‘Before You Know It’: To Be Gay, Over 55 and Very Much Alive

Often outside a traditional family structure, a senior generation of gay men and women is creating its own support system, and starring in a new documentary.

men and women march in a parade with a banner for SAGE

Although the current generation of gay seniors still faces inequality when it comes to healthcare, organizations such as SAGE in New York are leading the way to providing services. (Photo: Mike Simpson/Untitled Films)

Stephen Saito writes about movies for the L.A. Times, IFC.com and his own site, The Moveable Fest.

At the end of Before You Know It, a documentary that premiered this week at the SXSW Film Festival in Austin, Texas, a title card dedicates the film to the estimated 2.4 million gay, lesbian, straight and transgendered seniors over the age of 55, a number that its director suspects isn’t accurate.

“To be honest, those statistics are just for those who are self-identified and out, right?” director PJ Raval tells TakePart. “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.”

Raval uncovered a raft of disturbing statistics while working on Before You Know It, which follows three gay seniors in different parts of the U.S. as they respond in different ways to growing old after being part of a generation that bore a brunt of intolerance and hatred so future generations would have less homophobia to endure.

“The seniors that I’m looking at, the generation that they’ve grown up in, they’ve seen so much change in such a short amount of time, I started thinking these are stories that need to be captured now, and it’s not even so much about the past; it’s about the present.”

Raval discovered that LGBT seniors, with families that have disowned them in many cases and marginalized by society at large, are half as likely to have health insurance coverage and five times less likely to access social services than seniors who are straight.

The film’s subjects put a human face to those numbers, showing a spectrum of experience in their stories. Dennis, a one-time racquetball champion, lives a quiet life at the LGBT retirement community of Rainbow Vista in Portland, Oregon. Robert is the vivacious owner of the oldest gay bar in Texas (located in Galveston). Ty is an outreach director for SAGE, a New York-based organization that provides services and advocates for LGBT senior citizens. 

“The seniors that I’m looking at, the generation that they’ve grown up in, they’ve seen so much change in such a short amount of time,” says Raval, who was inspired to make the film by visiting a gay community center full of seniors and teaching a queer youth filmmaking class. The director realized that both age groups could inform one another. “I started thinking these are stories that need to be captured now, and it’s not even so much about the past; it’s about the present.”

To that end, Raval hopes that equal support is given to the senior LGBT population as is available for youth who are just now discovering their sexual identity.

“Aging doesn’t discriminate,” Raval says. “And it really is up to us as a community to make sure that we are supporting these senior communities. As Robert in my documentary states, ‘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.’ ”

He pauses and smiles.

“Even the process of making this documentary, I’m four years older.”

What is your favorite LGBT documentary ever? Tell which one and why in COMMENTS.

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