The inspiration behind Before You Know It came in 2008, when I was touring with my last film, Trinidad, a feature documentary that follows three transgender women living in the small town of Trinidad, Colo., also known as the "sex-change capital of the world." We were invited to screen in upstate New York, and screenwriter Ron Nyswaner (Philadelphia, Soldier's Girl) was kind enough to organize a reception afterwards at the Hudson Valley LGBTQ Center in Kingston. At the event there was a good turnout of LGBT community members, and surprisingly enough, they were almost exclusively LGBT seniors. At that moment I realized how little I'd seen or heard of them as a community, and I started to question why.
I went around the room and thanked many of them for attending. In return, they shared personal stories with me, stories of living many years in the closet, or witnessing a large portion of their community die off during the AIDS crisis, or even grappling with the fact they've lived long enough to see gay marriage legalized in certain states. At that moment I realized that this particular group of people had seen such a large amount of change during their lifetime. Born before the civil rights movement, they have lived through the sexual revolution and Stonewall and now find themselves in a world where they can see openly LGBT characters on TV and listen to Lady Gaga on the radio. Around the same time, I was a volunteer film instructor to queer youth as young as 14, and I wondered if they were aware of the experiences that their LGBT elders had lived through. I was fascinated by the fact that both age groups were on opposite sides of the spectrum, and that I myself was somewhere in the middle. The LGBT community has recently placed a lot emphasis on supporting our youth, and rightfully so, but what about support for the other highly vulnerable group: our senior communities?
Weeks later I found myself still thinking about this overlooked group of people. I mentioned my experience in Kingston to Sara Giustini, who eventually came on as the producer of this film. Together we started researching the topic and uncovered pretty startling statistics, such as the fact that LGBT seniors are twice as likely to live alone as their heterosexual counterparts, and five times less likely to access social services. Living in a youth-obsessed culture, LGBT seniors face
ageism, loneliness and discrimination. Overall, society at large
desexualizes seniors, even though someone who identifies as gay is being defined by their
sexual identity, making the two terms, "gay" and "senior," seem at odds with one another. Clearly there
have always been members of the LGBT community over the age of 65, but we are now seeing
the first visible LGBT senior communities. Acknowledging the vulnerability of age
and the need for one another, these seniors are organizing and creating their own communities in
the form of living facilities, community organizations, bar establishments and so forth. They
continue to blaze trails. On a personal note, around this same time, my mother and I started
having conversations about her thoughts on retiring one day and the financial and emotional challenges involved. As a member of the LGBT community, I wondered what things would
be like when I'm over 65. So I set out to make this film to find out for myself.
Initially I thought I'd chosen each character based solely on my interest in wanting to know more about each of them. I was fascinated by Dennis' ongoing journey of self-discovery. I admired Ty's tenacity
as a public figure at the forefront of gay visibility in Harlem while wrestling with personal feelings
about issues that he never thought he'd see in his lifetime, like the legalization of gay marriage in
New York. I enjoyed hearing Robert tell stories of his wild and unapologetic youth and seeing that
unique spirit captured in his bar and passed on to the patrons and staff, whom he considered
family. But only when we started editing did I realize that I'd chosen each subject because together they
formed a life cycle. Each person represents a different stage of life. Dennis' coming out late in
life is reminiscent of adolescence and self-discovery/self-acceptance, even at the age of 80. Ty's
story of partnership and marriage echoes midlife concerns of settling down and looking toward
the rest of one's life. Robert's narrative signifies legacy and a passing of the torch. All three
stories are unique and individual, yet together they give us a larger picture of life and aging.
Though each individual lives in a different city, with a different history, and encountering different challenges, they
have a commonality between them. They are linked to one another.
Filming Before You Know It has been a life-changing experience for me. Not only have I met
and gotten to know three amazing individuals, but I also marched in the New York Pride
Parade the day after gay marriage was legalized in the state of New York. I've been on a gay cruise to the Caribbean! I've
experienced my first Mardi Gras in Galveston and sat through my first legal gay wedding. A lot of
what the characters experienced I've experienced as well. The moments of surprise, sadness,
inspiration, laughs and tears will be with me for the rest of my life. The film is a document
of not only the three characters' lives but, in a way, my own experience as the filmmaker.
Though Before You Know It looks at aging through the lives of three gay seniors, ageism,
loneliness, acceptance and loss are all universal experiences. Not only does it take a village to raise
a child, but it also takes a village to support an individual who is aging. It's a community effort, and
community could be your friends, a bar, a living facility or "family." But aging alone is a difficult
process. It's up to everyone of all ages to support the older generations, and it's in all our best
interest to do so, as the aging process does not discriminate. Robert eloquently states in
the film, "You never think about getting older when you're younger, but before you know it, it
creeps up on you, and you're there already." Making this film, I can now say I've now thought
about it... and I look forward to seeing you "there."
Check out the trailer for Before You Know It:
Before You Know It will screen at Film Society of Lincoln Center's ongoing "Art of the Real" documentary series on Sunday, June 23. For more information, click here.
Follow PJ Raval on Twitter: www.twitter.com/pjraval