Photography by Harry Borden. Styling by David Bradshaw. As told to Aaron Hicklin.
One was an Olympic diver who loved Nerf guns; the other was an Oscar-winning screenwriter who made great burgers. A chance encounter at a dinner in Los Angeles—and a smiley face—set the scene for a procession of foiled wedding proposals.
Dustin Lance Black, Screenwriter / Director
The night we met I was working on a script for J.J. Abrams — this was before he got Star Wars and everything was sidelined — so when a friend called to invite me to a dinner, I was like, “I can’t, I have stuff to do.” I’m a writer hermit, so he had to push for me to change my mind. First off, let me be honest: When Tom walked in I was, like, Oh my God, he’s so cute. I knew who he was — I’d watched the Olympics — but in person I found him more mature and confident than I had expected. He came in with this gaggle of beautiful women so I had no idea what his sexuality was. In fact, he seemed all loved up on this beautiful blonde, so I thought, Well, there you go. But occasionally I would look over to my right and I would catch Tom looking at me — that split second when someone is looking at you before they realize they’ve been caught and look away. And I thought, That’s not straight.
Tom Daley, Olympic Diver
I was in Los Angeles for the Nickelodeon Kids’ Choice Awards, and a friend organized a dinner, and got there at least 45 minutes late. I’m not going to lie: I had no clue who Dustin Lance Black was, or what he did. I just remember thinking, Oh wow, who’s that? He was wearing a white T-shirt with a thin red hoodie, and a leather jacket over it, and I thought he looked like a swimmer, because he has quite broad shoulders. As the dinner progressed, I kept on looking at him, and he kept catching me, which was awkward at times, because I would always look away.
Black: And then my friend texted me from across the table, and his text said, “He’s Google-searching you.” Well don’t read into that too much. I do that occasionally at dinner tables. But that, in combination with the look, made me think, Something’s up here, but that’s too good to be true. He can’t be into me. I’m dressed in a hoodie. Tom had just won an award at some Nickelodeon TV show, and they were planning to celebrate, and I said, “I’ve got to go home; I have a script to write.” And Tom took my phone, and he typed his number in with a winky face. At which point I felt I had confirmation that he was a gay. I’ve never in my life heard of a straight man putting his number in another man’s phone with a winky face.
Daley: He texted me the next morning, and then I texted him after dinner that night to see what he was up to. He said, “Oh, I’m having a party at my house, if you’d like to come.” I replied that I had work the next day, but there was a bar at the hotel if he wanted to come over. And long story short, he came over, and we literally spent three or four hours talking about the crap that we’d been through. His brother had only just passed away, and my dad had died in 2011, and we talked about his mum and her struggles with her illnesses — sadly, she’s no longer with us — and we just really connected. It was one of the first times that I felt, Oh my God, this isn’t just a thing where I am attracted to someone. This is someone that I’ve connected with on a whole new level. It was new for me, and that was when I thought, Shit, I’m in trouble here. And we just kept talking and talking. I taught him how to do a hand grab, which is how you enter the water correctly from a dive, and the rest of the night was the rest of the night, if you know what I mean.
Black: Truly, it was hours and hours of sharing and talking about things that really mattered to us. Pardon the pun, but we dove right in. I remember the moment clearly when I thought, Uh-oh, I’m in trouble. Because not only is he unbelievably attractive to me, and that goes beyond just how he looks, but he gets me. He understood my competitive spirit. We both had been to the top of our fields — he’d been world champion, I had an Oscar — and neither of us felt we were done. More importantly, he understood the chaos I was in, having lost my brother and having a very sick mother. I had to get on a plane the next day to go to the Supreme Court to hear the case I had been working on for years, and I knew he was leaving for England. I remember sending a text, wondering if he would answer, and he did — right before I boarded the plane. We made a commitment that we would keep talking, and I tell you: If we’re not together, there’s a text message every couple of minutes. It’s been like that for years now. We’ve kept it up.
Daley: We spoke every day, non-stop. My phone would buzz, and we’d just be in constant communication, it was kind of insane, like there was nothing else around me. We’d met in March, and it was about eight weeks later that we saw each other again, for my 19th birthday party. It was all a bit of a blur, because I had just flown in, Lance had just flown in, we were jet-lagged, and then we went to the party. But then the next day, we went on our first real date. That was the night he said, “Tom will you be my boyfriend?” when we were drunk in the hotel, and then he said, “Actually, you don’t have to answer that.” When I woke up the next morning, I turned to him and said, “Yes.” And he said, “What do you mean, ‘Yes’?” And I said, “Yes, I’ll be your boyfriend.”
Black: Love is a commitment to me — something that goes deep. You can’t have that at first sight. It has to be earned. But did we start to fall in love at first sight? I believe so. I’ve had long-term relationships before in my life, and I came into this with a bit more baggage, some hurt. I slowly started to let myself fall in love, but it was a process. I didn’t want to get hurt again. But eventually, he said, “Do you want to come to Plymouth and meet my friends and see my life down there?” And I said, “Yes.”
Daley: He came back to Plymouth, and he was originally going to stay for four days, and then he extended his trip for another week, and I told my mom in that time while he was making burgers in the back garden, on the barbecue. I said, “Oh, what do you think of Lance?” And she was, like, “Oh yeah, he’s really nice; he makes great burgers.” And then I was like, “Yeah, Lance and I are in a relationship,” and she was like, “What do you mean? Of course you’re in a relationship.” And I said, “No, he’s my boyfriend.” And she said, “Oh, you’re in a gay relationship with him?” And I said yes, and she said, “Well, Tom, he is lovely, and whatever makes you happy makes me happy.” And that was that. I had it built up in my head that it was going to be this big, world-ending moment, and I felt so lucky to have her as a mum. She was just so supportive from the word “go.”
Black: I can’t imagine what it’s like today to discover who you are, and to start to fall in love, and your first thought is not, I could be imprisoned or be forced to undergo electro-shock therapy, but you start thinking about your wedding cake, and who you’re going to invite to the ceremony. It’s a huge change in LGBT culture, and it’s got to be lifesaving. There are two memories that define who I thought I was as a child, and the challenges I thought I faced. I was probably six or seven years old, sitting in the Mormon Church on a Sunday. Occasionally they would beam in the Mormon prophet from Salt Lake City, Utah, and this was one of those occasions. The screen was lowered, and a white-haired man was beamed in by satellite. The guy was Spencer W. Kimball, and I remember very clearly his equating what he called homosexuality with the sin of murder. At that time, I already had a crush on my big brother’s best friend, so I’d already had that “aha” moment on my block in San Antonio, and because I grew up in the military and Mormon and in the South, I already had a words for my feelings. They weren’t very nice words, but I’d already asked what these words I was hearing meant. Words like “faggot.” Sitting there in church, I thought to myself, If what I’m feeling is equivalent to murder, I have to hide it or I’m going to be put to death. So then I realized that the challenge is to survive that. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t contemplate taking my life as a potential solution. Feelings and emotions are a big part of what drive me, so if you tell someone that they’ll never be able to have that, and that what they need to do is completely shut that down without hope of ever having love or a family, well, what’s left really?
Daley: Quite honestly, we talked about marriage within the first two weeks after seeing each other the first time in L.A. That was the weird thing: that it came up in conversation so many times. I always knew it was going to happen at some point.
Black: We were so busy making all these plans — we both wanted to have children; we both wanted to build a home of our own someday. I draw, so I was sketching little plans for houses on cliffs overlooking oceans, while Tom watched over my shoulder — it was a very grown-up version of playing house. Marriage is the foundation to all of these other big plans we have. So we knew we were going to get engaged — it was just a matter of when, and who does it.
Daley: It turns out that we had both asked each other’s parents, and we both had rings ready to go. I took mine away with me to America after my final diving competition last year, and I planned on doing it in San Francisco, because it’s his favorite city. There were so many points when I thought that I was going to do it: We went out on a boat in the bay, but there were too many people around. And then we went to Lands End near the Golden Gate Bridge and again, there were a lot of people around. We went to dinner, and I thought, You know what, after this dinner, we’ll go to Dolores Park, we’ll sit down, and then I’ll propose, and it will be somewhere we can go back to and relive that moment. Well, we got to Dolores Park and it was full of construction, and the first thing he said was, “Oh, it looks awful here,” and I just thought, Great, I’ll just have to save it for another time. So, I ended up bringing the rings back to London.
Black: I planned to propose when he came to America during the two weeks he gets off from diving. We’d worked out this whole road trip, driving an hour or two each day up the coast, staying in hotels, eating everything we see, and riding horses. So he gets here, and it becomes increasingly apparent to me that he’s got his eye on a proposal as well. I finally get my rings from a jewelry designer I know, and our trip turns out to be so lovely that I decide not to propose. Not only are we seeing beautiful things and seeing wonderful things, we’re getting to know each other on a whole new level, and he’s meeting some of my friends, getting to know some of my heroes as we get closer to San Francisco. And I thought, This isn’t what I want my proposal to be, because I want it to be in a place that’s more ordinary, a place we can take our kids to one day and say, Hey, that’s where your daddy and I got engaged. So we fly back to London, and I’m like, OK, game on, it’s my turn. We do these picnics in the park, so I picked a day, and we made our sandwiches, put them in the basket, and headed to the park.
Daley: He made fried chicken sandwiches; I made egg and cress sandwiches. We had cupcakes. We sat on a little blanket. It was like the perfect day. And he started doing some little speech, which I didn’t even realize was a prelude to a proposal. He said, “Oh, we’ve had such a nice weekend,” and at that point a kid with a Nerf gun shoots at a tree, and I was, like, “Oh my God, I used to have one of those!”
Black: It happens to be the sunniest, most beautiful day in the fall that England has ever seen, so there were thousands of people in the park. And people were coming up to ask Tom for autographs and photos, and I was frustrated and Tom could tell I was frustrated, so then we go to this dinner that I’d organized, originally for what I thought would be a celebration dinner, and I decide I’ll do it there. It’s a nice restaurant, it’s right by our house, and we’ll be able to point to it later and say, “That’s where it happened.” The restaurant was empty — there was one other couple there, and of course they sat us right next to them. I thought, “Why do they do this in England? But I can’t complain because I’ll tip my hand and then Tom will know. So, I thought, OK, Tom loves England. A short walk away from our house is Tower Bridge, an icon of the country he loves. It’s a Sunday night, so it will be abandoned. But as we approach Tower Bridge I start seeing thousands of people, and I look up and it’s the night of the blood moon, which is rising right between the towers of Tower Bridge. And every news camera, every photographer, every observer is there to document it. I just thought, This obviously was not the day it was meant to be. So we go home, I go into the bathroom to get ready for bed and come out in my underwear, and that’s when he drops down on one knee and proposes to me.
Daley: I had the ring box in my underwear, and when he came out of the bathroom, I just went down on my knee and proposed. Then he ran off to the bathroom to get his rings, and he had this whole speech prepared, but he’s a writer so his was quite extravagant. But looking back, all I can remember is being completely overwhelmed, like, Oh my God, we’re now engaged. Who do we have to call? So I called my mom, and he called his stepdad.
Black: From the Golden Gate Bridge to the Tower Bridge without success, and finally it happened in our underwear.
Like this story? Subscribe now to Out and never miss an issue.