'Mama’s Boy': Finding common ground on gay rights starts with conversation

Oscar-winning screenwriter Dustin Lance Black is the subject of a new HBO documentary that examines his work to find common ground with the Mormon church on gay rights and working to overturn Prop 8. Photo by Alain Benainous Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images/HBO.

Dustin Lance Black, showrunner of the hit true-crime drama “Under the Banner of Heaven,” grew up in a conservative Mormon household and struggled when he realized he was gay. During his Oscar acceptance speech for his “Milk” screenplay 13 years ago, he promised his mom that there’d be equal rights in the U.S. Black has been working to overturn California’s Prop 8 and find common ground with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on gay rights. It’s all detailed in his memoir “Mama’s Boy,” which has just been adapted into an HBO documentary.

Growing up as a gay kid in church, Black says he was often told he was different.

“I had everyone in my life saying, ‘Hey, you're not right for this world. You're not good enough for this world. You are too different for this world.’ So it was personal.”

When working to overturn Prop 8, Black had the opportunity to meet with church Elders. And while he was told by some to decline the invitation, he thought about his mom and the other gay kids who were growing up in the institution.

“It's my conservative mom who taught me that we ought to show the courage to sit with people who think differently than us. It's what my mom did her whole life,” he explains. “When she found out I was gay, she had the courage to come and meet my queer friends. And I thought, ‘Well, I want to follow that example,’ because I saw that it worked with my mom, and my gay friends and I wondered if it could work in any way with me and the leadership of the Mormon church.” 

Black says the meeting turned into a simple conversation, where they were able to connect by talking about their families and their lives.

“We were able to start to share in that way, and it took the conversation about gay marriage out of the political sphere, and it brought it into this personal conversation in a room. That might seem so small, but it's paid huge dividends.”

Today, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints describes same-sex attraction as “a complex reality for many people [where] the attraction itself is not a sin, but acting on it is.” While Black says he doesn’t love the stance, it is progress.

“For Mormons seeing that language, you go, ‘Wow, that's come a long way in a short amount of time.’ And to a Mormon kid who realizes, ‘Hey, okay, I'm not hell-bound because of my heart. That's probably life-saving.”

Black’s upbringing

After a childhood bout with polio, Black’s mom was left with limited mobility. She was told much of her life that she’d never get married or have kids. During the Vietnam War, she married Black’s father. At that time, it was possible to receive a draft deferment if you married someone who was disabled. 

“I think my mom was incredibly beautiful and very charismatic, but I think that perhaps my father married her for that deferment. And then had those children out of obligation. Frankly, three [kids] at that time in the Mormon church wasn't a whole lot. But it's what my mom physically had been told never to do, but she was physically able to do before the doctor said, ‘Have another and you die.’ And so she stopped. … I’m grateful for him, but I often refer to him as the sperm donor.”

Black’s father left the family when was six years old. 

“I think my mom was incredibly beautiful and very charismatic, but I think that perhaps my father married her for that deferment. And then had those children out of obligation,” says Dustin Lance Black about his mother Rosanne "Anne" Bische. Photo courtesy of HBO. 

Later, his mother remarried a man who turned out to be an abuser. However, it was the church that provided financial support for his family during that difficult period. 

“[The] Mormon church not only started slipping cash into our mailbox, they didn't say it was from them. We had to find out it was from them. They slipped it in so no one knew so it didn't cause any embarrassment. And frankly, this was family-saving,” he explains. “My mom was also in a terrible state. I'm incredibly grateful to the church. For people who have families, the church's ideals around family, and community coming first are beautiful ideals. There are great things about the Mormon faith that really work, particularly for family folks.”

Black is no longer a Mormon, but he sees what the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints can provide for its members.

“I still have a lot of people I love in the church [and] admire in the church. … I do understand that the Mormon church believes in ‘the revelation,’ and that they can turn on a dime. Look at 1978. You could not be Black and have the priesthood. Well, there was a revelation one night, and then you could. I'm ready for a couple more revelations. I, in my own way, pray for that day, because I still have so many people I love and care for in that church.”

Coming out to a firm believer  

While Black never explicitly told his mom he was gay when he first came out, the two broached the topic when she was in tears over how the military was too inclusive of queer people due to its Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy. The moment brought Black to tears. 

“She finally would say to me, with her voice trembling, ‘Why would you do this? Why would you choose this?’ That moment is seared in my memory. I remember looking at her crutches behind her, leaning on the bed and her braces on her legs and, and I asked her, ‘Why did you choose those?’” 

That conversation created a rift between Black and his mom. Growing up, Black and his mom were close and were like best friends. That changed however when she flew to LA for his graduation from UCLA. And at a dinner party, she met Black’s gay and lesbian friends.  

“I'd never told my mom, it was going to be a room filled with a bunch of gay people. My friends didn't think she was homophobic. …This is before ‘Will and Grace.’ This is before Ellen. And so they thought she was some sort of a gay Mother Teresa. And they thought she had accepted me.”

He adds, “So they just start talking to her about all their gay experiences and their families that have rejected them and dating experiences and lesbian friends talking about how they do it.” 

The entire conversation caught her by surprise. As Black describes it, his mom sat politely, listened, and nodded. By the end, he braced himself for what he thought was going to be a disaster.

Instead, she sat him down to talk about a male friend of his. 

“She'd met a guy who I was really into who was not that into me. She looked at me and said ‘Well, I met your friend. And I had a long talk with him. And I told him that I think that he's making a mistake and that he ought to treat you better and perhaps take you to dinner and since he's a little bit older, I think he ought to pay.”

While it wasn’t an outright declaration of love and acceptance, Black knew what she was trying to say.

“She couldn't just say ‘I love you. I accept you now.’ I looked over, she had tears in her eyes. And she wrapped her arms around me, and she held me so tight. And it was the first time in my life that I knew my mother loved me for all of me.”

(From back left to right) Jeff Bisch, Rosanne “Anne” Bisch, Dustin Lance Black. (From front left) Todd Black, Marcus Black. Photo courtesy of HBO. 

Black says it’s that experience that drives much of “Mama’s Boy” and his political beliefs. 

“I believe, just like people on the other side, that I'm right, and that I come to an argument with proof and facts and law and science. But what I learned that night is that none of that moves the needle. Those are all declarations of war,” he says. “My mom, her heart, and her mind were changed that night because my friends didn't know they needed to debate her. So they shared their stories. … She could tell they're being honest. And she could feel their pain and she could read their hearts.” 

He adds, “Because they came at her with stories from the heart, her mind was changed. Honest to God, in that one night, all of the homophobia she learned in the military, from the Mormon Church, growing up in the South, was erased.”