Despite his prominent role in fighting for civil rights, Milk screenwriter Dustin Lance Black opened his speech on Saturday night with a disclaimer: “I am very much not a natural-born leader,” he said.
“Natural leaders are supposed to have good posture, they’re not supposed to sweat in front of crowds — and I promise you I’ll be a puddle of sweat by the end of this.”
Yet, Black showed few signs of the nervousness he described as QPenn’s keynote speaker this weekend in Claudia Cohen Hall. Black’s speech focused on leadership, though it also included topics ranging from his experiences growing up in a homophobic community to his recent success in the entertainment industry.
QPenn Co-Chair and College senior Liz Lee introduced Black giving a brief synopsis of his career in Hollywood, highlighting his 2008 Academy Award win for the Gus Van Sant-directed biopic, Milk.
Paying homage to Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man to be elected to public office, had been a life-long dream of Black’s, who first learned of Milk from a theater director in 1988. Reacting to an instance of homophobia, the director recounted Milk’s story, which forever changed Black’s views on leadership.
Black emphasized the importance of leading with hope rather than fear, but at the same time urged an aggressive approach that included campaigning for the rights of all oppressed minority groups. Citing Julian Bond, a leader of the black civil rights movement, he advised, “Good things do not come to those who wait — good things come to those who agitate.”
He ended the speech on a similar note, urging students to take an active role in the fight for civil rights, specifically citing a piece of legislation proposed by U.S. Senator Bob Casey (D-Pa.). The Student Non-Discrimination Act would prohibit the discrimination of students in public schools based on sexual orientation.
“He urged me to get your support,” Black said of Casey. “He wants to see phone calls come, and not just to federal representatives in this state.”
Black encouraged students from all around the country to contact their representatives with the goal of getting this piece of legislation passed.
A question-and-answer session followed the speech, with questions asked ranging from Black’s inspirations as a budding filmmaker to his opinion on Obama’s role in the civil rights struggle.
He responded to an audience member raising concern over Obama’s policies by agreeing that action for LGBT right should be taken now.
“The time is absolutely now. Health care is done. It’s time to move on to LGBT issues,” he advised.
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