"Hoo!” Dustin Lance Black told the graduating class of Pasadena City College. “I made it!”
Yes he did, and with that opening line, the screenwriter and LGBT activist brought something of a close to an embarrassing chapter for the school, which had invited him, then disinvited him, then reinvited him after a replacement speaker withdrew amid a controversy over homophobic statements.
“I’ll tell ya,” Black told the students, “I have been blessed. Blessed with honors, blessed with invitations to speak at esteemed institutions around the country, around the world, but I say if you measure the weight of an honor by the amount of work it takes to actually get there, well, this might damn well be the biggest honor of my entire life.”
Was that a dig at PCC President Mark W. Rocha, Deputy Superintendent Robert Bell and Pasadena Area Community College District Board of Trustees President Anthony Fellow, who had disinvited Black for reasons that gave off a whiff of homophobia?
But the fiasco that preceded Black’s commencement speech didn’t seem to matter to the 600 or so capped-and-gowned students who sat on the field of PCC’s Robinson Stadium at dusk on Friday, nor to the thousands of friends and family members who filled the stands as the PCC Lancer Concert Band belted out Beatles chestnuts like “Eleanor Rigby.” They were there not for politics but simply to celebrate an important milestone.
Black, who graduated from PCC in 1994, told graduates that he was once one of them, literally sitting where they sat, “facing the most intimidating thing that a writer can face, and that is the blank page. The blank page was my future.”
His 30-minute speech hit on three themes suited for a commencement address: the importance of conquering fear, the importance of being a troublemaker, the importance of celebrating differences.
Some in the audience thought he focused too much on the details of his personal awakening as he recounted his transition from a “sweaty, nervous, scared” boy into an avatar of gay liberation.
“It was too in your face for a lot of attendees,” said one celebrant who did not want his name used.
(I thought I detected a little bit of squirming around me when Black talked about the details of his long-ago undergraduate crush on a UCLA grad student. “I worked so hard to get him to see me as anything other than a friend,” said Black, “but he wouldn’t, he just wouldn’t.”)
Did I find the speech solipsistic? Sure, but after what the college put him through because of his sexual orientation, he had every right to tell his coming out story his own way. The larger outlines of his story surely resonated with anyone grappling with questions of identity (and who isn't?).
"Other people’s opinions are none of your business," Black said. "Not on Twitter, not on Facebook and not in any school or institution. ... Your business is to define you ... to find your passion and to build your life."
He told the students about how his background as a Texas-born, devout Mormon who grew up in a military family made him fearful of coming out, fearful of going to hell, fearful of being different.
Moving to the Bay Area from Texas was a revelation, he said. He discovered theater, other gay kids and also learned about Harvey Milk, the San Francisco supervisor and gay rights pioneer who was assassinated by a homophobic colleague in 1978. (Years later, in 2009, Black would win the best original screenplay Oscar for writing the biopic “Milk.”)
His mother, he said, did not accept his homosexuality until she visited him at UCLA, where he received a bachelor’s degree in 1996. His gay friends did not realize she had a problem with homosexuality and plied her with stories about their love lives and being rejected by their families.
“Those stories were able to dispel the myths and the lies and the distortions that she had heard her entire life -- in the military, in the Mormon Church, in the South,” Black said. “That fear was gone in one night. And that, my friends, is the power of personal storytelling.”
Something about their stories changed her, he said. “She opened up her arms and held me so incredibly tight for the very first time,” said Black. “I felt this light inside of myself, this hope, this liberation, because for the very first time, I knew my mom loved me for me--for who I am.”
Though he described himself in his speech as a fearful boy and meek young man, Black, now 39, has learned to fight. As a founder of the American Foundation for Equal Rights, he helped underwrite the legal challenge to California’s anti-gay-marriage initiative, Proposition 8.
And after PCC rescinded his first invitation because college officials had discovered he’d been the subject of a sex tape “scandal” in 2009, he came out swinging. (A video of him having sex with a former boyfriend was stolen from the boyfriend’s computer and peddled to websites. Black sued the thief and won.)
In an open letter to PCC students last month, he urged them to speak out on his behalf. He implied he was considering legal action and accused PCC officials of cruelty, of “attempting to shame me” and of “punishing the victim.”
“If there’s one thing I’ve learned in the struggle for equality it is that when you are stung by injustice, you must find your pride and raise your voice,” he wrote in his open letter. “If you are outraged like I am, you must show it. You must speak truth to fear and prejudice and shed light where there is ignorance.”
But all of that had become only a subtext by Friday evening, as the setting sun turned the sky over PCC's stadium a shade of lilac and the San Gabriel Mountains loomed in the background.
“I’m so damn proud of you,” Black told the graduates. “No matter what your major is. … I want you to be cautious of one kind of person — the kind of who leads with fear and hesitancy. I never want to see you walking a step behind anyone. … Get out there and stand proud as graduates of Pasadena City College. Get out there and let your beautiful, freaky differences shine!”
Graduating student Christine Michaels appreciated the message.
“I thought he was very, very inspirational,” said Michaels, 21, who served as editor in chief of the school newspaper, the Courier, and plans to complete her bachelor’s degree at Cal State Northridge. “I thought it had a very good message, and I also thought he was elegant in poking jabs at the administration and the board. But it didn’t seem too obvious, and I think that was a good thing.”