‘Milk’ Oscar Winner: My Emotional Voyage Home to High School

Editor’s Note: On May 9th, Academy Award-winning “Milk” screenwriter Dustin Lance Black returned to his high school in North Salinas, CA, as part of Live Out Loud’s Homecoming Project. Aiming to inspire a new generation of role models, the program brings lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) leaders back to their high schools to share their personal stories with today’s students. In this exclusive submission to the MTV Movies Blog, Black tells us about his first time returning to the school since that powerful Oscar night speech, when he had spoken of his struggles as a gay teenager.

by Dustin Lance Black

My palms got a little sweaty as I turned off East Alvin Drive in Salinas, and onto Kip Drive.

For the first time in 17 years, I saw the entrance to my old high school, the same one where I was once called “gay” by my peers. And it wasn’t said as a compliment — it was said with hate, anger, and on one occasion I was honestly afraid of getting my butt whipped.

So, I did what so many kids still do — I tried to vanish. I didn’t get great grades, I didn’t excel, I shrunk and hid, and I did my best to disappear at lunch. High school is tough for almost everyone, but for LGBT kids, it can be truly frightening. And as much as I know that I’m all grown up now, and that I can stand up for myself, I still got a little knot in my stomach as we pulled up to the front doors of North Salinas High and the camera crews closed in.

Before my speech, I hung out in a back room waiting to be announced, but I could hear the crowd inside the gym. It sounded big. Then I heard them play my Oscar speech, and if you haven’t heard it yet, it’s pretty clear that I’m a gay guy fighting for the LGBT kids out there. The room got very quiet; I got a little nervous. But when the Principal called my name and I came through those doors, I was greeted by a standing ovation from the over 1000 students who chose to show up. That was my first clue that something had changed at North High.

So I dove in. I told the students my story, talked to them about the LGBT struggle, and most importantly let them know how important it is that all minorities look out for each other.

Now, these aren’t rich, liberal kids. I grew up in a predominantly working class, Latino, conservative Christian neighborhood. These kids are minorities, they understand discrimination, and I wanted them to know that those of us in the LGBT community know we must fight just as hard for their rights as we do for our own, that we are all brothers and sisters in this fight for equal opportunity.

When I was done, I asked for questions – and if there was any doubt that these students had heard what I’d come to say, those doubts were answered when a young man stood up, and in front of his entire student body, came out of the closet. As he bravely told his story, he began to cry (and so did I).

And guess what happened next? There was no awkward silence. Nobody shouted anything derogatory. In unison, the entire student body spontaneously cheered – and it wasn’t mere polite applause, it was an unending ovation. And after the clapping subsided, three more students felt safe enough that they too came out.

This would never have happened when I was a student at this same school 17 years ago. Like many people in the LGBT community, I read statistics that kids are hearing the message of equality and mutual respect, and that things are getting better. But this trip back to my high school made those statistics real. I can honestly say that last Friday was one of the best days of my life, rivaling even the joy and pride I felt on Oscar night.

So I have to thank the Principal and faculty at North Salinas High, this unlikeliest of schools, for creating the atmosphere where kids like me don’t just feel tolerated, but feel protected, loved and celebrated. I challenge other schools around this country to follow their brave lead.

Dedicated to empowering, mentoring, and celebrating LGBT youth, Live Out Loud is a non-profit organization that produces panel discussions, lectures, and workshops that connect LGBT youth with role models and leaders in the LGBT community. More information can be found on their website.