WASHINGTON — On March 21, 2009, screenwriter Dustin Lance Black gave a speech at the OutGiving conference for LGBT donors held by Tim Gill’s Gill Foundation warning against gradualism and calling for full federal equality for LGBT people.
“If there was applause, Black didn’t remember any,” Jo Becker writes of the speech in her new book, Forcing the Spring, which details the anger that a planned federal lawsuit challenging California’s Proposition 8 was raising from some more established LGBT leaders. “Instead, he recalled an ocean of pursed lips and crossed arms, and that he was literally trembling as he walked off stage. … Tim Gill … denounced Black outright, telling the crowd he was naive and misguided.”
A video of the event obtained exclusively by BuzzFeed, though, shows that the speech was interrupted with applause five times. At the end, at least some members of the audience gave Black a standing ovation, the video shows. Though Black does look nervous, he is far from trembling — and waves out to the audience with a smile on his face before leaving the stage.
Gill, for his part, did critique Black’s speech the next day — also seen on the video — but it was more of a nuanced defense of “gradualism” — which Black had criticized the day before — than any sort of attack on Black, let alone an “outright” denunciation.
Transcripts of the speeches follow.
Dustin Lance Black:
Thanks guys. I have to admit I’m a little bit more nervous tonight than I was, what, exactly a month ago in front of 800 million people. So I actually wrote a lot of stuff down and forgive me if I go over my time, just like I did at the Oscars — way over my time. So, for those of you who I haven’t talked to or haven’t met, I, you should know that I grew up in a conservative, Mormon, military family in San Antonio, Texas. And that means that I knew that I was — I knew what the word “gay” meant from a very early age.
Because everyone was telling me just how evil or sick or wrong it was and because I knew I was gay from a very young age, I also knew that I was a second-class citizen probably from about six years old. So I hid and shrunk and I tried to disappear, mostly out of self-preservation. And that’s not a unique story. Sadly, today one out of every three gay and lesbian kids still attempt suicide and 26% who have the bravery to come out to family are told to leave home.
But when I was 13 I heard a story and it went like this: A long time ago in a city by the Bay, a man named Harvey Milk lived openly as who he was, and he had dream for his people a dream of full equality. And you know what, that message of hope allowed me to start dreaming again too. And for first time in a long time, I no longer wanted to take my life. But a story is one thing. Why did I want to spend five years working on this story of Harvey Milk? Why did I think it was so important? And that’s easy: Because unlike the gay and lesbian movement today, Harvey Milk fought for the rights of his people and he won on Election Day.
I believe that his history holds the keys to winning our freedom again today. You see, five years ago, I would bring his name up to name friends, and they would nod like they should know who he was but they absolutely didn’t. And why is that dangerous? Because as they saying goes, “If you don’t know your history, you are doomed to repeat it.” Harvey’s message was simple: be proud, come out and represent yourself, and reach out.
If you look at Proposition 8 this past year, there were almost no gay people in the ads, none in the literature, and little effort was made to reach out and educate. In fact, back in September, when I called up some of the folks involved in one of the major organizations fighting Proposition 8 and I questioned their strategy, I was told, “Gay people do not test well in focus groups.” And that isn’t just bad strategy. That is homophobia. And until we find that pride in ourselves again, pride enough to come out and to reach out and educate, we will never win this fight. Because the simple truth is this: If people don’t personally know who they are hurting, they don’t so much mind taking away our rights on election day. And after that election, what did I hear from another leader and another of our largest LGBT organizations? He said, “If we quiet down, they” — whoever “they” are — “will let us do whatever we want.”
As a student of Harvey Milk, I will tell you, these leaders are not just the same kind of people who told Milk it was too early to have an elected official back in 1977. Some of these leaders are those very same people. I believe that if we are ever going to win this fight, we must abandon their strategy and return to the strategy Milk proved successful 31 years ago. Come out. Self-represent. And reach out.
But Harvey’s story of success did not stop without coming out. Harvey’s story is also a lesson in grass roots activism. He proved that you don’t need a treasure trove of cash or a massive national organization to change the world. Harvey proved overwhelmingly that a small group of highly dedicated people, hopefully like this one, can turn the tide of public opinion and liberate a people.
In the past few months, I visited organizations that are out there training young people in every county in the basics of grass roots organization. These groups and young people they are training are building an infrastructure that can effectively register voters, turn out the vote, do the door-to-door outreach and education. And in the tradition of Milk and King, these young people have shown a willingness to take to the streets, to put their faces on our story, and when necessary, lay their bodies down in acts of nonviolent, civil disobedience. And they seem to understand another important truth. They aren’t just standing up for sexual minorities. They are reaching to the seniors’ communities, the disabled, the union workers, the women’s’ movement, the racial minority movements, and all of the “us’s” out there. And that was perhaps Harvey’s most important message – that of the coalition of the “us’s”. And it’s time for us to restart that work. To bring the us’s back together and start winning these fights for each together again as a team.
There is no question we are at a critical moment in the gay and lesbian movement. That is clear. And no matter what the outcome is of the California Supreme Court case, when that decision comes down there will be great energy in this movement, and it must be harnessed.
And what comes to mind is a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King, who was in a similar – who at a similar moment in his movement in 1963 – said these words on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. He said, “This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off, or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism.”
And in his own style, Harvey echoed this sentiment. This is a quote from his first run for public office in 1973, when people were saying, “You know, it’s too soon for an elected – a gay elected official…” Um, “You need to sort of cool down and back off.” And Harvey said to them, in a very Harvey way, “Masturbation can be fun” — this is a quote — “Masturbation can fun, but it does not take the place of the real thing. It is about time the gay community stop playing with itself, and get down to the real thing. There are people who are satisfied with crumbs because they think that is all they can get, when in reality, if they demand the real thing, they will find indeed they can get it.” And he was elected twelve months later.
And I say this: It has been thirty years since Harvey Milk gave his life in our struggle for equality, and we will not wait 30 years longer. It is time for us to stop asking for crumbs and to demand the real thing. It is time for the LGBT movement to follow in the footsteps of every successful civil rights movement in this great country’s history. And to finally, finally, at last name the dream.
And I, and I say this is the dream: we, the gay lesbian bisexual transgender people of America, demand that the promise of our Constitution and Declaration of Independence be honored. We demand that the federal government act immediately, decisively, and unequivocally to ensure equal protection under the law, for LGBT people — throughout the United States of America. Full and equal rights, federally.
The strategy of the past decade has failed. We have lost state and local fights time and again in over 30 states and if we look at our history books, this should come as no surprise. No group has ever won their civil rights going state by state or county by county. And even worse, this strategy has not united it — us. It has divided us. It divides our resources. It divides our talents. It divides our focus, and it fractures our mighty, unbeatable passion. But know this: I am not just a dreamer. I know the tough realities of achieving this goal. I know that the path will be long and that we need a strategy. And I know that, in the end, this path will be rough, but that we can do it. And we must dream bigger than Proposition 8s and look back to the examples set by the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It showed us loud and clear that full and equal civil rights can only come from the federal government. And as in 1963, now in 2009, this is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism.
Now is the time for us to name our dream in order to inspire the activist generation of Harvey Milk to return to the fight, to inspire the young people to join in and lay their bodies on the line, to inspire the straight allies, our mothers, our fathers, our lawyers, our grocery store clerks, our friends, and those who do not know — do not yet know — that they are our friends. It is time to name the dream in order to bring us back together again, to unite the “us’s”. I know this sounds lofty, but I’m a child of Harvey Milk, and at 13 years old, Harvey Milk taught me how to dream, and dream big. And big dreams are how change really happens.
So please, before you pull out your checkbooks, make sure that the organization you are writing your check to is not driven by a singular personality’s ambition. This should never be about ego. Make sure that the organization is not stitching the name of Harvey Milk on its hoodies and selling them at champagne dinners if they are only asking for crumbs from our elected officials. Make sure that that organization you write the check to is following in the footsteps of the new generation of politics, a generation that understands the necessity of grassroots activism, collaboration, unity, door-to-door outreach, and education. A generation that believes as I do that we should have pride enough in ourselves to put our stories and our faces forward. Pride enough in ourselves to know that once America gets to know us, that America will love and embrace us and will grab hold of our hands and lift us up to full equality.
And most of all, most of all, make sure that the organization you write that check to is fighting for the dream: full federal equality for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people. Because I know full well that when that gay kid out there tonight in San Antonio, Texas hears for the first time (that) we are finally fighting for his full equality, he will know there is a bright future ahead, and he will no longer think of taking his own life. And that young girl in Provo, Utah tonight will know that very soon her love will be just a valued and protected as her straight neighbor’s love. We must send them a message of hope. And not hope for some distance tomorrow, but hope that very soon, they will be equal citizens in every state, in every county in the this great nation of ours, from sea to shining sea. That is our dream. Now is the time for us to make it a reality. Thank you.
Lance and Bruce [Cohen, who introduced Black], thank you. Righteous, real energy! That’s what we need! Urgency. Thank you.
You know, throughout this conference we’ve discussed at length the incredible possibilities that our philanthropy has if it’s given collaboratively, in partnership with other donors, with strategy and with very, very careful planning. And we’ve really tried to mirror that entire philosophy throughout this conference, both by the dynamic panels that we’ve had, that’s had people from a myriad of fields and organizations and backgrounds, to the very significant presence of allies. Allies both onstage and off.
So, with that ally notion in mind, it is just thrillingly appropriate to celebrate our final evening together at this conference with a rousing call to action — another one, after Lance’s.
From the current leader of our nation’s premier defender of individual freedom, the American Civil Liberties Union, my colleague Anthony Romero, the first Latino and openly gay man to serve as executive director of the ACLU, understands what it means when we talk about Outgiving — to combine a giving strategy that is intelligent, informed, and rewarding, with a laser-like focus on the one goal, and that would be equality without apology.
Ladies and gentlemen, when I say “we are the change,” it is because men like Anthony Romero number among us. Let’s welcome Anthony Romero to the stage.
I have a little a bit of a rebuttal to make to last night. And, most of you who know me will not be surprised but I think to apply gradualism as a pejorative denigrates the hard work of tens of thousands of people of over more than three decades to achieve equal rights for gay and lesbian people, and I think it oversimplifies reality and completely misrepresents history because the plain fact of the matter is, no rights were received by anyone for anything as the result of an instantaneous discontinuity.
History is not the sum of the stories of the historic figures. History is created by people doing small things in small ways over a long period of time. When Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, almost every American lived in the state in which slavery was illegal. When women won the right to vote federally, almost every state allowed them to vote in state and local elections. That is how history is made.
There are a few figures that have wonderful stories that we remember that rise above and are the ones who are remembered in history book. But it’s the people like you that make it possible for them to achieve that moment of greatness. We — and in fact, failure to operate in an incremental way leads only to ultimate reversal of your goals. The Temperance Movement is a lovely example of something that failed to get majority consensus before they tried to get a federal win, and how long did it last? Thankfully only a few years.
Change is the falling of snowflakes on a slope and eventually you have a landslide. The landslide is the change, you are the snowflakes, and I want you to go home, remember that you’re a snowflake, make more snowflakes and eventually there will be an avalanche and the avalanche will be in the history books but it isn’t the avalanche that is the change, it’s the snowflakes.
Thank you for coming. I appreciate all that you’ve done over many years. You are the change and you’re wonderful. Thanks.
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