Or is it?
by Donalevan Maines
Even people who aren’t gay will tell you that old age isn’t for sissies. PJ Raval’s documentary feature Before You Know It looks at how equipped LGBT seniors are to thrive in a youth-obsessed culture. These are people who weathered persecution and pain while paving the way for today’s freedoms.
Robert Mainor of Galveston says that “sissy” is what people called gay boys when he was growing up in Houston. Now in his 70s, Mainor is one of three trailblazers featured in Before You Know It, a tribute to the estimated 2.4 million LGBT Americans over the age of 55. The movie shines a light on LGBT seniors and their struggle with discrimination, neglect, and exclusion from their own community.
Mainor is the owner of Robert’s Lafitte, the Galveston bar he calls “the oldest gay bar in the state of Texas, with the longest-running drag show, ever.”
Raval, an out Austin filmmaker, discovered the title for the film when Mainor said, “You never think about getting older when you’re younger. Before you know it, it creeps up on you and you’re there already.”
Last October, Raval attended a screening of Before You Know It at The Brandon in Houston to benefit a Kickstarter campaign that raised $50,000 in 30 days. “The amount is what I need to host a community screening series and theatrical tour for the film,” says Raval. “I would love to bring the film back to Houston.”
October’s event opened to a packed house, with attendees from the LGBT and arts community as well as budding young independent filmmakers wanting to meet Raval, who walked the red carpet at the 2009 Academy Awards when Milk won two Oscars—Best Actor for Sean Penn as gay rights activist and San Francisco politician Harvey Milk, and Best Original Screenplay for Dustin Lance Black. Raval won that trip to the Oscars as cinematographer for Trouble the Water, which was nominated for Best Documentary Feature, about two Hurricane Katrina survivors.
Raval, who is in his mid-30s, grew up in Clovis, California. “It was a really small town in the central valley, an area nobody really thinks of when they think about California,” he says. “It definitely had its challenges, being Asian-American and also gay, but there was something nice about it. You make these friends, you know, because you feel like no one understands you, so that bands people together.”
When Raval, who completed his Master of Fine Arts degree from the film school at the University of Texas in 2003, got the idea of making a documentary about LGBT seniors, he knew he wanted a geographic cross-section of people. “If you say gay anything, you think San Francisco or Miami—some mainstream gay culture,” he explains.
Raval began by filming “Dennis,” a man in his 70s who’s living a closeted life in rural Niceville, Florida. Still grieving the death of his beloved wife, Dennis also hides his passion for dressing in women’s clothes. “I started out buying [ladies’] underwear,” he says.
One day, while surfing the Internet, Dennis decides to travel to Portland, Oregon, and check out an LGBT retirement community. There, he will reveal himself as “Dee” to a blind date.
In Harlem, Raval met with Ty Martin, an outreach manager for Services & Advocacy for GLBT Elders (SAGE), “who supposedly was going to introduce me to a potential subject.” However, Raval was so taken by Martin and his romance with an older man that Martin became the second subject of Before You Know It.
Next, Raval turned to Galveston. “I’d never been there,” he says. “I had just driven close to it.
“If you show up in Galveston,” says Raval, “within a few hours, somebody will send you to Robert’s Lafitte.”
In Mainor, Raval found a born storyteller who had lived through the gay civil rights movement.
Raval says he relied on “a lot of luck and a lot of intuition” to find the film’s three subjects.
In addition to inspiring the film’s title, Mainor provides it with a coda when he says, “Always think positive. Enjoy every day because after it’s over, you can’t relive it.”
For more information about Before You Know It, including how to host a screening, visit beforeyouknowitfilm.com.
Donalevan Maines also writes about the play By the Way, Meet Vera Stark in this issue of OutSmart magazine.