“Before You Know It,” a new film about elderly gay men by PJ Raval, begins with shockers. Dennis, a retiree in Florida, reveals that he likes to crossdress, then shows the audience his alt.com profile, and goes on to talk about being suicidal. Robert, who owns a drag bar in Texas, talks about arguments he had as a kid, recounting the times he told a bully at church to take his morals “and shove them up your motherfucking ass.” And that is how Raval gets his audience’s attention.
But how he sustains that attention is a different story. It’s true -- but something of a cliché -- that elderly gay people have the same needs as the rest of humanity, and anybody who watches the news is perfectly aware that even old people are capable of things like sex, profanity, and love.
I already know that there are old gay people. I already know that the things many old gay people have gone through -- being disowned by family, the death of friends in the AIDS crisis, living under laws that do not allow them to marry their partners of decades -- are sad. I already know, or at least I thought I already knew, and when I started watching “Before You Know It,” I was prepared to be bored. Anyhow, as a young (and possibly selfish) cisgendered woman, I’m not immediately affected by the plight of elderly gay men and transwomen.
And yet, knowing that there are tragedies, that there are needs, in the lives of the elderly, and having read human interest stories about old men like the ones in the movie until I was genuinely tired, did not prepare me to watch the film.
Raval has an edge on every news article ever written about elderly gay people. With the long relationships he’s developed with the subjects and the camera he can use to capture every shifting emotion as it plays across their faces, he brings home, with maximum emotional impact, messages that I had thought were stale. Raval depicts situations I sympathized with (but was frankly tired of hearing about) so well that his film nearly made me cry, that I have every intention of showing it to my daughter the second she’s old enough to understand, and that I recommended it to my family.
It’s one thing to read three paragraphs about some newlyweds each time a new state legalizes gay marriage, but it’s another thing entirely to watch a recording of Ty, a partnered gay senior dwelling in Harlem, as he explains outloud for the first time that his boyfriend won’t marry him just because it’s legal, just because they have been together for decades. It’s one thing to read about people who don’t come out until late in life, but it’s another thing entirely to watch Dennis identify as a transwoman in public for the first time ever (a younger transwoman congratulates him: “You look like a grandma!”). And it’s one thing to see Robert surrounded by smiling transwomen and drag queens, projecting his image of the happy-go-lucky club owner, but another to look through his photo albums and see the pictures of his boyfriend, who died of a stroke in his sixties without ever becoming Robert’s husband.
So maybe I wasn’t actually bored from hearing about elderly LGBT people, like I had thought. Maybe I was fatigued by the surface-level, uninteresting coverage offered by the formulaic articles I had read -- by human interest stories meant to leave liberals feeling vaguely heartwarmed, but not challenged.
This is Raval’s accomplishment: he is capable of forcing me to reevaluate, and he is capable of getting a rise out of people who may not care as much as they should. In my opinion, his is the most important movie any human of any orientation or gender identity could ever watch on this topic. He made tears from my boredom, and he brings forth empathy from apathy.