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How A 'Mama's Boy' And His Mama Found A Path Beyond Politics

Dustin Lance Black's new book Mama's Boy is a memoir about two Americas, told through Black's relationship with his beloved mother, Anne.

She grew up in the rural South, survived polio and, despite all odds, raised three boys — practically by herself. She was also deeply religious, and converted to Mormonism. Black was the middle son of the three; they grew up in San Antonio, Texas, while Anne worked for the U.S. military.

Black was just as devoted as his mother to the values of the Church of Latter Day Saints — until he realized he was gay. Eventually, he moved to Los Angeles, graduated from UCLA's film school and became an Oscar-award winning screenwriter for the movie Milk. And so Mama's Boy is also the story of how a mother and son came to reconcile their differences and realize the importance of family.

Interview Highlights

On growing up gay

For a little gay boy growing up in Texas, it was about as stacked a deck as you could get, I'll tell you that. And growing up in that world — which, by the way, I loved. I loved the food, I loved the community, I loved the security of the faith, even, but it also meant I had a lot of words, pejorative words to define being gay, by about the age of six. I knew that around the people I loved and valued most, I was a sinner, and a criminal, and perhaps even mentally ill. That I would be damned or put in jail for who I was, and that's a lot for a little six-year-old to carry.

On what it means to be a mama's boy

I loved the food, I loved the community, I loved the security of the faith, even, but it also meant I had a lot of words, pejorative words to define being gay, by about the age of six.

I was so incredibly close with my mom. I had to be, I mean, she was raising me, but in a way, us three boys, we were helping raise her still. She couldn't move most of her body, and our father had abandoned us at a very young age, so we needed each other. We had no option but to find the bridges between us at every single turn. We had no choice, and so for survival's sake we did that.

I had been wanting to write a book for some time, and I just couldn't figure out the reason why. And all of a sudden, we found ourselves in this time where it seems family members are divided from one another, communities are becoming divided, mostly because of our differing political views. And in that way, it started to help me see the relationship between me and my mom, and me and the rest of my family, and even me and the church that I grew up in, the Mormon church with our deep deep divides, and I started to think that maybe that was how I should start to examine my life with my mom, and that perhaps, perhaps if I could shine a light on how my mom and I found that higher plane than politics, this book might serve a purpose. It might help other families in the country I love.

On coming out to his mom

I did not plan to come out. It was Christmas evening, and Don't Ask, Don't Tell was in the headlines at the time, and Bill Clinton was making it clear he was going to sign it, and my mom was angry about it because she was now working for the military, and she thought that it wasn't right that LGBT people could serve in her military, even if they were closeted. And she was just going on and on about that, late into the night, talking to me as she was sitting on my bed. And my tears just started to fall, because I was an out gay man back in Los Angeles, and she wasn't just talking about gay people in theory, she was talking about me and my friends. And I couldn't stop those tears. And a good Southern mom can read tears like tea leaves. And she knew.

On what she'd think of the book

I think my mom would be taken aback at how candidly I discuss her disability, and her difference — it's not something she talked about in her life; I think we mentioned it twice. So I dug through a lot of boxes, I made a lot of phone calls, I did a lot of interviews to make sure my memory was as close to accurate as possible, and I discovered a lot of things about my very flirtatious young mom that I did not know ... she was such a good Mormon mom by the time I came around, I had no idea that she was this, you know, this little teenaged blond girl in a children's hospital in New Orleans, fighting for her life but at the same time writing letters to the young priests, trying to get them to leave the priesthood and marry her!

Those are the sorts of things that become clear when you do the right research, and I think that she'd be proud of me for rising above my own political beliefs to show curiosity in others. And I think she would share my hope that our little American story might inspire others to find that higher plane than politics too.

This story was produced for radio by Sophia Boyd and Caitlyn Kim and adapted for the Web by Petra Mayer.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Lulu Garcia-Navarro is the host of Weekend Edition Sunday and one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. She is infamous in the IT department of NPR for losing laptops to bullets, hurricanes, and bomb blasts.