I first saw Robert Epstein’s Oscar-winning documentary, The Times of Harvey Milk, while attending summer school at Yale in 1985. I was deeply moved by the film and spent hours in an off-campus coffee shop discussing it with friends. Soon after, I read Randy Shilts’s definitive Milk biography, The Mayor of Castro Street, and glimpsed the ruthlessly ambitious man behind the image.
Still, I often wondered why Milk was so revered while other pioneers and activists who had done more for the queer movement had been forgotten. Where was the story of Silvia Rae Rivera, the valiant drag queen who in 1969 threw her stiletto heel at the pigs at the Stonewall Inn, inciting the gay-liberation movement?
I’m a longtime fan of Gus Van Sant, and by the time his Milk appeared in 2008, I was hoping for a new slant on Milk’s life. Instead, the film borrowed heavily from the Epstein documentary, serving up lukewarm, pasteurized Milk.
Dustin Lance Black, a writer and co-producer for the HBO series Big Love, won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for Milk. More memorable than the script was the acceptance speech that Black delivered, which made the young writer an instant poster boy for the gay movement. Of course I jumped at the opportunity to interview Black in advance of his appearance next week at Trinity University. Black grew up in “conservative” San Antonio and acknowledged as much in his Oscar speech. Would this amazing 35-year-old, with his passion for gay civil rights, reignite our gay activist movement here? After all, Angela Davis sparked her audience at the same venue.
To dear Lance, thanks for bringing sexy back to the GLBT movement. Welcome back, GF!
Harvey Milk once said, “Masturbation is fun, but it’s not the real thing.”
Yes, I quote that all the time. “It’s time to stop playing with ourselves and get down to the real thing.” And the rest of that quote goes, “because if the gay community would start to demand the real thing, they might find they can get it.”
It’s just that we don’t yet. It isn’t about being greedy or wanting to move too fast. It has everything to do with that we are equal in all matters governed by civil law.
As someone who grew up Mormon how do you respond to the involvement of the Mormon Church in the Prop 8 battle?
I narrated the film 8: The Mormon Proposition, which is about exposing the Mormon involvement with Proposition 8. And their involvement is extensive. They always say they are part of a coalition — no, they put together a coalition that they led. And a vast majority of the money came from there.
I still have family in the Mormon Church. I still love them. I still hold dear some of the values I learned growing up Mormon, the importance of family and the stability found in that. It is very important. I think as a Mormon I have a perspective, which is that most Mormon people are not homophobic, but the leadership is. It is time for the Mormon membership to see how involved their leaders were and the hate that they put in that campaign. And I think it is time for the Mormon Church, with its family-loving membership, to speak out against that leadership.
Harvey once said that gay teenagers, whether growing up in Iowa or in San Antonio had two options: Go to California or stay in San Antonio and fight. Why didn’t you stay and fight?
I was only 13 years old when Mom decided it was time for me to move. So I didn’t have that choice yet. I wasn’t old enough to survive on my own.
But that speech moved you to the degree that it later defined you.
Now, as I’ve grown up as an adult, and I go through that speech again, you’re right, I attach more to the ending of it now, which says, ‘You have two new choices: You can go to San Francisco or you can stay in San Antonio and fight.’ I hope the work I’ve done over the past six years shows I’m ready for the fight.
I wonder if the message of Milk reaches young people today — in contrast to someone who is already out — let’s take Adam Lambert, who sends out a stronger vibe to teens than Milk.
I don’t agree, but is there a question?
Why was Milk made into a movie when some gay icon might have resonated more with people?
One of the things important for any movement and every minority movement is a recorded history — which is something I think we are lacking in the gay movement — knowing whom your forefathers and foremothers are in the movement so you can learn from their mistakes and failures and their successes.
Now it’s easier right now to be an Adam Lambert where you still face some prejudices socially, but you are not thrown in jail and you’re not considered insane. So I think it is incredibly brave and we need to remember that. We have to remember where we came from.
But a large number of gay kids who are Latino or black need to have heroes as well — like the documentary you wrote on Pedro Zamora.
It was a TV movie and not a documentary.
Correct. So those stories need to be told as well while Harvey’s story has been told over and over. I don’t know which takes priority in Hollywood.
I think I might be done with this interview.
Hollywood seems to make films where — and I forget who said it: ‘Show me a happy homosexual, and I’ll show you a gay corpse.’
I’m with you. I could talk all about this … but what is your paper? Can you describe it for me?
The Current is an altweekly, like the LA Weekly.
I can’t wait to tell the San Antonio Express`-News` that you said that an Adam Lambert movie is more important to make than a Harvey Milk film. That’s very shocking to me.
I didn’t exactly say —
You did say that! Don’t you think it’s important for the movement to have a recorded history?
Who should it have been? Tell me.
José Sarria — the first openly gay man who ran for the Board of Supervisors of San Francisco in 1961. Who is still living. He would be one example.
Tell me what the story `pitch` is, you write plays. Tell me the story because I love José. I’ve been through all his archives.
José was a young man who went against the grain, came out, he brought pride to the community, with his drag act, with his Black Cat club at a time when…
… But he didn’t end up
Dead! There’s a street named after him in San Francisco. He’s a role model.
For an interview this is — interesting.
Or consider Elaine Noble, the first openly gay person to be elected to public office in the nation. That are examples of other figures that are just as important to have movies made.
Well, that’s a very different thing you’re now saying. You get on the phone and attack me for doing the hard work for zero money over six years, compromising my career, my personal life, to try and tell a story.
If you think other stories need to be told then maybe you need to get to work and do that! I’m doing it still.
I’m getting very tired in the gay community of hearing criticism and attacks only from gay and lesbian people. We have to learn how to support each other. We’re the only ones we’ve got. And you look at other minority movements and there is far more support for each other. And gay and lesbian people don’t have each other’s backs in the same way other minority movements have, and we’ve got to have that.
I think our interview is done. I’ve had hundreds of interviews, and I’ve never had one turn this contentious.
Contentious? How so?
It’s one thing to say ‘Why Harvey?’ But then you say it would be more effective to have an Adam Lambert film instead of a Harvey Milk film. That would be an affront if you said it in a TV interview. I’m very worried where you’re going with this article. I’m not angry. I’m very worried. So I am ending this interview.