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Dustin Lance Black’s New ABC Drama Aims to Bring Gay History to Middle America

The Academy Award-winning 'Milk' screenwriter's new show, ‘When We Rise,’ follows three LGBTQ activists from 1970s gay liberation to 21st century marriage equality. Can the series unite a divided country?
Photos courtesy of ABC/Disney

Dustin Lance Black's Wikipedia page does not read like the description of a man who could build a bridge between gay liberal elites and the flyover states. He directed a documentary about a queer road trip to Burning Man, won an Oscar for writing the screenplay of Milk, and lives in London with his fiancé, the Olympic diver Tom Daley. But with his new mini-series, When We Rise, Dustin hopes to unite the country.


Premiering at 9 PM this Monday on the Disney-owned ABC, the show follows three LGBTQ activists from 1970s gay liberation to 21st century battles over marriage equality. Where Milk was a close-up of the gay politician Harvey Milk, When We Rise is a kaleidoscopic portrait of the LGBTQ rights movement in San Francisco. As he wrote the series, Dustin thought about his Mormon childhood in the south and his relatives in Texas, Arkansas, and Louisiana. He aims for the program to help normalize gay culture for rural America.

"When I was writing Milk, I had me in mind as a 13-year-old kid. When I was writing this I was thinking about my cousins, uncles, and aunts [in the south]," Dustin says. "I'm often frustrated how we can't talk to each other in our 'two Americas.'"

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In person, 43-year-old Dustin displays both his southern roots and his Hollywood credentials. You can see the muscles underneath his beige sweater, and his high cheekbones highlight both his blonde all-American hair and pale, smooth face. He requests to meet at Laurel Hardware, a gay-friendly West Hollywood restaurant whose exterior resembles a hardware store and looks inside like any other trendy restaurant that has low lighting and wooden tables. He orders chicken schnitzel, a dish he learned to adore on a trip to his current favorite city Berlin, but also an appetizer portion of barbecue ribs. Like a true southerner, he licks the sauce off his fingers.


Dustin credits his storytelling talents to conversations at his Mormon family's dinner table in Texas. When anyone brought up politics, science, or the Constitution, dinner guests would kick the speaker to the side. To get a point across at the Black dinner table, Dustin says, "You want to tell a story… Like country music, it has to be an emotional story. I don't care how tough you think we southerners are, the best stories have to do with family—especially someone in your family. When you get that combination, you have a [winning story]."

With When We Rise, he teaches gay history through the story of three activists and their friends, lovers, and compatriots over several decades. "They're LGBTQ families but we have to talk [about them] as families," Dustin explains. "It's about the families you lose in the 1970s. It's about the makeshift families you have to build to survive. Certainly, eventually, it's about the families you build and the kids you raise—then at least you're on the tracks to tell a story that connects in both Americas."

When We Rise has lessons from the past that contemporary activists can use while fighting the Trump administration, but the show originated before Trump was even a contender. In 2013, a historian told Dustin she had heard rumors about ABC hunting down material about real life LGBTQ people. "I didn't believe it," Dustin says. ABC was the family-friendly network that his conservative mother let him watch as a kid. He asked his agent to set up a meeting, and then he met executives at the Disney lot in Burbank. ABC greenlit the project, and Dustin spent the next four years working on When We Rise.


He started his research with the activist Cleve Jones, who served as Harvey Milk's intern and went on to found the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt. During the 1970s, Cleve saw gay liberation open the doors for LGBTQ people to live out lives, only for AIDS to slaughter a generation of gay and bisexual men in the 1980s and 1990s. Jones and his fellow activists had to focus on protesting the Reagan and Bush Sr. administrations' policies that hindered the development of AIDS and HIV treatment. "We spent the better part of two decades on the front line of a war," Jones says. In the show, he and other activists' decision to keep protesting culminated in the LGBTQ rights victories of the Obama years. Now, young activists will have to push against the pendulum of the conservative policies as Jones did two decades ago.

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Dustin met Jones a decade earlier in Palm Springs, where Dustin interviewed him for an ill-fated opera based on Harvey Milk. "[Reporting] is my job," Dustin says. "I'm always interviewing people." In 2013, Jones moved into Dustin's house in the hills to work on his memoir. (He struggles to write at home.) "I had the real deal sitting there in my kitchen every day," Dustin says.

Jones didn't predict that gay liberation could become the basis for an ABC show, but others did. In December 1978, he returned home for Christmas less than a month after the assassination of Milk. Jones stayed up later with his mother discussing the tragic events. At some point, he recalls, she stopped him and said, "When you're older, people will write books and make movies [and television shows] about what you're living through."


For the cast of the show, Dustin decided that all the characters had to have dedicated their lives to the fight. "That's really rare. Most activists, even good activists I respect, they last three or four years," Dustin says. "They learn quickly you get eaten by your own before you get eaten by the enemy." His subjects also had to have started in another civil rights movement and transitioned to one besides LGBTQ rights.

Jones introduced him to the feminist lesbian Roma Guy, who started in women's liberation and currently campaigns for prisoners' rights. She became one of the central characters of When We Rise, along with Jones and black community organizer Ken Jones. As Dustin researched, he realized San Francisco needed to be the setting instead of New York, because so many important activists' lives revolved around the Bay in the 70s.

Jones became his "conduit to people in San Francisco" and the main character. The series opens with Jones teaching history to a gay boy sitting on the floor, who is a stand-in for Dustin. Watching the show has been surreal for Jones. "All of us were hoping that this would help move us forward," he says. "It's an odd experience, but I'm glad we all are participating."

Throughout the series, the three leads deliver monologues that could have easily become as corny as Remember the Titans, but the inspirational speeches seem genuine. "Cheesy is when you're derivative," Dustin says. "It depends on the corn. If it's corny because I went right to the heart without apology, give it to me."


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Gay Americans, of course, could also use some inspiration during the Trump administration. Last week, Department of Education Secretary Betsy Devos reversed the Obama administration's protections for trans students. "It's unfortunate timing," Dustin says. "It's not what we planned for."

Dustin himself had been through enough the last five years. He lost both his mother and his older brother, Marcus, a self-proclaimed redneck who loved Marlboro cigarettes and hunting. The brothers had grown especially close since the filming of Milk, when Marcus called him and delivered shocking news: He too was gay. Marcus moved in with Dustin in West Hollywood, but struggled to meet like-minded friends. "Once he tried to fit in and said, 'hey girl,' and it didn't make sense in any world," Dustin recalls. One night, Marcus broke down on Dustin's porch: "Are there any gays like me?" he asked. Dustin told him there were, but probably not in West Hollywood. Dustin laughs as he tells the story, but his smile quickly dissipates into a frown.

During the election, Dustin had sensed more incoming bad news. His southern relatives thought reality star Trump could win regardless of what the polls showed. (Every time a pollster called them, his relatives said they hung up.)

As marriage equality looked more and more inevitable, Dustin had noticed a worrying change in gay people. "I was increasingly concerned that LGBT people were becoming very self interested, very myopic, and that is a recipe for disaster," he explains. "I was not seeing gay, straight, black, white. We had become divided, not by animus, but by neglect, not paying attention to our history. It's dangerous. Just ask Nero from Italy."


Dustin got frustrated watching last year's Oscars when the singer Sam Smith claimed he was the first gay man to win an Academy Award in his acceptance speech for Best Song. "Hey @SamSmithWorld, if you have no idea who I am, it may be time to stop texting my fiancé. Here's a start," Dustin tweeted, linking to his own Oscars acceptance speech from 2009. Gay Twitter assumed Smith had hit on Dustin's fiance, Tom Daley, but Dustin explains that his tweet was a joke. "I don't know Sam Smith," he says. "I would hope Sam Smith and some other young gay people would get to know their history."

Dustin is critical of LGBTQ millennials, but empathizes with their misunderstandings about their history. For one, AIDS killed a generation of men that could have taught young LGBTQ people their shared roots. "Our history—we were robbed of it because of a plague," Dustin says. "The oral history was broken." And even in the early 1990s in the middle of the epidemic, Dustin struggled to learn gay history. He was shy as a kid, and when he was a tween, his mom pushed him to take theatre classes in San Francisco, where the family had moved to from Texas. At the theatre, Dustin encountered older gay men who would give him advice. "This was in the middle of a plague," he says. "These mentors I was meeting were vanishing. I would find out later they had died." Sometimes, they would talk to him about gay liberation. "They were hoping it wasn't something that it wasn't lost."

At the time, his mother didn't know Dustin was gay. She was a conservative Mormon, but her own background made her empathetic to people who were othered. After contracting polio at age seven, she grew up in a children's hospital in Lake Providence, Louisiana where she met other patients. "They became her family," Dustin says. "That got her interested in a variety of people… She understood the value of people different from her. I'm not sure everyone in our family felt that way." As a kid, Dustin recalls seeing adults in the grocery store pull their kids in a little closer when they walked past his mother in her leg braces. "They'd talk to her like she was a child."

By his own admission, Dustin was a "late bloomer." He lost his virginity to a girl at age 21 in 1995, and he stayed in the closet for another year. When he came out during his senior year at UCLA, boys hounded him. "All the sudden I was popular," he recalls. "I didn't realize I was this skinny little blond blue-eyed thing." The night of his first kiss, a boy took him on a date to Universal CityWalk, an outdoor mall connected to the Universal Studios theme park. On the way back, they parked at what is now the Samsung Building, where they made out. "My body shook from the ride there already back to Venice," Dustin reminiscences. "Nothing has ever felt so right in my life." They dated for six more months, but never had sex. Dustin thought gay people waited to have sex, like he assumed straight people did.

After dinner, Dustin steps out into Santa Monica Boulevard in the heart of West Hollywood. He holds his jacket over hand over his head to combat the rain and climbs into a black Escalade that is taking him to a friend's house. Two decades ago, danger hung over West Hollywood. Dustin would ask a friend to walk him back to his car after a night out. "[You would] get called 'faggot' and have bottles thrown at you," he recalls. "One guy got beaten into coma with a bat." But every weekend, he returned to West Hollywood even just to study and play chess at the Abbey, which was then a coffee shop and not a nightclub where cult movie star Goddess Bunny is known to do wheelies in her wheelchair.

One day, sometime in the future, Dustin hopes young LGBTQ Americans will know both about their community's recent pass and distant history.

"As Larry Kramer said, 'You are not a people until you have a history.' I'm working hard to build it, but I need help. I need more writers. I need more filmmakers. We need more," Dustin says. "I want [young LGBTQ people] to be powerful, and if you're going to power, you need to know your history."