Before You Know It, Change Happens

At SXSW, a festival geared toward the young, beautiful, and hip, I’m guessing few expected to be bowled over by a documentary film about aging and aged gay men. But Before You Know It, which made its debut this week, does indeed leave you wowed—and unexpectedly hopeful about the plight of gay seniors. The problems of aging are scary for any population, but for a generation of gay people, the situation is particularly difficult: many lost their connection to family when they came out and don't have partners to turn to for help as their needs increase. 

Following three gay men—one in his 60s, the other two in their 70s—director P.J. Raval sets out to chronicle what it is to be wrinkled and slow in a young, fast culture. Almost immediately, however, the movie documents the importance of creating a chosen-family—and just how difficult finding community can be for those who start looking late in life.

In Galveston, Texas, Robert has built Robert’s LaFitte, a gay bar famous across the region and home to the longest running drag show in Texas. Robert himself once was famous for his own drag act. It’s served as home for many who've fled their own families or found themselves without support. Robert is a father figure to the drag performers, who work the bar in addition to getting on stage. Throught the movie, we watch Robert and LaFitte’s host everything from memorial services to Thanksgiving dinners for the men of the community. In New York, Ty, a 60-something in Harlem who works for SAGE (Services and Advocacy for GLBT Elders) has a tight-knit group of friends, including best friend Ose, who get together regularly. He gets giddy talking about his boyfriend of several years, Stanton, and insists on getting a SAGE booth during Harlem Day to raise awareness of LGBT issues in his neighborhood.

While Ty and Robert draw support from the close-knit circles they’ve helped to create, we also get to know Dennis, who has almost no one to lean on at the beginning of the film. Unlike Ty and Robert, Dennis spent most of his life closeted, until his wife died and he began experimenting with wearing women’s clothes. At the beginning of the film, he will not leave the house in drag, but even as he gains confidence, he faces a number of hurdles. He looks for sex on the Internet and at one point goes on a gay cruise, where he finds himself more alone than ever as he tries to flirt, or simply befriend, passengers on board. Among young and middle-aged folks, Dennis sticks out. When he arrives at the drag show as Dee, people stare, some take photographs. As the emcee teases some drag queens who are much younger than Dennis for their age, we watch him leave and down the halls alone.

While Ty and Robert have forged their own communities, Dennis is rarely sure how to proceed. Yet Dennis’s bravery is stunning in its own way. He speaks with rare frankness about how hard it is looking for sex. “I take what I can get,” he says at one point, waiting for a date. The camera stays on him as he changes into women’s clothes. It’s hard not to think that showing an elderly body, unapologetic and half naked, is in many ways more daring than displaying oneself in drag. As Dennis comes to terms with his own sexual and gender identity, he finally finds his own community, a retirement home for gay seniors. It's hard not to cheer.

While each man’s story is compelling, the film is a bit long and a various points seems to lack focus—without obvious story arcs to follow, the film sometimes works hard to impose structure. But the three main characters are each so compelling that you can’t help but be absorbed. But while the film doesn't try to make its characters stereotypes—or stand-ins for the large and diverse community out there, the lack of female-bodied people is notable.

The film serves as a particular tribute to a generation of gay men who grew up in post-World War II America, when the traditional nuclear family was at its height—and who then, as the sexual revolution reached its peak, were confronted with HIV/AIDS. At one point, Ty holds up a picture of his group 30 years prior. He points to each one who’s since died. Robert’s nephew, who’s also gay, describes his family’s horrified response to his uncle’s sexuality, while others at the bar talk about having had no one except their friends at LaFitte's. The stories, just a few decades old, lend a new profundity to the current moment for gay rights. We see Ty celebrate marriage equality in New York. Dennis participates in his first Pride parade, dressed as Dee. Robert feels too ill to join in the Mardis Gras celebrations his performers put on. But from his porch, he can see them in the parade—a notable move forward that he helped to create.

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