'Milk' Screenwriter: Harvey Helped Me Come Out

Dustin Lance Black i i

Dustin Lance Black spent three seasons with HBO's polygamy-in-Utah dramedy Big Love — and was the only Mormon writer on the show's staff. Kevin Winter/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Kevin Winter/Getty Images
Dustin Lance Black

Dustin Lance Black spent three seasons with HBO's polygamy-in-Utah dramedy Big Love — and was the only Mormon writer on the show's staff.

Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Sean Penn stars in Gus Van Sant's new biopic Milk — the story of an out gay politician who inspired a community with his courage, and whose 1978 murder made headlines across the country.

Screenwriter Dustin Lance Black says he was among those for whom Harvey Milk made a real difference.

Born to Mormon parents, he grew up amid the military communities of San Antonio, Texas. He says Milk's story, when he finally learned about it, helped him summon the courage to come out to his family and friends.

"Texas kept me very quiet," Black told the Bay Area Reporter in February. "I became intensely shy, I had thoughts of suicide. I was a pretty dark kid, because I had an acute awareness of my sexuality, and was absolutely convinced that I was wrong."

But in the mid-1990s, Black told the BAR, he saw Rob Epstein's Oscar-winning documentary The Times of Harvey Milk.

"In his Hope Speech, Harvey Milk says, 'There's that kid in San Antonio, and he heard tonight that a gay man was elected to public office, and that will give him hope.' And when I first heard that speech, it really did that. It really, really gave me hope, for the first time."

Black, who's been a writer on the HBO series Big Love, also wrote a documentary about Pedro Zamora, the out gay Cuban-American AIDS activist who became famous as a third-season cast member on MTV's The Real World.

'Gotta Give 'Em Hope': The Legacy Of Harvey Milk

Milk greets supporters i i

Harvey Milk was a Castro neighborhood activist elected to San Francisco's city government in 1977. He was killed less than a year into his term. GLBT Historical Society hide caption

itoggle caption GLBT Historical Society
Milk greets supporters

Harvey Milk was a Castro neighborhood activist elected to San Francisco's city government in 1977. He was killed less than a year into his term.

GLBT Historical Society
Harvey Milk - -slideshow launch photo

A Political 'Last Testament'

Knowing he might be killed, Milk recorded a political "last testament" on audiotape. Hear a portion of it below.

Bob Mondello on 'Milk'

In two weeks, the film Milk is going to open. It's about Harvey Milk, who served on San Francisco's Board of Supervisors — the city's equivalent of a city council. In 1978, when he was gunned down by an assassin, he'd been in office less than a year.

The first openly gay man to be elected to public office, Milk left a legacy of determined enfranchisement that lives on in the more than 600 openly gay or lesbian elected officials serving now in North America. But especially among younger elected officials, memories of Milk are beginning to fade.

"I don't know very much about his life story," admits 35-year-old Patrick Wojahn, who was elected to the city council in College Park, Md., in 2007. "It just shows that all this stuff is many, many years ago and unfortunately not as fresh in our minds as maybe it should be."

Wojahn cites gay and lesbian Reps. Barney Frank and Tammy Baldwin as his gay political heroes. He was only 5 years old when Milk was killed.

For a younger generation, the Will and Grace generation, it's almost inconceivable that not too long ago, people could get fired or arrested for being gay. The shame sometimes led to suicide.

It was in that climate that Milk managed to help successfully beat back Proposition 6 —an initiative that would have barred gay people from working as school teachers — and passed a city ordinance guaranteeing equal rights for gays and lesbians in San Francisco.

"You could just see that people stood a little taller," says Walter Caplan, who was Milk's lawyer in the 1970s. "There were always gay teachers, gay nurses, gay health-care people who lived quiet little lives and feared for losing the security of the jobs that they had."

Caplan says the ordinance set off a protracted civil-rights chain reaction that perhaps even Milk may not have anticipated. For example, because the airport in San Francisco was owned by the city, suddenly major airlines were required not to discriminate against gays and lesbians.

While most of the major airlines long resisted giving domestic-partner benefits, now, Caplan notes wryly, you'll see them aggressively marketing their services to gay consumers at San Francisco's annual pride parade.

Anne Kronenberg, who coordinated Milk's campaign, now works as deputy director of San Francisco's department of public health. She says over the course of many years of activism, Milk helped transformed the city's political landscape.

"He understood we can't do it by ourselves," Kronenberg says. By working strategically with unions and the city's fragmented ethnic and racial groups, Milk organized minorities to become the majority.

She says when Milk was elected, along with a single mom, an African-American woman and a Chinese-American man, the San Francisco city council began to look a lot more like San Francisco.

And speaking of resemblances, Kronenberg says she was shocked by how much Milk star Sean Penn looked like her former boss. She worked as an extra during much of the San Francisco shoot.

"There were a few times when [Penn] walked by and I'd gulp," she says.

Times change, Kronenberg says. There was a period when she would have found it difficult to believe that so many straight Hollywood actors would enthusiastically perform in a major motion picture about a gay activist.

And how ironic, she notes, that just as a film commemorating his life is about to be released, the majority of Californians voted to take away key civil rights of their gay and lesbian fellow citizens.

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