While it was easy to get lost in the celebration surrounding the Supreme Court’s recent affirmation of same-sex marriage, PJ Raval’s documentary “Before You Know It” doesn’t let you forget those who endured years of struggle to get to this point and continue to struggle for equality, not necessarily because they’re gay, but because they’re getting older. Born into an even less tolerant era, current LBGT senior citizens are more likely to face the future without supportive family members and of course up until now, longterm partners haven’t been recognized by the law.
Although Raval lightly touches on these macro issues through “Before You Know It,” he takes the micro approach in focusing on three men who have each led remarkable lives — Ty, an LGBT activist in Harlem, Robert, the owner of the oldest gay bar in Texas in a dusty corner of Galveston, and Dennis, a newly widowed former racquetball champion who no longer has to keep his cross-dressing tendencies to himself – and sees how life has pulled them in different directions. As Ty appears to be emboldened by wisdom and experience in his community organizing, Dennis looks increasingly lost as he retreats to a retirement home while Robert finds himself embroiled in legal troubles that could spell the end for the place where he’s established a family of regular patrons.
But Raval, who previously brought a grace to the gender reassignment surgery doc “Trinidad,” allows each of the men their dignity in navigating uncertain times and illuminates how their experiences, both from the past and the present, have paved the way towards greater rights and acceptance for the gay community at large. After premiering at the SXSW Film Festival where I spoke to the filmmaker earlier this year, “Before You Know It” makes its debut in Los Angeles this weekend at Outfest and for the occasion, here’s my full chat with Raval about how the film came about, his personal connection to the subject and the importance of not bogging the film down in statistics.
How did you get interested in this subject?
Originally, when I was touring with my last film “Trinidad,” about the sex change capital of the world, I found myself at a reception up at the Hudson Valley LGBT community center. There just happened to be a large population of gay seniors and it was a really powerful experience to just walk into a room and 85 percent of the people there were over the age of 65 who all identified as LGBTQ. So that was a really interesting experience that lingered with me and I really started thinking about why that was such a unique experience. Clearly, they’re in the community, but why aren’t I seeing them or hearing more about them? Or why don’t I find myself in spaces with them, other than a reception like that?
So I started researching it more and I told Sarah, who became the producer of the film, and we discovered all these statistics like LGBT seniors are twice as likely to live alone or five times less likely to access social services. Those statistics are pretty startling — I mean, twice as likely to live alone, that’s a big difference from their heterosexual counterparts. Coincidentally, I was volunteering to teach queer youth filmmaking around the same time and some of these kids were as young as 14 and 15 and I started thinking about how they’re in the same community as some of these 74 year olds that I had just met.
That really inspired it because I started thinking about how their generation is growing up in such a different time period. These seniors that I’m looking at lived through Stonewall – whether or not they were out at the time — and the AIDS crisis. There’s been a lot of big events for the LGBT community within the last 50 years and they’ve seen it, they’ve lived through it, and to think of them imagining a 15-year-old who identifies as queer or gay and can find some kind of support, it must blow their minds. [laughs] So I started thinking these are stories that need to be captured now. I wanted to know what they’re doing now and what do they see as relevant to them now.
How did you meet the three subjects for the film?
The first person I met was Dennis and I actually met him at Rainbow Vista, which is this senior active living facility that he was visiting at the time and thinking about starting to stay there at least part-time. I found Rainbow Vista online just like he did and after speaking to him, I was so intrigued by his story. He just has an amazing presence that I just knew I wanted to start following him as someone who was clearly still discovering themselves.
Then Ty Martin, I met in Harlem and I found him through SAGE, which is Services and Advocacy for GLBT Elders, an organization out of New York. Ty is the outreach manager and what was really funny is originally the intention was for Ty to connect me with different constituents of his community, but within a day of talking with Ty, I thought he is someone born and raised in Harlem who is out on the forefront as an activist and advocate — he clearly is the story here. I loved the idea of the advocate in Harlem pushing gay visibility being over the age of 65.
Then I wanted a third storyline to round out the film because we had both coasts at that point with Portland, Oregon and New York and I wanted something in the middle to show a very different kind of community, not only in location, but also social structure. I had always heard that Galveston was a largely retired community and that it had a really vibrant, for lack of a better word, gay scene. After Hurricane Ike, a lot of young people started moving out, so it became even more visible in terms of a senior population, so I had a hunch there has to be something there. I went down there and anyone I spoke to immediately said, “Oh, you’ve got to meet Robert the Mouth! He owns Robert’s Lafitte!” Within 24 hours, I met him and knew that was the third storyline.
Ty’s storyline is particularly poignant because it reflects the recent surge towards marriage equality as Ty is able to see the state of New York pass it into law. Was that a coincidence or did you have suspicion that might be the case?
At that point, I had already been following Ty, who is the Harlem character, for about a year-and-a-half at that point. So much of his storyline thematically for me [tied into] the title “Before You Know It” — his was “Before You Know It, something happens in your lifetime that you thought you’d never see happen” and you’re suddenly faced with a new situation and how that changes everything. So for him, it was gay marriage and I don’t think he ever saw it coming. Then when it did, I don’t think he saw how it would affect him, so it naturally became part of the storyline. Did I think that would happen by the time we started following him? No. But I knew amazing things were happening to Ty regardless. When I first started filming him, he was the first LGBT presence at Harlem Day in the 35 years of Harlem Day existing. That was a huge historic event, so I knew that everything he was doing was pretty historic in terms of its significance.
What’s interesting to me is that a lot of the statistics are what got you interested in making the film, but you chose not to put many in the film. Was there a reason why?
I wanted everyone to be able to just meet these characters and experience what they’re experiencing, which in terms of aging, feelings of loneliness and indecision, partnership, self-exploration, and all these other things are still going on for everyone. I didn’t want anyone coming into it thinking that it wasn’t applicable to them from the start because of these numbers. Which is why it was important for me to dedicate the film at the end to the estimated 2.4 seniors over the age of 55 in the LGBT community. To be honest, those statistics are just for those who are self-identified and out, right? There’s probably a number of those that are still closeted and if they had the proper support system would include themselves in that number. But that’s largely why. I think statistics tend to become a little bit more abstract and a little bit more removed, so I wanted to immerse the viewer right away. Just meet them and you’ll find out what’s unique and specific. You’ll also find out what’s universal about their experience.
What do you hope people will take away from the film?
I would like people to take away that not only does it take a village to raise a child, but it takes a village to let one age. And as much as the youth generation needs support and they’re in a vulnerable position, so does the senior population. They’re in a vulnerable position and these seniors, in particular, are extreme examples of ageism and all the discrimination you can put upon someone getting older or someone trying to maintain some kind of sexual identity.
It sounds like you really go where your interests take you, but do you feel any responsibility as a filmmaker to show these issues onscreen?
For me, choosing a subject for a documentary is somewhat selfish. It’s something I want to explore as a human being, as a person not only artistically, but emotionally – I want to meditate on a topic for a while. With this subject in particular, I relate to each of the characters in a different way and there is a little bit of a personal take on it because around the time I started this, my parents were getting older and starting to think about their “golden years.” I started getting into conversations with my mother — She’s retired now and I wanted to get at what that means. What happens when you stop doing something that you’re so known for in terms of working? Even just the idea of retirement, people think your life just stops. These people are very much still living.