Scroll To Top

Moment of

Moment of


You may remember coming out, but how much do you think about the moment you realized you were gay? A new HBO documentary lets real people tell their stories of when they knew.

Even though he spent nearly two years adapting it from Robert Trachtenberg's book, Randy Barbato still can't quite believe he's made the heartwarming documentary When I Knew, airing on Cinemax June 25. "I have to tell you, it's a weird thing, because it is a very warm and fuzzy film for us to make," admits the director, who's produced scandalous films like Party Monster and Inside Deep Throat with his World of Wonder partner, Fenton Bailey (who also directed). "This, in our body of directorial work, is much more personal."

So personal, in fact, that Barbato and Bailey did something they'd never done before: appear in their own documentary. As in the book, dozens of gays and lesbians recount the moment they first became aware of their homosexuality, and the directing duo are the first raconteurs to appear in front of the camera. "We've never put ourselves in a film -- we'd never even considered it," laughs Barbato. Nearby, Bailey shakes his head and moans. "It's so much easier to be behind the camera," he says.

Their stories, like many in the film, are emotional recollections of a period that predates coming out but packs perhaps even more emotional wallop. As gay viewers watch participant Bobby Johns talk about the "funny feeling" he got from watching The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams or listen to Kate Getty sing the Goo Goo Dolls song that crystallized the teenage crush she had on her best friend, they'll surely recall some of their own "when I knew" moments -- as well as the conflicted feelings that ensued.

"What's powerful about these 'when I knew' stories is that a young person not only might be coming to a realization that they're different but also knows that they have to hide that difference," says John Hoffman, vice president of HBO Documentary Films. (HBO and Cinemax are part of the same corporate family.) "That's a very powerful and somewhat sad thing. That very moment sets some people down the road to a life of emotional struggle and gives other people enormous strength in the ability to internalize and manage that conundrum."

Barbato agrees, suggesting that even people who've successfully navigated that transition may still be grappling with issues from their "when I knew" period. "So much of contemporary gay and lesbian culture is about assimilating--being 'straight-acting'--and I think there are a lot of people who've hidden a lot of themselves from that moment on," he says.

Though the book collected its stories from boldface gay names, Barbato and Bailey took a different approach, recruiting real people from Austin, Philadelphia, and Madison, Wis. "I think that the problem with using famous people is that, by definition, they aren't really in the business of revealing exactly who they are," says Bailey, who's produced "celebreality" shows starring Tori Spelling and Perez Hilton with Barbato. "There's no such thing as a celebrity who's just like you and me. By the time you've become famous, the real truth is not a place you can really go to and share."

As chronicled in the film, that "real truth" is sometimes funny but more often poignant and nakedly emotional -- a marked change in tone from Trachtenberg's book. "My intention was very deliberate when I did the book: that it be funny and light," says the author. "I thought it would actually be more effective that way. I wanted it to be the sort of book that could sit on your coffee table and a member of your family could pick it up and laugh."

Still, Trachtenberg says he is happy with the changes made for the adaptation. "What's so great about Randy and Fenton's film is that it serves as such a nice companion piece," he says. "They take it to the next logical place, where it does get a little more intense than the book did."

Even after the film airs (and it will become available on DVD through the day after its TV premiere), stories will continue to be collected via the website Already packed with testimonials collected from the movie's tour of gay film festivals, the site allows viewers to upload "when I knew" anecdotes they record on their own. "Archiving these stories is kind of important because it does give you a sense of history regarding our people," says Barbato. He pauses, becoming reflective.

"I'm going to be really queer about it, but it's empowering," he says. "It's great to hear other people's stories, because when you remember that moment, you then remember the things after that you might even have forgotten, that were impacted by that moment. I really think it can help people better understand themselves." He laughs. "It's like a little bit of therapy for free."

Advocate Channel - The Pride StoreOut / Advocate Magazine - Fellow Travelers & Jamie Lee Curtis

From our Sponsors

Most Popular

Latest Stories

Kyle Buchanan