Gay Seniors Shine In 'Before You Know It'
By Andrew Belonsky
Film director PJ Raval, previously featured in the 2010 Out100 for his film Trinidad, has spent the past few years working on his latest endeavor, Before You Know It, just one of the SXSW-featured projects he's tied to. The other two are the seventh music video for the queer performance artist Christeene and Bounceback, Bryan Poyser's tale of two straight men trying to get their groove back, for which Raval acted as director of photography.
But it's Before You Know It, a documentary that shines a light on a woefully misunderstood and ignored group, gay seniors, is the real meat of his most recent resume.
Here, Raval talks to us about the film's origins, "othering" old folks and how Stonewall altered Harlem.
Out: You're doing a lot during SXSW, but your biggest project is Before You Know It, a documentary about gay seniors in Galveston, Texas, Harlem, New York and Portland, Oregon.
PJ: Portland, yeah, which also kind of includes Florida.
This project actually when you were in Kingston, New York, talking at a community center about Trinidad, and you got to interact with all of these gay seniors, a population you hadn't really been aware of...
PJ: Yeah, that was first time I actually saw a very visible LGBT senior community and when it first dawned on me that I had never seen or heard anything about a senior community. But the film's also inspired by my mother. She and I started having conversations about her retiring and aging and what's going to happen there, so that experience of meeting a lot of gay seniors and then thinking about it in terms of my own personal life eventually became this film. And I love choosing topics that I get a chance to really explore from a personal point-of-view, from personal experience. It's a way for me to think things through and this was a great way to do it.
What I love about the genesis story of this project is that you were in a place that was unfamiliar. In gay communities, there's a lot of self-segregating — you've got the bears over here, the lipstick lesbians over here, the twinks, whatever — and that really does all of us a disservice, because you're not going to get these stories.
Absolutely. And, you know, society in general marginalizes the senior community. The general community is very youth obsessed, but I think even more so in the gay community.
A lot of the images you do see very much of are of youth. There has been a lot of support in terms of making sure LGBT youth have some kind of structure in place, and rightfully so, but there also needs to be a structure in place for the aging community. Both ends of the spectrum are vulnerable.
You refer to the term "gay senior" as redundant or as an oxymoron because to be gay, your sex acts or sexual proclivities are an essential part of your identity, but we also desexualize seniors. But in addition to desexualizing seniors, we also see this other othering, the use of seniors as punchlines. They're used in the same way as children and animals are, for punchlines, like the famous rapping granny in The Wedding Singer.
Yeah, I absolutely agree, and I think the thing behind that is also that — one of the people in the film says, "People don't want to look at us because they don't want to think about getting older themselves. It's a lot easier for them to just not think about it or ignore them or turn them into something else that's more disconnected from their own personal life." And I think that's true: I think a lot of people don't think about aging and they don't want to think about what's going to happen 20-years from now, 40-years from now. It's unfortunate, because there is patronizing that goes on with the senior communities but these people are still very active, interesting, intelligent, motivated people, just like anyone else.
They are vulnerable because they may not be as physically capable, but at the same time, they're not children. And they're definitely not juvenile and they're not inexperienced and naive, but people treat them that way. They start mistaking physical challenges with childhood. But these are adults! Another interesting thing: one of my characters comes out during me filming him. I love that even though he's 80, he's still exploring and trying to figure out who he is and that I think is something really great. And that's a misconception; most people think at some point in your life, everything kind of stops, and I love the idea that for these these seniors, it's still going. They're very active and searching and figuring things out, just like anyone else.
When I've spoken to gay seniors, they've mentioned how they prefer pre-Stonewall life, when people didn't ask questions and their sex lives weren't meant to be revolutionary or political in any way. Did you get a sense of any pre-Stonewall nostalgia or were all of the subjects all really gung-ho about the civil rights leaps that they've witnessed?
Well, if there's any images of gay seniors, it's usually in the context of some documentary of someone who was an advocate or an activist or someone who was very active in terms of Stonewall, but the people that I'm choosing to follow are kind of on the outskirts of that. When Stonewall was happening, most of the people that I met were already married and had children or were just married with a partner because they were just trying to suppress it and try to live the "normal" life and try to pass that way. Even though one of my characters is in New York, he lives in Harlem, which is a very different scene. But one of the things found interesting about Harlem is that a lot of people said Harlem at the time was a very, very gay-friendly, gay queer environment, tied in with the Jazz Scene and the arts scene, but when Stonewall happened, and the birth of the gay village, everyone moved out of Harlem. The gay culture just left — and it left a hole.
For more on Before You Know It, check out the film's official SXSW page.