‘Milk’ Screenwriter: Artists Have Responsibility to Share ‘Truth of Who LGBT People Are’

Dustin Lance Black LGBT Rights
D Dipasupil/Getty Images

When I took to the stage at the Oscars in 2009 and promised that LGBT people of this country would soon know full federal equality, I was chastised by more than a few politicians and most movement leaders for pushing too hard too soon. So, for half a decade, I put my film work on the back burner and joined with others to help ensure that this promise became a reality.

Today, with a 5-4 decision at the U.S. Supreme Court, a monumental piece of this promise was realized. And it is clear this victory was won because LGBT citizens and our allies made ourselves visible, sharing our personal stories on stage and screen, and in courtrooms and living rooms. It’s much harder to look your own sister, son or neighbor in the eye and tell them their love isn’t the same as yours, or that their family deserves less. Now, it is this kind of personal storytelling that must continue if we are to defeat the mixed messages our rapid success has brought with it, both at home and abroad.

In the darkness that hung over my community after Prop. 8 stole back marriage equality in California, individuals took to the streets and grassroots organizations sprang up across the nation leapfrogging traditional LGBT leadership to name a bold new dream: full federal equality within our lifetimes. It was time for the LGBT movement to abandon incrementalism. The furor over Prop. 8 ensured marriage was the first step, but the end goal has always been equality in all matters.

With federal marriage equality the law of the land, there are now 29 states where gay couples can legally wed on Sunday and be fired on Monday simply for placing a picture of their wedding on their work desk. And in 32 states, people can be fired simply for being trans or open about their gender identity.

So for the children of LGBT parents in Mississippi or Alabama, the Supreme Court has declared that their parents’ love is equal, but that their family has no right to survive. Many are now forced to choose between living openly and having the means to live at all. It’s a heartbreaking mixed message in states where LGBT people still list their top concern as “personal safety.”

See More: Read Variety’s marriage equality issue, featuring Q&As, columns, features and analysis on Hollywood’s role in gay rights

But there is a solution. The Federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) would provide the basic workplace protections needed for LGBT people in all 50 states. It is supported by two-thirds of voters, including a majority of Republicans, but has been introduced almost every year since 1994 and blocked each time by Congress.

A solution exists, but due to a generation of cowardly elected officials, the political will to make it a reality does not. And to be clear, the destructive effect of having no protections doesn’t stop at being fired; it creates an atmosphere of fear that prevents LGBT people from sharing their lives openly and dispelling the myths and fears that have harmed us for so long.

And the mixed messages created by our success are not just domestic. Our victory against American anti-equality groups has been so convincing that many American anti-gay leaders have turned their focus abroad. At one time, the so-called National Organization for Marriage (NOM) was the driving force behind Prop. 8, but having lost their foothold in America, NOM recently turned to Ireland, becoming one of the largest funders of the “No” campaign in the recent (successful) marriage equality referendum.

Their activity is not limited to the Emerald Isle. Uganda’s “Kill the Gays Bill” was the work of Scott Lively, a pastor from Massachusetts. Defeated at home, these Americans have become missionaries of misinformation abroad. From Uganda to Belize, Ukraine and Russia, anti-gay Americans posing as Christian ministers are pulling in funding for their organizations by making life more difficult and dangerous for LGBT people around the globe.

Domestically, LGBT citizens have been told their love is equal, but that they can also legally be fired for it. Abroad, LGBT people have heard America is protecting the rights of same-sex couples, while they themselves are subjected to persecution inspired by American hate groups. So we must not let complacency keep us from finishing the push for full equality for those in these less-fortunate areas. If history has taught us anything, it is that equality is not a finite resource, something that weakens the wider it’s spread — instead, it flowers wherever it’s sown, builds upon those who enjoy it, and gathers strength as it swells.

Our rapid progress may have created mixed messages, but it has also taught us not to wait for “leaders” or politicians. The responsibility lies with us, the storytellers — artists on the screen and stage, plaintiffs in courtrooms, and thousands of brave individuals in their homes and hometowns bravely sharing the truth of who LGBT people are, and humanizing the struggles of those still living in fear today.

Dustin Lance Black is the Oscar-winning screenwriter of “Milk.”

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  1. Sara York says:

    There are hundreds of authors who have focused on LGBT people for years in their stories. They have been criticized, demeaned by readers and other authors, lost family connections for what they right, but they have continued to speak out and speak up. I’ve been banned from signings because my characters are gay. Many advertising avenues are closed because my characters in my books are gay. We’ve fought sales channels for the rights to sell our stories because our characters are gay.

    There are thousands of wonderful books with gay characters however Barns And Noble will not carry them in their stores. Walmart, nor Walgreens, nor any other major retailer will carry our books. We are forced to rely on word of mouth, and then even with that, many won’t touch a book with a gay character in it because they don’t read gay characters.

    For artist, authors, screenplay writers and others to produce gay stories there has to be an audience that knows about the work produced. Historically, stores, sales channels, and advertisers don’t want to promote stories or movies with gay characters.

    There is improvement, however there is still work to be done. Hundreds of artist are already producing works that tells the real story of LGBT people because we want to make a difference.

  2. Joe faulkner says:

    Dustin Lance Black gets vicious and insulting with anyone that does not agree with him ! I simply stated that I disagreed that celebrities have ANY responsibility to “share the truth about GLBT people.” And I got insulted by him for it.

    It’s up to the celebrity to decide, what causes, if any they chose to support. I applaud those like Ellen DeGeneres, that do, but we can’t impose our ideals on them.

    He could not say he respected my opinion, but rather tell me that I was not an educated person, like he was. Maybe he should write that alongside where he posts he’s an Oscar winner. God only knows he mentions that enough.

  3. you put your film work on the “back burner”? Or maybe no one likes your scripts so you exploit a cause for your own benefit and you see that cause fading away. The LGBT crowd is succeeding in their mindless quest for conformity and someone should give you (another) trophy for that.

  4. Laura says:

    Inclusion is difficult when you have been shut out of mainstream America for so long. LGBT are human beings that are just like you and me. Same fears and concerns. Same hopes and dreams. Just give people a chance and that will become abundantly clear. There is nothing to fear or hate here. What should concern you is that there is a segment of our population that fears for their safety because of who they are. Since when is assaulting people an acceptable response for not liking or understanding them?

  5. Mary Ann says:

    A wonderful and refreshing article, yes ENDA would be part of the third leg needed for full LGBT inclusion into American society. Discrimination in employment, housing, public and private accommodations is no longer desirable nor wanted by the now majority of American voters. Now that both POTUS and SCOTUS are on board, I suspect it won’t be long before the ‘agenda’ is realized.

    There will always be haters, trolls and 8th grade bucktoothed idiots from the Appalachians, and its hilarious to watch them fuming their pointless tirade in the oft-read comments section of a periodical. But we let them have their say now don’t we. Even if they are mouthing off at a brick wall.

    • Daniel Isaacs says:

      Criticizing people from “the Appalachians” is hardly elevating the conversation. Do you make fun of “Pollacks,” too? Shame on you.

  6. Luther says:

    Meanwhile, Chik-fil-a just won yet another poll for America’s favorite fast food restaurant and posted record revenue AGAIN, while Jane Lynch is forking over half of all her dough in a “divorce.” There definitely is a God, and He has quite the sense of humor. I cannot stop smiling right now.

  7. Mary says:

    We know exactly who you are, you pound it over our heads everyday. Sickening.

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