Reading Dustin Lance Black’s book Mama’s Boy, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of kinship and camaraderie which, frankly, I hadn’t expected. Black’s book is tribute to his mother and anyone who has lost a parent cannot fail to share and remember their grief. Black’s description resonated so much with me over the loss of my own mum; when she passed I felt part of me died too and I cannot image how painful it must have been for Black to write this memoir, a wonderful tribute to his mum, clearly a courageous woman well ahead of her time.
Black is known to be a vocal and erudite LGBT advocate yet hearing him speak and having read the no-holds-barred account of his impoverished background, I was touched deeply at a level far beyond simple appreciation of his advocacy. I too come from a poor background and, like Black, was one of very few white people in a community chiefly comprising people of BAME heritage. It is a narrative which is not heard enough; so many people from backgrounds of this sort remain within the same social stratum – but there is a narrative that those who no longer live the life of poverty which they were born into means seldom look back. In Black’s (and my own) experience, this is not true. Yes, traumatic events can be blanked out, but one does not often forget one’s roots.
Those of us who are fortunate enough to have overcome a socially disadvantaged upbringing – my mother was an immigrant with very few life chances, Black’s had been disabled almost to the point of paralysis by polio – only come to realise in later life that our upbringings were in any way unusual. As children, our world is so much smaller, and it’s only when we reach adulthood and encounter people from different walks of life that we realise our difference. Black’s description of growing up in a Mormon community with a mother who could only walk using crutches, who had been told she could not have children (she had three!), who was violently abused by Black’s stepfather and how the Mormon Church did not intercede, in fact discouraging Black’s mother to press charges for fear of a possible backlash and negative publicity for the church.
Mama’s Boy is brutally honest, to the point that Black berates himself for not doing better when a friend of his came out as gay. At that point in his life he was not ready to acknowledge his own sexuality, and yet this is just one example of self-admonishment in the book.
I recently saw an interview with Black and he was asked about his status as a role model together with his husband, diving champion Tom Daley. He readily admits to his imperfections, claiming only to do the best he can. His modesty is commendable, and, in my own small way, I understand where he is coming from. As the publisher of DIVA Magazine, I am looked up to by lesbians and bisexual women but, like Black, try to use my platform to help others, despite my own limitations. Those of us lucky enough to have a public voice and platform are often just muddling through like everyone else, and Black contextualised this perfectly when I heard him say “We are all perfect in our imperfections”.
When talking about his battle for marriage equality and how he had to win over so many in the LGBT community who did not agree the approach that he, Chad Griffin and others had adopted, it is a credit to Black that he chose not to name those in the LGBT community who were critical, even though it became clear that the path he had chosen became the best and quickest way to achieve equal marriage via the USA’s federal judiciary.
In the UK, Black is often seen by the mainstream as Olympic Champion Tom Daley’s partner but to the LGBTQ community Black is a gold star hero and this memoir will explain to many just why. It’s the story of a successful writer who gave up a stellar Hollywood career, having just won an Oscar for Milk, and chose activism. He talks about the importance of storytelling in his battle to gain marriage equality and how he learnt the importance of storytelling through his own family history. Indeed, he plays down his own considerable success, selflessly focusing on his activism, the memory of his mother and his own late, gay brother.
In these troubled times, it’s refreshing to encounter a memoir which manages to walk the difficult dividing line between inspiration and over-sentimentality. Mama’s Boy does precisely that and I cannot recommend it enough.
Order Mama’s Boy here.