Dustin Lance Black, who might be best known for screenwriting Milk, the film about Harvey Milk, San Francisco’s first openly gay city councilman or for spearheading the effort to overturn the Defense of Marriage Act and make gay marriage legal across the country, is tired. Dustin, who is married to Tom Daley, that Olympic Diver from the UK, welcomed his baby son nine months ago. His baby is now sprouting six teeth. And he is cranky. Dustin isn’t sleeping. But this is also what he’s always wanted, and he couldn’t be happier about it. Dustin caught up with Fatherly to talk about his new book, Mama’s Boy: A Story From Our Americas, a memoir that details his mother’s battle with polio, her life as a Mormon woman, and his own childhood growing up as a gay boy in a conservative family. The book, he hopes, could serve as a roadmap to help people understand that, like he and his mother, those who are wildly different still have more in common than they realize.
Why did you decide to write this book? Why now?
That’s a great question, because I think the first time an agent encouraged me to write something was after the Academy Awards. I was encouraged, again, to do so after our foundation’s Supreme Court win [Editor’s Note: Dustin is referring to the overturning of the Defense of Marriage Act.] But I thought, I don’t want to read a book about someone patting themselves on the back. That’s horribly lame. So, it needed to have a purpose.
A few years ago, it started to become clear that there was this pendulum swinging backward. Fearful language was being used about people who were different, usually by folks who were pursuing power. The old divide and conquer thing. It was pretty obvious. Difference is now something to be afraid of, according to many of our leaders and most 24-hour news programs.
I just started looking at the relationship I had with my mom differently. I started examining it and asking myself: “How did I, a gay filmmaker living in Hollywood, get along with my conservative, Mormon, military mom? How did we find our bridges? How did we discover what I call a ‘plane that’s higher than politics’?” That’s where the book began. I feel like we’re being fed a lie by politicians and news channels that we’re more different than we are similar, and that we ought to fear people of difference, and I think that most people will be harmed by that message. That message only serves the small plurality.
Now that you’re a dad, do you understand your relationship with your own mom more than you did when you were just her son?
My husband and I both lost a parent — in my case, my only primary parent. Now that I’m a dad, these past nine months, there have been so many times I’ve wondered how my mom did it. The questions I never even thought to ask. My mom was paralyzed from the chest down. She walked on braces and crutches only because, as a child, she had demanded that they fused her spine with metal rods so she didn’t have to be in a wheelchair. How does someone like that raise a two-year-old, a six-year-old, and a ten-year-old all by yourself when your husband vanishes? So, some of it is just practical questions. Some of it is: Can you actually survive and function on this little sleep, mom?
All of the ‘thank-you’s’ that I would have shared with her if she was still around because I have a lot of gratitude for her patience. I also think the thing that I didn’t fully realize but I guessed at — and that I now hope to pass on to my son — is the value of curiosity. My mom made sure that somehow, she got us three rambunctious boys out of the house to the zoo, or the aquarium or the botanical gardens or even just driving her Malibu Classic all the way to the Gulf of Mexico so we could camp on the beach. She wanted us to understand that the world was a full and varied place. I know that’s my job now.
Do you think about the effects fame might have on your own son? Like, if my dad was an Olympian and my other dad was an Oscar-winning writer…
I don’t think of myself that way, so it’s funny to hear it. But I do think of Tom that way. I see how people react to him. I can only guess that our son is not going to fall for the fame thing. He’s going to be like, “Yeah, whatever. I know the real Dad and Papa.” And, my family, we’re a bunch of Texans and Arkansans who like whiskey, Crown Royal, barbecue, and pecan pie. Tom’s family is incredibly tight-knit and joyful and they come from Plymouth. They’re not big-city people. I think that the connections that we have are going to keep him grounded.
But you know, all of those aspirations that you have for your imagined child go away when they’re born. I couldn’t have been prouder of his very first well-formed poop. All of the sudden, your expectations are out the window, and your only real hope is happiness and health, isn’t it?
I understand. I once interviewed a dad who managed to change both of his sons in the middle of the night without waking them up and —
— he said it was like, one of his greatest accomplishments, and that parenting just changes the scale of what it means to accomplish something. Do you agree with that?
Who is this man? iI he a magician? Does he teach classes?
Just a normal Joe.
Wow. I can’t do that yet. Wait, say the question again? I was so distracted by that story.
Just that if you feel like parenting changes the scale of what success means.
Absolutely. That was one of my great hopes for parenthood. Both Tom and I were so successful so young in our careers. Tom was one of the youngest ever to end up in the Olympics and to win a world championship. I was incredibly young to stand up on an Oscar stage in my category. Being thrust into that world, I started to crave something to put it in perspective. Something to remind me, daily, that there are other needs to come before mine. There’s nothing like having a child to remind you of that and to make that real. This is going to sound a bit Hollywood, but I’m working with Ron Howard right now on a TV project, and I was when we were awaiting our son’s birth. We were in development then.
We were actually about to start a meeting at a big TV network when I got the call that our surrogate was about to have our son. Ron’s words of wisdom in that moment before I hit the road were: “This is going to make you a better writer and a storyteller.” He was right. It gives you a new set of eyes to see the world through. It shows you where you’ve become calcified. You were able to re-learn spontaneity, because you have no choice.
It sparks curiosity. I’m so curious about what he’s doing and how he’s seeing the world, but I’m also curious in a new way about who I was at that age, and why I see the world the way I see it now, and if there’s value in being curious about the simple things again.
What’s the most difficult thing about being a dad? Is it sleep deprivation? Or the six teeth growing in your son’s mouth right now?
Let me be accurate about the sleeplessness: It’s not him. He is a great sleeper. He sleeps 10 hours a night and he has from very early on. I just now sleep with one eye open. Any little bump in the night, and I’m up.
He’s busy snoring away in there! He’s having a good old time. I will say that I wish someone had given me this piece of advice, and no one did: after the first four weeks, it gets so much easier. I just wish that someone had told me that. Because I’m going to be completely honest, and this is not a good look on me, but there were a couple of times, maybe two, in those first four weeks, where I thought, “I don’t know if I can do this.” He was not sleeping well in that period. I didn’t yet understand his language of tears, what each cry meant. So you’re just confused. You’re scared you’re going to break them. And I was really overwhelmed. But then, somewhere around four weeks, you can start to read their cries fluently. You know it. You’re like, he’s hungry, he’s tired, he wants to go walk around in the backyard again.
Do you have a parenting philosophy yet?
Because my father vanished when I was six years old, not to be heard from again, and because Tom lost his father to cancer at a young age, I think our philosophy was to ‘be there.’ That means that we made the decision that we weren’t going to have a nanny. We’re starting to see that there’s a time when he should have some time in nursery with other kids and socialize, or go to some classes with other kids, and have some fun without us, so he doesn’t get so sick of us. But we’ve put him to bed almost every single night. Isn’t that the best thing we can do for our kids? Is to truly be there?
I remember reading in the book about how you minimize yourself in your childhood, and decided to be as silent as possible, so that you wouldn’t stand out. That was really arresting to me.
Boy, things have changed. Now you can’t shut me up! My mom often said, when she’d see me on a news program or an Oscars stage, speaking in front of a quarter million people at the March on Washington, she’d say: “Who is this Lance? Where is my son?”
I truly didn’t speak outside of the home for much of my youth. I was almost silent until the beginning of second grade. But, that’s because I grew up in the south, in the military, in the Mormon church, where it was made very clear that I was going to Hell if I was gay. I was criminal if I was gay. Mentally ill if I was gay. And because I grew up in that environment, the first time I had a crush, I had words for it. I knew what I was, and I knew it was very dangerous if anyone found out. I knew it was bad news. And, at 6 years old, which was how old I was, you’re not well-equipped to deal with that. Unlike other minorities, where you’re born into a family that’s well aware of what you’re going to need to be able to survive as a minority, LGBT people aren’t often at all born into families that understand who we are and what we’re going to need to be able to survive. In a way, you’re born behind enemy lines, often times. Silence was how I coped.
How are you handling raising your baby in the UK? How has the press been?
Here in the United Kingdom, the press is far more aggressive than the United States. We’ve had to make some decisions early on to protect his safety. We did have a photographer from a certain paper camp outside our house and wait and say horrible things to try and get us to react. We were told that we’d be in a better position if we didn’t share his face on social media. That would mean that hopefully the papers would understand that they weren’t to share his face either, and that there is some law that helps back that up. We just want to keep him safe. Where we’re living right now, that means keeping him a bit more private.
What are your — I don’t know how to word this —
My survival tool?
Yeah — well,
Ben And Jerry’s Cookie Dough.
That’s great. I was going to ask: What do you want for the future? What do you want for your son? What do you want to leave for him?
When I go speak at universities and schools, young people ask me: “how long do we have to keep fighting and struggling like this? How long do we have to keep fighting for quality and for people whose skin is a different color who are treated differently because of their gender, their gender identity, or who they love or the god they pray to?” They get very frustrated. I say to them: “Forever. You will always have to fight and struggle. That’s the nature of civil rights work. And guess what? Stop complaining about it. It feeds the soul and helps you grow into a wiser, stronger person. It exorcises your curiosity and your courage. It’s noble, good work.”
It also speaks to the truth that the pursuit of equality is not a straight line. It is a pendulum, and one that will swing backwards as well as forward. I hope to teach my son that this is a baton that must be passed from every generation to the subsequent generation. As we move forward, we will get to the promised land.