'Milk' screenwriter visits Columbia

The activist talked about suicide prevention and visibility.
Dustin Lance Black, screenwriter and Oscar winner for 'Milk,' speaks to an audience Sunday in Conservation Hall. Black addressed visibility within the gay community, his Morman upbringing and the reason Proposition 8 passed in California.

By the time he was 5 years old, Dustin Lance Black knew his religion didn't accept homosexuality. By the time he turned six, he knew he was gay.

"I knew I was going to Hell, that God didn't love me," Black, who grew up in a conservative Mormon household, told an audience Sunday at Conservation Auditorium. "I cried myself to sleep on more Sabbath nights than I can remember."

Black's fame exploded this year when he won an Academy Award for writing the screenplay for "Milk," a biopic about 1970s San Francisco politician Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man elected to public office in California.

Black said he struggled to get a production company to pick up his script.

"Finally, someone told me, 'The truth is we're looking for a writer with an Academy Award,'" he said. "I guess I fixed that."

The film was especially relevant after November 2008, when California voters passed Proposition 8, which eliminated the right for same-sex couples to marry in the state. The measure followed a May 2008 state Supreme Court decision to legalize same-sex marriage. Missouri voted to outlaw same-sex marriage in 2004.

Black said Proposition 8 passed because little effort was made for outreach and education. He said the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning community needs to make itself more visible to fight anti-LGBTQ legislation.

"If people don't know who they're hurting, they will take away their civil rights," he said. "That is death. That is the end of our movement. The message to gay and lesbian youth today is that they are inferior."

In his youth, Black struggled with his homosexuality, often contemplating suicide. In his speech, Black referenced a scene in "Milk" in which a male teenager from Minnesota calls Milk, telling him he wants to commit suicide.

"I know all too well the dire shadows that went through his head," Black said.

Hope for Black came when he first heard of Milk from his theater director when he was 14, living in Salinas, Calif.

"He told us a story about a gay man," Black said. "This man was beloved by the city."

On a national level, the Trevor Project is the only 24-hour suicide prevention helpline for LGBTQ youth. At MU, the LGBTQ Resource Center provides information and help for any student who is questioning his or her sexuality, as well as options for students contemplating suicide.

"We're going to provide a listening ear where they can talk to someone as opposed to feeling completely alone, which often leads to the option of suicide," LGBTQ Resource Center Coordinator Ryan Black said.

Dustin Lance Black also stressed the importance of coming out to increase visibility. Retaliating to the common belief LGBTQ people choose their lifestyles, he stressed homosexuality is not a choice.

"I did not wake up and say, 'Hey, I want to be a part of the most loathed group in America,'" he said. "I did not choose this."

Ryan Black said the resource center provides a wealth of knowledge about coming out. He said coming out could be a difficult decision, but it can be liberating.

"Consider the alternative," he said. "If there are not options, they choose suicide, lying about who they are and living up to false standards their entire lives."

Allies in Action President Lance Pierce said coming out adds a human face to the LGBTQ community for voters.

"They think about individual people," he said. "We change from 'them' to a human being."

MU's culture at large, though, does not encourage people to come out, Pierce said.

"What we need is leadership who is out or an ally," he said. "There needs to be more support, someone saying, 'I support this because I truly believe it.' We have a long ways to go."

Ultimately, Dustin Lance Black is hopeful for the future of LGBTQ rights.

"This is the civil rights fight of your generation," he told the audience. "This is the civil rights fight of the 21st century. You are not less than human. You are loved and there is hope for a better tomorrow."

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