Apr 182011
Authors: Alexandra Sieh

At six years old, as Dustin Lance Black watched an older boy play with a newly spray-painted black toy car, he realized he had lost a red one just like it earlier.

The thing was, it wasn’t that his toy had been stolen that stopped his breath. It was the fact that a boy he had a crush on had done that to him.
And in that moment of clarity, Black said he realized something: He was different, and that disparity now made him one of the many bad words his Mormon church and conservative military lifestyle had said.

From “unholy, unnatural (and) unworthy,” as the Mormon church labeled the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community, to the more colorful “homo, fairy (and) pansy” words the military used, Black said he realized at age six that “all those wicked words were about me, all three-foot-four of me.”

“I knew I was going to hell,” he said.

So, he said, he believed he was left with two options: hide who he was or take his own life.

And he wasn’t alone. As Black cited in his speech Monday night, GLBT children are four more times likely than their straight counterparts to commit suicide, and nine times more likely if they grow up in a hostile environment.

Luckily, through his mother’s remarriage and a move to California, Black found a more accepting societal atmosphere. And this change, he said, saved his life.
This year’s final speaker in the Distinguished Speaker Series, presented by the Student Leadership, Involvement, and Community Engagement office, Black told his story and experiences as a screenwriter and GLBT civil rights activist to a crowd of almost 150 people in the Lory Student Center Theatre Monday night.

An inspiration for many in the audience, his story is one of self-discoveryand passion, and as Stephanie Ashley from the SLiCE office said, an good example of leadership and diversity for the series.

“We think it’s really important to have people hear their stories, and then hopefully it inspires them to do the same,” the graduate marketing coordinator said.

A 2009 Academy Award winner of Best Original Screenplay for “Milk,” Black has made a career in TV and film, but it was his work on “Milk” that taught him the most about not only leadership but also passion.

“Without passion, I don’t know that you can truly lead,” Black said. “If you have it, you can do unbelievable things. You can absolutely save lives and break down and change the course of history. “

It was that enthusiasm he hoped to instill in the audience and, for sophomore Josef Canaria, that’s exactly what he did.

“I’m so inspired right now,” Canaria said. “As a gay man, I just want to go out there and push those limits.”

Anupama Mehrotra , junior, echoed those thoughts, lauding Black’s “infectious” enthusiasm.

“I hope he inspires more to follow in his footsteps,” she said.

Harvey Milk was a leader of the original GLBT civil rights movement in the 1970s. And more than just his ticket to the Oscars, Milk is Black’s role model, an icon who he said saved his life, even in his death.

A trail-blazer for gay rights at a time when homosexuality was still considered a mental illness, Milk was the first openly gay man to be elected to office in California, winning a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977 and serving for almost a year before he was assassinated by Dan White, a fellow city supervisor who had previously resigned and wanted his job back.

As a true believer in his hero’s methodology, Black said he feels like today’s GLBT leaders “have forgotten (Milk’s) message of coalition-building and self-representation and hope,” but instead “settle for the crumbs (of equality) (Milk) detested so much.”

A civil rights leader himself, Black said he wants fellow leaders to emerge from a generation whose talents and passion could be just what the movement needs to move forward, and to be the right kind of leader.

Remembering the drill-holed paddle with which his kindergarten principal disciplined her students, Black admitted that at five years old, leadership by fear seemed the right tactic.

But now, having taken his own stand in the GLBT civil rights movement, he sees the danger in that type of leadership, knowing passion and action to be the best ways to create change.

“Every leader has had to bear that weight of scrutiny,” Black said, citing Martin Luther King Jr. and Harvey Milk as examples. According to Black, everyone on the precipice of what Black described as the “beginning of this thing they call the human experience,” should watch for those who lead with fear and hesitancy.

For senior Jill Jaeger, this message was the most salient for the college-age generation.

“So often we have doors shut in our face,” she said, but with the help of movers and shakers like Black, she and others have the path laid for them to make a difference.

“I hope we have those leaders soon, that we become those leaders and that we have the courage to lead without fear,” she said.

“Ask questions to challenge assumptions and agitate when necessary,” Black said in closing. “Do the hard work to make this beautiful country of ours, this beautiful world, a far better place.”

Design Editor and Copy Chief Alexandra Sieh can be reached at verve@collegian.com.

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