January 26, 2010 at 3:21 pm EDT | by David J. Hoffman
Oscar winner Black recalls growing up Mormon

Dustin Lance Black (DC Agenda photo by Michael Key)

His friends and family call him “Lance,” as Dustin Lance Black, the 34-year-old Oscar-winning Hollywood wunderkind, told a crowd of fans Monday night at the Jewish Community Center’s “Conversation” sponsored by the center’s program for Gay & Lesbian Outreach & Engagement.

In fact, Lance is a name the young screenwriter and director took for himself as part of framing his identity from his first realization at the age of six that he was gay.

On that day a boy only a little older had taken his toy cart, and as Black recalled in his address to the GLOE gathering, “I started to clench up and my heart started to race but I knew I didn’t want to fight him, I knew I wanted to kiss him.”

“And I knew I was going to hell,” reminisced Black, who was born in a Mormon household and remained Mormon until age 16.

“I knew that God did not love me,” Black declared – and “that little six-year-old would be a shame to his family” and indeed in one sense this fear was fulfilled much later, in the very week after winning his Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for the film “Milk,” about the assassinated gay political activist and San Francisco city official Harvey Milk.

Someone on his father’s side of his family — the Mormon father who deserted them when Lance was only six — sent Lance a note in reaction to his Oscar acceptance speech that was a full-throated declaration of support for gay equality: “I hope you know the great shame you’ve brought my family.”

“And that doesn’t feel so good,” Lance said, while pointing out that when he came out to his mother when he was 22, she started crying at first, “but she knew she was a mom, and it was tough for a while.

“But I started to put it out there, and later she would meet my boyfriends, and then she would want to know ‘are they treating you all right?’ and now she’s my biggest advocate and LGBT supporter.”

Mormonism was constricting to his identity as a gay person, Lance admitted, and though he has left the church he recognizes the values of family it upholds, “which is why it’s so shocking that they won’t recognize gay and lesbian families.” He also grinned and confessed that he doesn’t “wear the underwear,” but his Mormonism proved crucial to his being hired onto the writing team for HBO’s hit series “Big Love,” an absorbing show now in its fourth season about a polygamous family of rogue Mormons living “off the books” in modern-day Utah.

“I’m still a spiritual person but it took me a long time to get back to that place,” Black conceded, and one earlier way station was trying out being a Baptist.

Black also described the years spent trying to get his script about the life and death of Harvey Milk produced, enduring warnings from his agents that being identified with such a gay topic would be a career killer.

Warner Brothers owned the rights to one treatment and told Black to “buzz off” several times when he approached them with a script idea, and one time he was told they wanted an “A-list writer with an Academy Award.” Black paused and then said quietly, “I guess I filled that gap,” followed by whoops and cheers from the GLOE audience.

He also recalled going to the Oscars consumed with what he admits was “gold fever,” and said he asked Sean Penn about it, who was to win his second Oscar that night for his portrayal of Milk.

“Sean said to me, ‘Yeah, I want to win too, but don’t tell anyone.'” That was when he asked Penn what it’s like to win. The actor told him “It’s like being hit with a freight train.”

“And he’s right,” Lance said with a smile. “When my name was called, I felt like I was hit by a freight train.” He recalled how wonderful it felt in the green room when Whoopi Goldberg grabbed him and said, “We’re all gay now!”

Since winning the Oscar, Lance’s life has seen its share of ups and downs. An earlier encounter with an acknowledged male escort resulted in explicit photos and a video showing the two engaged in unprotected anal sex leaked to the web. This bout of celebrity sex-video scandal has left Black admittedly depressed at times but also fighting back with lawsuits to shut down sites trying to market the photos and the video.

Marriage equality is now Black’s main political focus as a gay activist, alongside his continuing dedication to telling stories on film.

“The truth is I’m not a natural-born leader,” Black said. “Most people think of leaders as having a strong voice and good posture, and I don’t have either. I’m kind of a nervous type, I always have been.”

But he emerged as a gay rights leader last fall during the National Equality March when he spoke on the steps of the U.S. Capitol and called for the “dream of full equality,” saying “you have to name the dream” of “full and equal civil rights,” and “it was one of the greatest moments of my life.”

“This is the civil rights fight of my generation and the civil rights fight of the 21st century,” Black declared on Monday. “I know in my heart and I have absolute faith in the American tradition of spreading freedom,” but he admitted “it won’t be easy.”

“I know I must agitate when necessary and I must lead and that is my passion and we must beware of those people who accept the status quo as truth.”

Speaking with him afterwards, Kelly Horton, a 34-year-old District resident said, “I just want to tell you that you don’t have to choose to be a leader, you are one now, so own it.”

Horton, an American Political Science Association health and aging policy fellow in the executive branch, told Black she plans to run for federal office one day, maybe at home in Washington State. She said “he’s harnessed energy and that’s amazing.”

Black has just finished production as director and writer of the film “What’s Wrong with Virginia,” starring Ed Harris and Jennifer Connelly and based on the story of a schizophrenic member of his family. He is also writing the script to bring director Gus Van Sant’s tale of Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters — “The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test” — to the screen.

And he is now at work investigating the life and times of longtime FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, a man about whom tales of cross-dressing and a hidden gay identity have long swirled.

Black said his Hoover script will be “intimate and personal” about “a man who made very different choices than Harvey Milk.”

Hoover was also looking for love, like Milk, “but he had trouble finding love so he looked to find it instead from a country’s admiration, and it failed, because admiration comes and goes — it’s not something that you can replace love with, love lasts for a lifetime,” Black said hopefully. Or at least it can.

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