History was made June 26, 2015, when the Supreme Court of the United States declared same-sex marriage legal in all 50 states. Dustin Lance Black, a pioneer in the fight for equality, reflects on the last few years and talks about the creation of 8, a theatre piece that he says helped us "cross the finish line."
As an important decision from the Supreme Court of the United States loomed last week, Dustin Lance Black — an American screenwriter, director, producer and LGBT rights activist — felt confident and hopeful.
Six years ago, Black took home the Academy Award for his screenplay of the film "Milk," based on the life of gay rights activist and politician Harvey Milk, and when he took the stage at the Oscars, he promised America equal rights.
"Very soon," he said, "I promise you — you will have equal rights, federally, across this great nation of ours."
Looking back at that moment, Black told Playbill.com, "I was already starting to get onto the federal strategy train before that Oscars speech. It was something that came from a combination of having researched where our movement had been and how we could succeed it in the past and where we were at the time — which I felt like the pendulum was swinging backward, and part of the blame lied with the gay and lesbian leadership. So, when I got up there and promised full federal equality to young people across the nation, it was quite a controversial statement to insiders in the movement. It was not welcomed. I was chastised for having said it. I was told it was unrealistic and too soon, [but] if you know me, I don't like taking no for an answer. "I thankfully found a small group of very dedicated activists: Cleve Jones; Chad Griffin before he was the head of HRC, when he was just this young, politically savvy guy out in L.A.; Rob Reiner; and Bruce Cohen. And we just said, 'We'll do it ourselves.' It wasn't what we preferred to do, but when every major group was speaking out against us, we took action. And, truly… I put filmmaking on the backburner for about half a decade now. I still do it, and things still get out there, and scripts are being written, but I felt like I made a big promise, and I had to make sure it was fulfilled. And, I'm very hopeful that in the next few days, we — this group of people who pushed so hard in 2009 — can say, 'Our promise is fulfilled on marriage, but…' And, it's a big but — I didn't get up there and say full federal marriage equality, I think we need full federal equality in all matters governed under civil law in all 50 states. Full equality for LGBT people. I don't feel like the work is done just because we have marriage equality, and that promise that I made on that Oscars stage was fueled by the marriage movement, but certainly that's not all I meant when I said those words. I think young people not only need to know that their love will be honored when they first fall in love as an LGBT person, but that they can also hold a job and not be kicked out of their home."
If marriage equality passed — which, in fact, was the case June 26 — Black admitted that he would take one day to celebrate before continuing the work in the movement towards full equality.
He spoke of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), a legislation proposed in the U.S. Congress that would prohibit discrimination in hiring and employment on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity by employers with at least 15 employees.
"The number one concern according to an HRC [Human Rights Campaign] study for LGBT people in the South is personal safety, so [we must make] sure that we change the climate for LGBT people in these areas," he said. "I think that starts with passing ENDA, including trans[gender] people. Not only does ENDA ensure your job, but not having ENDA ensures that people who are LGBT in the South will remain closeted, and their children will have to remain closeted, and that means they can't speak out… So, by not having employment protection, you're creating a cycle that maintains the status quo, which is dangerous for gay and lesbian people, so it's shocking to me that Congress has not acted, seeing as every poll on employment nondiscrimination tells us that two-thirds of the nation, at least, are in favor of employment nondiscrimination, including a majority of young Republicans.
"It is a narrative that I believe filmmakers, people in television [and] playwrights, certainly need to address, which is not just that gay and lesbian people can be fired, but [realize] the silence it creates. I think what we learned from this entire fight with marriage equality is that the power is with the storytelling, whether that be on stage or in film or in a court of law — that the stories are what change hearts and minds, and that's what makes it easier for the folks in Washington, D.C., to do their job."
Black has always been a loud and proud storyteller amid the LGBT community and beyond. Aside from the award-winning film "Milk," Black teamed with Broadway Impact (founded by Jenny Kanelos, Rory O'Malley and Gavin Creel) to create the play 8, which portrays the federal trial that led to the overturn of Proposition 8 — an amendment eliminating rights of same-sex couples to marry in California.
It was from one of the most difficult days in the equality movement that 8 was born. When the Supreme Court banned cameras inside the courtroom (which allowed outsiders to hear both sides of the argument under oath), "It was a bit of a heartbreak," Black admitted.
Soon after, he met with O'Malley to form a plan.
"We came up with this idea," he said, "which was to stage a play based on the transcripts of the trial — and it was far better than doing a movie. A movie can take years to get on its feet, but a play we can do within months. It might have taken a little longer than that because we wanted to get it right, but certainly in between the time that federal district trial was held and we got to the Supreme Court, we were already in every state in the nation.
"I believe [by being in] over 400 theatres and with all of those casts, we were able to have the story be seen and heard of what happened in that courtroom when the opponents of marriage equality finally had to tell the truth and we saw their arguments fall apart. I always say a civil rights movement — any civil rights movement — is about turning a bright spotlight onto the personal stories, and that's what we did in that courtroom. When the Supreme Court said, 'No, you can't show the world,' we said, 'Yes, we will!' And we did it with the stage." With the entire Broadway community willing to help out, including Jujamcyn Theaters and Jordan Roth, 8 was staged in 2011 at Broadway's Eugene O'Neill under the direction of Tony winner Joe Mantello.
The cast included Bob Balaban, Ellen Barkin, Matt Bomer, Campbell Brown, Anthony Edwards, Morgan Freeman, K. Todd Freeman, Jayne Houdyshell, Cheyenne Jackson, Jay Armstrong Johnson, Larry Kramer, Christine Lahti, Ken Leung, John Lithgow, O'Malley, Rob Reiner, Ben Rosenfield, Kate Shindle, Yeardley Smith, Stephen Spinella and Bradley Whitford.
The work was so well received that it was subsequently staged in Los Angeles with George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Chris Colfer and Jane Lynch. The production was livestreamed and lives (in its entirety) on YouTube, where it currently has approximately 846,000 views.
"I was fortunate enough to also have been on the legal side of the Prop 8 case, so I was in the courtroom every day," explained Black. (He, Chad Griffin, Bruce Cohen and Rob Reiner are founding board members of the American Foundation for Equal Rights, which filed the lawsuit on behalf of the plaintiffs in the Perry v. Schwarzenegger case.)
"I knew where the drama lived," he continued. "I knew the plaintiffs for the parts of the play that I needed to create, so I just thought that I was well situated to get it done quickly, and I did feel an urgency and the responsibility to get it done in a timely matter because I felt that this was a tool that would help us to cross the finish line — one of many. So, I took it on out of responsibility and also because [Broadway Impact] is so awesome. I could tell already that it was going to be a very creative atmosphere, and they were down to try and get this done quickly and right."
8 opened on Broadway Sept. 19, 2011, at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre.
"I'll never forget the opening night in New York," Black said. "I've never seen it staged. It's not like we got to do a lot of rehearsals or previews, so the very first time I'm seeing it staged, Barbara Walters is sitting over my left shoulder, and I'm just sweating. And, Maggie Gallagher [the former president and former chairman of the board of the National Organization for Marriage, which opposes same-sex marriage] herself shows up and is in the balcony — one of the leading opponents of marriage equality."
The evening functioned as a benefit, and money from ticket sales went to support the campaign for full federal marriage equality and educational efforts on the subject of marriage equality. Therefore, since Gallagher paid for a ticket, Black said his team began to advertise that she "finally supported marriage equality."
"It was nerve-wracking," he added. "It was very frightening, but the words — most of the words in the play — are drawn directly from the transcripts. I wanted this thing to be absolutely honest to what happened in that courtroom, and those words are so true and from the heart that in the end, I can't take a terrific amount of credit for the fact that the audience leapt to their feet and applauded, and tears were shed, and I think that experience has been duplicated across the country hundreds of thousands of times now thanks to the stories in the play."
Black is known to dramatize historical events, so what draws him to fact versus fiction?
"Almost none of us are born to gay and lesbian parents who understand the experience. We look to entertainment. We look to places we can access story for inspiration, for hope, and eventually, as guideposts of how we can win and maintain our equality as the minority in this nation," he said. "We didn't have any of that, so I often — when I have some little bit of room in my schedule — I'll fish around with a fictional idea or I'll fish around and think about some of my favorite stories I might want to adapt, but in the end, I have this whole cache of great heroes whose stories have never been told from the LGBT movement. And, I think, 'Boy, by not taking advantage of the position I have, which is one where people will actually say yes to doing LGBT stories — particularly stories of true people, who inspired and showed us a path forward — I'm robbing young people of their history and of their future.' So I feel responsibility to tell these stories…
"Out of shame, we hid our stories for so long. And so, unlike other civil rights movements that have these great narratives that young minorities can look at for inspiration when they need it, we don't have a fully formed history — and certainly not in a popularized fashion like film or TV or theatre or something where the narrative is easily accessible."
He continues the work with a new gay-themed miniseries that will premiere on ABC as part of its 2015-16 season, entitled "When We Rise."
Yet again, Black spoke to LGBT youth and made a promise that he is sure the future will fulfill.
He said, "I want them to know that we're going to continue fighting until my hometown of San Antonio feels just as free and equal as San Francisco, so I would say hope is coming, and we're not going to stop working when we get marriage."
(Playbill.com features manager Michael Gioia's work appears in the news, feature and video sections of Playbill.com as well as in the pages of Playbill magazine. Follow him on Twitter at @PlaybillMichael.)