Dustin Lance Black talks coming out, gay rights, and his recent engagement

Diver Tom Daley Announces Engagement to Dustin Lance Black
Diver Tom Daley Announces Engagement to Dustin Lance Black

Oscar-winning screenwriter, Dustin Lance Black, has been at the forefront of the LGBT-rights battle for the last decade. His work on Milk, the 2008 biopic biographical-pic film based on the life of gay activist and politician Harvey Milk, both gained him an Academy Award and pushed the struggles of gays in the U.S. further into the public discourse. Politically, Black was closely involved with defeating California Proposition 8 and in lobbying the recent Supreme Court case that effectively legalized same-sex marriage.

Shortly following his engagement to Olympian diver Tom Daley, Black spoke with AOL.com about his own journey of coming out and what it means to find love as a gay man in America today.

AOL.com: You came out two decades ago. What internal and external pressures were you feeling then?

Dustin Lance Black: I grew up in a conservative Mormon-turned-Southern-Baptist home, in Texas with Louisiana roots, in the military. In the 90s, the deck was stacked against me in terms of ever having a positive reaction when I came out. I remember knowing I was gay at about six and I also thought I knew a few other things about myself: I knew I was going to hell, I knew if anyone found out I would be shunned by my peers, I would bring shame to my family, and according to everyone around me there was something desperately wrong with me.

I joke about it now, but at the time it was very tough. You're just looking for a way out of all that shame. I was very close with my mom and my family and the last thing I wanted to do was to hurt them. I'd be lying if I said I didn't consider hurting myself. I'm not saying that to be dramatic, I'll take the drama out of it by saying LGBT youths today are four times more likely to attempt suicide than their straight brothers and sisters, and nine times more likely if they come from an unaccepting environment.

I had a massive turn of luck in middle school, that saved my life. My mom fell in love with someone else, my step father, who was a fantastic man. He was an army soldier who had orders to ship out to California so we ended up getting into my mom's yellow Malibu Classic with three boys, a cat, and whatever boxes we had and moved to California. It was there that I discovered the theater and heard the story of something I had never heard of before. They said there was a story about something called an "openly gay man" and this man's name was Harvey Milk and he had this message of hope.

That idea saved me. Coming out is not something you do once, coming out is something you do for the rest of your life, and it starts often with the people you feel safest with and then goes out to the people you have the most at stake with, you're so afraid to lose their love or lose their friendship.

%shareLinks-quote="Coming out is not something you do once, coming out is something you do for the rest of your life." type="quote" author="Dustin Lance Black" authordesc="" isquoteoftheday="false"%

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AOL.com: ‚ÄčTimes have changed, same-sex marriage is legal, but do you still see barriers to people coming out in our society?

Dustin Lance Black: I put my film career on hold for five years to fight for marriage equality, and I'm so proud of that work, but it's not time to quit. What we don't have in all fifty states is employment and housing non-discrimination laws.

The reason why that is so critical is because if you fear you'll lose your job or your home because people know you're gay, you're not going to come out. If you don't come out, you can't dispel the myths and the lies and the distortions about gay people. You can't change the culture, you can't make it a safer place for gay people.

%shareLinks-quote="They said there was a story about something called an 'openly gay man' and this man's name was Harvey Milk and he had this message of hope." type="quote" author="Black on discovering the story of gay activist Harvey Milk" authordesc="" isquoteoftheday="false"%

AOL.com: Have you experienced any discrimination since becoming a high-profile, out advocate?

Dustin Lance Black: No, not at all, not in my field. As a filmmaker, a storyteller, and an activist, for me, being a gay person taught me how to tell story to save my own life. I've been able to use those skills as a writer as a filmmaker and frankly as a social activist because it's that same emotional storytelling that changes people's hearts and minds.

Hollywood does not discriminate against LGBT people when it comes to behind the scenes work. So I'm fortunate. I will say there are other fields where discrimination still exists and we need to work on that.

AOL.com: You've had many achievements in your life, but can you identify the best thing that has happened to you since coming out?

Dustin Lance Black: The single greatest moment for me after coming out had to have been telling the story of the man that gave me hope, Harvey Milk. To actually get up on stage, with my beautiful mother watching from the audience with a marriage equality ribbon on, and make a promise to the world that I would work from this day forward to make sure we have marriage equality in this country so that one day I could fall in love and get married.

That was at least part one of the greatest day of my life. About a week ago, when the love of my life got down on one knee and proposed to me was certainly the dramatic, emotional, beautiful conclusion to that story.

I never thought that in the journey from California Proposition 8 to the US Supreme Court that I would fall in love. And I certainly never let myself imagine that I'd be able to enjoy the right that I helped win. It's been a pretty miraculous five years and the last week has been incredibly special.

%shareLinks-quote="About a week ago, when the love of my life got down on one knee and proposed to me was certainly the dramatic, emotional, beautiful conclusion to that story." type="quote" author="Black on his journey of coming out" authordesc="" isquoteoftheday="false"%

AOL.com: As you and Tom celebrate your engagement, is there any advice you would give to people still living in the closet?

Dustin Lance Black: To young people that are closeted and afraid, do what you can to find a mentor or a friend who you trust and talk to them about it. Know that you have wonderful people to fall back on and support you as you begin the process of coming out. And if you don't have anyone near you, know that there are places like the Trevor Project where you can call and talk to people who will be supportive and help you.

The truth of it is, once you come out, it truly does take all that fear and all that shame that you've been living with, and it goes away, it goes away quickly. You start to live a more joyful, purposeful, potential-filled life immediately. It's something you deserve as a human being on this planet. I want to see those people who are still closeted be able to enjoy that kind of purpose and potential in their life, and it starts with a conversation.

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Originally published