Oscar-winning screenwriter Dustin Lance Black reveals a remarkable tale of hardship and healing.

In one corner, a shy gay teenager, struggling to come to terms with his sexuality.

In the other, his homophobic, Southern, Mormon family who work in the military, have necks the colour of over-ripe tomatoes and don't just vote Republican, they tape photos of Barack Obama to their toilet seats.

"Life at times was terrifying," admits Dustin Lance Black of white-knuckling his way through his Texan adolescence.

We've spent weeks dancing around dates, time zones and technology - Skype was out, WhatsApp was briefly in before, finally, a call to Black's New York hotel where the receptionist can't understand my accent - to chat about his memoir, Mama's Boy a not-so-thinly disguised love letter to his late mother Anne.

Scene from the movie Milk starring Sean Penn.
Scene from the movie Milk starring Sean Penn.

You might not know his name ("Dustin is on my birth certificate but my mother called me Lance"), but you might be familiar with Black's work: he won the Best Screenplay Oscar in 2009 for the biopic Milk, about Harvey Milk, California's first openly gay elected official who was gunned down 20 years prior. He also mined his family's Mormon lifestyle for the 2006 HBO series Big Love and wrote the screenplay for J. Edgar, starring Leonardo DiCaprio.

Screenwriter Dustin Lance Black with his Oscar for the film Milk.
Screenwriter Dustin Lance Black with his Oscar for the film Milk.

No one will blame you if you haven't been paying attention to LGBTQ causes in the US, but there Black is a crusader for marriage equality, taking big, juicy bites out of the establishment. That includes a protracted battle to overturn California's controversial anti-gay marriage law, Proposition 8, as well as petitioning the Supreme Court to declare marriage equality for LGBTQ citizens.

In Mama's Boy, the 44-year-old turns his storytelling inward, to the complex family dynamics that made him who he is. There's his grandmother Cokie, a "dirt-broke orphan" who married an alcoholic share-cropper and raised seven children in Lake Providence, a Louisiana town CNN once called the poorest in the US. Anne is Cokie's youngest child, a tiny, sickly girl whose legs are paralysed by polio when she's 2 years old.

But she's a determined one, that Anne, defying doctors' predictions that she'll never walk, work, marry or have children. Instead, she learns to walk on crutches, marries three times (including to an abusive husband who's protected by the Mormon hierarchy), raises three sons largely on own and successfully runs a laboratory at a military base.

One thing was always a constant, though: Anne's deep conservatism, which ran counter to her son's sexuality.

"According to my family and the Church, I was going to hell," recalls Black over a crackly phone line. "According to the military, I was broken and according to psychiatrists in that part of the country, I was likely going to have to face conversion therapy."

Spring has yet to take hold in New York (it's a chilly 13 degrees) where the now London-based writer is kicking off a nine-city US tour to spruik his latest book. He was 6, he tells me, when he first realised he was gay.

"I had a crush on a neighbourhood boy and while I might have felt happy for a few seconds, it quickly turned to terror. I thought I would lose my family and not make it to heaven."

Black tried to "pray his way out of it" and when that didn't work, pretty much stopped speaking for five years. "I turned in on myself. I tried to hide from the truth."

When he was 12 he flirted with suicide "to quieten the pain of isolation and shame". At 19, he tried to convince himself he was straight by attempting to get a young woman pregnant (he failed).


"All because I'd been told by my church, our state, the news and our neighbours that gay people lived horrific lives of indignity, sickness and death, followed by eternal loneliness in a burning hell," he writes.

Black's life was supposed to have unfolded in a very different way – a Mormon mission, perhaps overseas, followed by marriage, children and a stable but boring career.

Leonardo DiCaprio as J. Edgar Hoover.
Leonardo DiCaprio as J. Edgar Hoover.

Instead, UCLA's School of Theatre, Film and Television was his Narnia – a portal to a more gay-friendly world. Along with learning how to transpose his ideas onto the big and small screen, Black socialised with other LGBTQ people and, for the first time, learned that his church and family were wrong.

But while he may have left the humiliations and fears of adolescence in the rear-view mirror, Black still hadn't confronted the enormous elephant in the very small room – how to come out to his adored mother. Mama's Boy devotes several pages to how long he can keep his sexuality hidden from her and how she's going to react when she eventually finds out.

In the end, it happens almost by accident: it's 1995, Black is 21 and has flown home for Christmas. During an impassioned discussion about the new military policy of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, Black writes that his mother started ranting: "How dare this president allow those kinds of people to join? Who does this Clinton think he is to destroy the good name of our military by filling it with sickos?!"

Although not ready to come out to her, Black begins to cry. "She wasn't talking about strangers, she was talking about me and my friends."

His mother's response? "Why, my baby? Why would you ... choose this?''

In one of the most moving passages of the book, Black looks his disabled mother in the eye and, in turn, asks why she "chose" her crutches and braces.

"It was indescribably painful," he says. "She had no answer. She knew full well that those crutches weren't a choice. Her only choice had been to survive them ... and she knew this wasn't a choice for me either."

Although Black worries he's ruined their strong bond, his mother accepts him, even flying to LA for his university graduation to meet with his friends who she'd once thought "lived somewhere along a sliding scale of sick, wrong and evil".

"It can't have been easy but Mum did the courageous work of meeting with gay people to hear their stories and understand who they were."

Dustin Lance Black (L) and Tom Daley at the GQ London Fashion Week Men's 2018 closing dinner.
Dustin Lance Black (L) and Tom Daley at the GQ London Fashion Week Men's 2018 closing dinner.

When Black met his now husband, British Olympic diver Tom Daley, he was overjoyed to catch Anne Googling pictures of Daley in Speedos. "Like mother, like son," Black wryly admitted to the Daily Mail.

He married Daley, who's 20 years his junior, in Devon in 2017 and they welcomed their son, Robert Roy, born by surrogate, to their whanau last June. Daley, coincidentally, has been to New Zealand, proclaiming it "the most beautiful place he's visited".

"On our next vacation, we're going there," says Black.

Anyway, Mama's Boy: "People had been encouraging me to write a memoir for a while but I didn't want it to be self-congratulatory, about my LGBTQ activism or my film success".

He does briefly touch on that – there are delicious tidbits of meeting Jennifer Aniston backstage at the Oscars, of being hugged by Whoopi Goldberg after he won – but Black says he wanted the narrative to be "a mirror of our current climate of great political tension".

"When I first pitched this book I was going to call it The Story of Two Americas because of the way the man who's currently our President has created great divides and stoked the fears of those divisions. Four or five years ago, my mother and I were having a discussion about the political divisions in our country and our family. Which was odd to us because even though we'd had totally different political views, we never let it define us. We were a family that should have been completely divided but weren't. Mum taught me our differences were our greatest sources of power."

He helped anchor his grief, after his mother died in 2014, by locking himself in a room with a laptop. The result is 402 sensitive, finely nuanced pages which sprinkle sad, funny and shocking anecdotes around like glitter. There's the 8-year-old Black and his older brother Marcus, trying to kill their abusive stepfather first with a pellet gun and later by cutting his car brakes. Both attempts ultimately fail, but they demonstrate how far they'll go to protect their mother.

TV show Big Love.
TV show Big Love.

And then there's the Mormon Church, which both supported and disappointed Black's family (who collectively gave up their faith when they moved to California in 1987).

"I obviously had an issue with the church's views on sexuality, and their patriarchal attitudes caused my mother a lot of pain. But on the other hand, when our father abandoned us, the church stepped in to help, putting envelopes of money in our letterbox. It's a difficult one to navigate."

But he tried, taking up the Church's invitation to attend their Christmas Spectacular at their Utah HQ a few years ago. It's a slightly bonkers event (Black describes the televised ceremony as the "Mormon Oscars") but it helps him achieve if not closure, then a path to "creating understanding, to building one of many bridges that we need to build these days".

Black also reached out to his Southern extended family who he'd long lost contact with. Not only did he discover their creative uses for pictures of President Obama, he also found the common ground he was looking for.

"If my mother could showed extraordinary curiosity and courage in getting to know my LGBTQ friends, then surely it was my responsibility to show the same courage in connecting with her family?"

So he travels to Texas and after a few Jack Daniels' learns that he and his macho cousin have more in common than he imagined. "We're never going to agree on some things, but I was showing him photos of Tom and he showed me photos of his new girlfriend. We realised that the butterflies in his heart were the same ones in mine. It's only by sharing those personal stories that we can begin to heal ..."

Mama's Boy
Mama's Boy

Young, Gay, Hollywood: Five of the best LGBTQ movies to watch

Brokeback Mountain:

the 2005 Oscar-winning film follows Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger, two cowboys in the early 1960s who risk everything by falling in love.

Moonlight: the 2016 Best Picture Oscar winner portrays the black, gay male experience in Miami in three distinct acts.

Blue is the Warmest Colour: This iconic 2013 French film follows a teenage girl who falls in love with an older woman.

The Kids are Alright (2010): Julianne Moore and Annette Bening are a lesbian couple whose family is turned upside down when their children connect with their sperm donor.

Call Me by Your Name (2017): Based on the acclaimed novel of the same name about a 17-year-old boy who falls in love with an older student staying at his family's Italian villa one summer.

Mama's Boy by Dustin Lance Black is published by Hachette, $37.99.
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