finger slowly circles the lip of his empty cup. “Scoliosis of the spine drew eyes her way and not in kind ways. I saw how she was treated negatively for her differences. I knew how I’d be treated negatively for my difference.” He sections off a helping of his sandwich and readies to bite, but instead concludes, “You combine the anger and the frustration, along with the empathy, and you get…Activist.”
Cleve Jones, who conceived the AIDS Memorial Quilt, inspires Lance. “I’ve worked with him for a decade. He’s one of the only activists I know who got into this work as a teenager and is still doing it today,” he observes brightly. “You don’t get paid very much. It’s not an easy life, but I hope it’s a rewarding life and at the end of my days I hope I will be happy having spent my time this way.” Lance supports several AIDS organizations, including the Elton John AIDS Foundation, Project Angel Food, and GMHC. He directed a PSA for AIDS Project Los Angeles, with Jeffrey Katzenberg and Sara Gilbert.
Among his other heroes are Larry Kramer (“I don’t always agree with him, but that’s good.”), Diane Jones (“What I admired about her was that I could never get her to use the word, ‘I.’ She only used, ‘we.’”), and Cecilia Chung [A&U, July 2017]. Jones and Chung are both portrayed in When We Rise. “Cecilia was out there fighting for a community that hadn’t even found its footing yet. She already had a steely sense of self worth and pride that inspired others and kept people alive—and gave other’s hope. Cecilia…is…a…visionary. I was so happy to tell part of her story,” he notes. “There’s more to tell.” Today Ms. Chung is on the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS and works at the Transgender Law Center.
Lance’s phone vibrates. He answers. It’s Tom (Daley, British Olympic diver) calling from England. “I’ll only be a few minutes,” he whispers, his inquisitive delft blue eyes glancing my way then off. He strolls outside to the patio. (Though now married, at the time they were engaged. During our meeting, I asked him when they were getting hitched and he declined to answer. I prodded. “I’m not telling!” he refused flatly. Less than four weeks later, they tied the knot in a storybook wedding held in a castle in the English countryside.)
Minutes pass. Through the window I espy Lance pacing back and forth on the sidewalk, passing the eatery several times, in and out of sight. He’s laser-focused.
Lance and Tom are frequent targets of the paparazzi. They’ve been snapped smooching in a public parking lot, changing planes in an airport, and even on the beach, with bottled water in hand. Lance later tells me, “I live a very open life. The tabloids make up very colorful stories. It doesn’t really bother me. Here’s how I look at it. There will come a day when no one will want to claim to have slept with me or Tom and that will be a truly tragic day.”
The two met at a mutual friend’s party after Tom was in town picking up an award from Nickelodeon. “He walked in an hour late with a gaggle of beautiful women. I assumed he was straight,” Lance reflects, already having known of Daley’s stature in the sport’s world. “We talked and he was very charming right off.” Lance left early, as he had to ready a script for the next day. On Lance’s exit, Tom approached him, took Lance’s phone and entered his own number, adding a semicolon and a parenthesis, making a winky face. “No straight man would do that!” giggles Lance now. “From then on we talked or texted every day.”
A half hour passes. Lance returns. He’s apologetic. (I learn several days later that he and Tom were talking to the wedding planner.)
Lance tells me that when he and Tom met four years ago, it wasn’t necessary for them to go out and get tested for HIV. Since Tom is a professional athlete, his health is constantly monitored, and of course, Black gets tested frequently. “Before Tom, though, when I entered a relationship both of us would test together,” he offers, scooting his bar stool a bit closer to our petite round wood table. “One guy I dated for awhile tested positive after we broke up. His diagnosis actually brought us closer together.”
In the past few years, Lance has been absorbed in fighting for marriage equality and sees a strong connection between this issue and the epidemic. “When young people start to rail against marriage equality I say, ‘Well, you never survived a plague. You never saw what it meant to have your relationship delegitimized when your partner died. Everything you built and owned together was taken away. You were told you had no rights to visit [your partner in the hospital], you had no rights to your home, to your property, and to you partner’s social security, unlike straight couples.’”
He peers out the panes of glass and looks across the street at what used to be the iconic Tower Records building. Lance inhales and releases an elongated sigh. “…Late eighties, early nineties. I remember all the men’s lives who were cut short. Now I look to the youngsters out there today who have discovered PrEP. I’m hopeful this generation won’t experience what we experienced. It’s important for them to be informed. The fight is not over. PrEP doesn’t end the struggle. We’re learning that there are ramifications to completely unprotected sex, even if PrEP is one hundred-percent effective.”
With that, we stride back to the hotel, conversing about our lives, politics, and films. The discussion circles back to this generation and HIV.
“I hope they are having conversations about STIs,” persists Lance bluntly, crossing the street. “Just because you’re on PrEP doesn’t mean you can’t be hurt severely by other infections. You can’t assume the other person [if negative] is on PrEP either. It’s not a cure-all; PrEP is not a prevent-all.”
Lance hammers on. “It’s our responsibility [as gay people] to end this disease and that might mean asking some uncomfortable questions. PrEP is a wonderful thing. Understand its power and use it wisely,” he advises.
At the hotel, we have a farewell embrace, amidst the leafy surroundings and calming burbles from the lawn fountain. “Let’s not make it another decade before we get together,” Lance jokes. He takes a beat. “You know, Dann, these kids’ lives are precious. We need them to be strong so they can fight for equality…,” says Black, with intoxicated gumption. He marches off.
The eternal Activist fades into the lobby, spinning yet another real tale that empowers us with encouragement.
Sean Black photographed Chris Van Etten for the July cover story. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @seanblackphoto.
Dann Dulin is a Senior Editor of A&U. He interviewed Chris Van Etten for the July cover story. Follow him on Twitter @DannDulin.