Dee fixes her hair in the mirror before bending down to zip up pink knee-high boots over fishnet stockings. “Tonight’s the big event,” she says, before sashaying to the salon for a makeover. Heads turn as Dee, 80, struts through the casino level on the cruise ship, the chimes of slot machines and quarters ringing in the air.
Dee, who identifies as Dennis when dressed in men’s clothes, is one of the heroes of Before You Know It, a documentary on LGBT seniors that has been touring film festivals, including Outfest, throughout the past year. Directed by filmmaker PJ Raval (Trinidad), the film tells the story of aging in a modern world, as seen through the eyes of three gay men from different backgrounds and regions of the United States.
Not every moment in the film is joyous. LGBT seniors are a particularly vulnerable group, facing higher rates of poverty and depression than their straight peers. More than half of elders report depression, and 39% have considered suicide, according to a 2011 federally funded nationwide study. These grim statistics stem from issues related to a lifetime of discrimination, manifested in isolation from family and friends, unemployment, and maltreatment and prejudice at assisted living facilities.
While these sobering truths are touched upon in Before You Know It's three stories — dealing with Dennis, a Navy veteran and widower estranged from his family; Ty, a New Yorker seeking to marry his longtime partner; and Robert, a gay bar owner in Texas struggling to keep his business afloat — the film is a far cry from a tale of woe. Rather, Raval has crafted a film that, true to its title and subjects, frankly acknowledges the inevitability of growing old, while encouraging viewers to do the same. In the process, he dispels many of the negative stereotypes associated with aging and the elderly.
“I love the idea that life doesn’t become stale,” Raval says. “That you’re constantly figuring out who you are and changing and evolving and adapting. And Dennis, when I met him, that’s what immediately intrigued me about him.”
Through Dennis, the viewer encounters a character who is indeed evolving as he navigates the world of online dating, embarks on a gay cruise, and tours a retirement facility — Rainbow Vista in Portland, Ore. — that is specifically tailored for LGBT seniors. His experiences mirror the behavior of anyone taking the first steps in understanding his identity and place within a larger community — including the search for love.
For Raval, it was important to show that seniors remain sexually active, which, according to the director, surprised many audience members.
“I think that society, in general, desexualizes seniors,” Raval notes. “And when you’re saying that you’re a gay senior, when you’re saying you’re gay, you’re saying you’re a part of the LGBT community. You’re defining yourself as part of your sexual identity. So the two terms are almost at odds with each other.”
Since the documentary’s debut, Dennis has attended screenings. Occasionally, he will arrive at the events dressed as Dee, “and the crowds go wild,” says Raval.
“And I think that in itself is a narrative. He’s been going to these screenings and being public, and now he’s not afraid to, you know, stand in front of this crowd and answer questions as Dee. It shows that everyone has their own timeline.”
Dennis agrees. He tells The Advocate that one of the greatest advantages of growing older is the ability to finally become comfortable in one’s own skin.
“The most rewarding aspect of being old is that you no longer have to posture and try to impress others,” he says. “You can be yourself.”
While the promise of romance is on display in Before You Know It, so is long-term love. Ty Martin, another central figure in the documentary, first met his partner 40 years ago, and his desire to be married is a driving force behind his political advocacy.
Martin, 65, currently serves as Harlem community liaison for Services and Advocacy for GLBT Elders, a national organization dedicated to improving the lives of gay seniors. The documentary follows Martin as he engages in his work with SAGE, which includes representing the first LGBT organization at Harlem Week, a major celebration of the historically black neighborhood’s history and culture. Passionate and articulate, Martin paints a fresh portrait of life as a senior.
“You’re supposed to sit in some rocking chair and wait,” says Martin, pointing to ageism as one of the major obstacles faced by LGBT elders, in addition to social alienation. “I know a lot of seniors are concerned about health-related issues … [But] I don’t think anybody wants to be by themselves. At the end of the day, I think everybody wants someone to be able to communicate with.”
Martin’s desire to wed is linked to both emotional and practical anxieties shared by many older people regarding health care, taxes, inheritance, a sense of standing and recognition within their communities. Not coincidentally, these are the very issues addressed by lesbian Edith Windsor, whose lawsuit, United States v. Windsor, succeeded in overturning a key section the so-called Defense of Marriage Act. With money and medical expenses in mind, the legal benefits afforded by marriage become increasingly more important as one ages.
“As a senior, there are many things that can happen,” Martin says. “[Marriage] cuts through a lot of red tape.”
Eventually, Martin witnesses and takes part in the celebrations of the passage of the 2011 Marriage Equality Act in New York, captured in the documentary. But despite this political progress, his partner remains reluctant to tie the knot. In Before You Know It, Martin addresses how movements like the push for marriage equality would have been inconceivable to older generations. He says that only a few decades ago, imagining gay marriage would have been as likely as imagining an iPod.
“And for me, on a personal note, it made me think, well, what’s my iPod?” says director Raval, 39. “What is it that I can’t even comprehend now that might happen in the future?”
For the film’s subjects, questions about the future are tied in with their legacy. This is especially true for Before’s third subject, Robert Mainor of Galveston, Texas. As the owner of the town’s gay bar, Robert’s Lafitte, Mainor is a notable public figure in his community. As Raval notes, “If you show up in Galveston and you mention anything about a gay bar or gay seniors, they’re going to send you right to Robert’s Lafitte.”
Financial problems, aggravated by the destruction caused by hurricanes and Galveston's fading popularity as a destination for Houston’s elite, force Mainor, the son of a Southern Baptist preacher, to wrestle with the possibility of losing his bar, advertised as the longest-operating gay bar in Texas. The establishment, like the LGBT retirement home and SAGE, represents a safe haven, which Mainor created. Throughout the documentary, gay employees, customers, and Mainor’s nephew recount how they escaped intolerant environments to find shelter at Lafitte’s, lamenting that its closing might mean the end of a supportive community.
“Before you know it,” Mainor repeats throughout the documentary, and each time the meaning of the phrase expands.
For Raval, struggles with preservation and perseverance such as these raise questions that strike at the heart of what it means to be human. “What is the inevitable?” Raval asks. “And how do you preserve and make sure that all the great ideas that you’ve started can continue without you?”
“Aging does not discriminate,” he continues. “We are all getting older. And there is a shift that happens. The power of youth starts to fade and it becomes something else. I wanted to look at these three individuals because, even though they are aging, they are still living life to the fullest. They’re still discovering themselves, and they’re still wrestling with ideas of love and loss, and acceptance and self-acceptance, and the search for community and the importance of community. And I think those ideas are universal.”
“These individuals need our support,” Raval concludes. “And it’s in our best interest, because we’re all going to be there someday.”
Before You Know It has scheduled screenings throughout September and October — including an anticipated screening in Russia. See the full schedule here.