Gay, ex-Mormon Oscar winner says the church made him the man he is today

In HBO’s ‘Mama’s Boy,” Dustin Lance Black both praises and criticizes the church.

(ABC/Image Group LA) Dustin Lance Black and his mother are the subjects of the documentary "Mama's Boy," which debuts Tuesday on HBO.

In the new documentary “Mama’s Boy,” Oscar winner Dustin Lance Black recounts growing up a Latter-day Saint, and he’s got plenty of criticism of the church. But he’s also got plenty of praise.

It’s a bit of a balancing act. “Ah, welcome to my life,” Black said in an interview with The Salt Lake Tribune.

He’s an out gay man who won an Academy Award for best original screenplay for “Milk,” a biography of gay icon Harvey Milk. Black’s been a leader in the fight for LGBTQ+ rights.

And he’s a man who’s quick to say, “I am who I am because I was raised Mormon. My sense that family comes first is something I learned from Mormonism. Granted, I might define family a little more broadly than many Mormons do in Utah these days, but I still think it comes first. My son and my husband are the most important things in my life.”

(He married British Olympic diver Tom Daley in 2017; their son, Robert Ray Black-Daley, was born in 2018.)

“Mama’s Boy” debuts Tuesday at 7 p.m. on HBO, and repeats several times on HBO channels. It will also stream on HBO Max. It’s based on Black’s 2019 memoir, “Mama’s Boy: A Story from Our Americas,” and it’s not just his story, it’s the story of his mother, Roseanne “Anne” Bisch. Born into a family who lived well below the poverty line, Anne contracted polio as a child and was paralyzed from the chest down. A beautiful woman who stood just 5 feet tall, Anne was determined to take care of herself.

“I always called her my 5-foot-nothing mouse, but, boy, she had a roar,” Black said. “I mean, she was tough as nails.”

A convert to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Anne was also determined to marry and have a family, despite being told that neither of those was possible.

In both the documentary and the book on which it’s based, Black recounts his mother’s conversion, and her marriage to recently returned missionary Raul Garrison, his biological father. The couple had three sons — Black is the second — but Garrison was not a faithful husband. He eventually left Anne for his first cousin, leaving the boys with “a paralyzed mother who’d never had a job, never had a car, and was dealing with being abandoned by her husband with a 2-year-old, a 6-year-old and a 10-year-old,” Black said.

“There was a very good chance we would have been put in foster care had the church not started slipping cash into our mailbox,” Black said. “And it was done in quiet so that my mom could maintain her dignity.”

(HBO) Dustin Lance Black's mother, Anne Bisch; his biological father, Raul Garrison; and his older brother, Marcus Black.

That positive appraisal of the church quickly comes crashing down, however. Local church leaders didn’t just give Anne money, they found her a new husband: Merrill D. Black, the leader of the ward Boy Scouts troop. In the documentary, Lance’s cousin confirms that the two were “set up by the church.”

Lance was so disgusted with his biological father that he quickly asked to take his stepfather’s last name, and was adopted by him. There was just one problem: Merrill Black had a history of violence, according to the documentary. Lance says his stepfather punched him in the face because his room wasn’t clean enough and that he beat Anne repeatedly.

But, according to Lance Black, the family was told not to report any of this to the police. In “Mama’s Boy,” he says that church leaders told Anne, “The responsibility of the wife is to create an atmosphere that suits your priesthood holder. And if he’s having to resort to this sort of violence, there’s something in the home that’s not right for your priesthood holder. They put the responsibility on my mom.”

“I do not understand why my mom had to be treated the way she was treated just because she was a woman in the faith,” Black told The Tribune.

What nobody at church told Anne was that Merrill Black had tried to kill his first wife, according to Lance Black. He recalls s his older brother, Marcus, taking a baseball bat to their stepfather to keep him from killing Anne, and the brothers’ almost comically inept effort to get rid of Merrill, who Anne soon divorced. Her third husband — Jeff Bisch, a kind man who’s interviewed in the documentary — is not a Latter-day Saint, and Anne left the church.

(Scott D. Pierce | The Salt Lake Tribune) Actor Sam Worthington, writer-producer Dustin Lance Black, actor Tyner Rushing and actor Andrew Garfield pose for photos at a premiere event for the FX/Hulu miniseries "Under the Banner of Heaven," at Salt Lake City's Broadway Centre Cinemas on Monday, April 25, 2022.

‘Under the Banner of Heaven’

Without ever mentioning “Under the Banner of Heaven,” “Mama’s Boy” makes it clear why, after more than a decade in development, Black was determined to make that miniseries about the infamous Lafferty murders.

While some critics of the miniseries, which streamed earlier this year, focused on fictionalized aspects of the narrative, what Black focused on was how women have been treated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints since its beginnings in the 1830s.

“I hope they understand why I was interested in Brenda Wright’s story,” Black said. “And I hope they understand why I landed where I did in the fictional side of the investigation.”

(HBO) Tom Daley, Robbie Ray Black-Daley, and Dustin Lance Black.

Told he was going to hell

The role of women isn’t the only thing about the LDS Church he doesn’t understand. In the documentary, Black remembers having a crush on another boy when he was just 6, and he recalls then-LDS Church President Spencer W. Kimball (seen in a clip) preaching that homosexuality was one of the “diseased doctrines of the devil,” alongside “corruption, drugs [and] abortion.”

“I do not understand why I was told for so long that I was a sinner whose sin was akin to murder by a prophet of the Mormon faith,” Black said. “That’s really an incredibly harsh thing to tell a young person who’s experiencing love for the first time — to tell them that their heart is rotten and their love will never come to any kind of fruition. Why live?”

But he says he’s let go of any lingering anger or bitterness.

“This is going to sound trite, but in this vast, beautiful universe we’re blessed to live in, how close do you want to hold your beefs and your anger and your resentments? How long do you want to hold on to that?” he asked. “Because, I’ll tell you what, it doesn’t hurt the people you’re angry at, it’s eating you alive. And I don’t want to be eaten alive ... by the memories of some of the things that were said and done to me by members of the Mormon faith.

“And because of that, I meet beautiful people who I share history with whenever I go to Salt Lake City and Provo and Orem. And I ain’t going to miss that connection because some horrible things were done to me in the name of God in my childhood.”

(HBO) Anne Bisch.

Building bridges

When Anne learned that her son was gay, she did not take it well. “Mama’s Boy” recounts the rift between them, and the reconciliation that came about when Anne showed up unexpectedly at Black’s West Hollywood apartment while he was hosting a group of friends. The friends — most of them gay — shared their stories with her. And by the end of the evening, Anne was telling one young man that he should treat her son better, take him out on a date and pay for dinner.

She also pushed Black to keep the promise he made while accepting the Oscar to fight for gay marriage.

“I’m thrilled the world is going to meet this little, once-conservative, Mormon, military, Southern woman who pushed me to fight for marriage equality,” Black said. “Holy cow. How does that story unfold? I am eternally grateful on a personal level, because I cannot wait for Robbie Ray to get to an age where he can meet his grandmother.”

The film recalls Black’s efforts to reach out to both conservative family members and to church leaders. He met with Latter-day Saint general authorities in Salt Lake City in 2010, attended the Tabernacle Choir’s Christmas show at their invitation, and returned as grand marshal of the Utah Pride Parade in 2012 — after getting over his astonishment upon learning there is a pride parade in Salt Lake City.

(HBO) Jeff Bisch, left, Todd Black, Anne Bisch, Dustin Lance Black and Marcus Black.

Yes, he’s a mama’s boy

Much in the same way the gay community has reclaimed “queer” and turned it into a word said with pride instead of an insult, Black has done the same with the “mama’s boy” — long a term of derision.

“Yeah, own it!” Black said. “I am a mama’s boy. And … if you really understand the LGBTQ movement, you understand its ties to the feminist movement. You understand how they’re linked. And so what am I going to become — some person who’s ashamed to be called a mama’s boy?”

Even when his mother didn’t know he was gay, Black said, he “learned by watching her how to survive as someone who is treated as less than equal in this world. And that steely sense of self I was going to have to have to survive as a queer person. I am a mama’s boy and those men who have real self-esteem are willing to say, ‘Yes, I am too.’ It’s not an insult.”

Laurent Bouzereau, who directed the documentary, said that’s why he dedicated the film both to Black’s mother and all mothers. “And now I’m kicking myself — I should have said, yes, we’re all mama mama’s boys.”

He said his mother “has had a huge impact on my life in the most positive way. … That’s how this resonated with me as well.”

(To be clear, Black is interviewed extensively in “Mama’s Boy,” but he was not otherwise involved in its production. “It’s Laurent’s film,” he said.)

(HBO) "Mama's Boy" premieres Tuesday on HBO. It will also stream on HBO Max.

Black remains optimistic

It’s not all roses and Oscar wins for Black. “Mama’s Boy” includes more than enough sadness and tragedy to make viewers tear up, repeatedly.

But despite that, and despite the fact that the Latter-day Saint stance on gays hasn’t changed much in the past decade and LGBTQ+ rights are once again under assault in many parts of United States, Black chooses to remain optimistic. And that’s reflected in “Mama’s Boy.”

“Laurent and I both live on the sunny side, in a way,” he said. “Life’s hard, man. Life’s rough. And I know that. I’ve experienced that. But I’m also a dad now, and if I’m not looking for a yellow brick road to help my son step down, then I’m making a big mistake.”

In addition to those two, Equality Utah Executive Director Troy Williams appears in “Mama’s Boy,” spreading still more optimism.

And Black said it “takes a lot of courage to be an optimist” today, when “people are desperate to prove themselves right,” labeling themselves “realists. Well, I’m here to say I would much rather be wrong and an optimist than right and a realist.”

Having a “hopeful vision of the future helps us get there,” he said. “And if you don’t have that vision, you’ll never get there. ... I am a student of Harvey Milk. Let’s give ‘em hope.”

Black is even hoping that maybe LDS Church President Russell M. Nelson will watch “Mama’s Boy.”

“And maybe there’ll be a revelation that we are to equally honor a Mother in Heaven — sooner rather than later,” he said with a smile. “Maybe it’s time for some revelation to bring the church into the 21st century and to be better to all of the faithful.”

Editor’s note • This story is available to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers only. Thank you for supporting local journalism.