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?

by Mitchell Sunderland
Feb 26 2017, 7:01pm

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]."

Read more on Broadly.

Dustin Lance Black
When We Rise