Ken was 72 years old at the time. Elaine was 79. For LeAnna the change came at 60.
In their previous lives these were people who did what society expected of them. They dated, got married and raised children. But years later, after spouses had died or divorces became final, they did something else.
They came out.
“Out Late” is the title of a new documentary by Sag Harbor’s Jennifer Brooke and Bea Alda — partners in life and in filmmaking. “Out Late” tells the story of five people who come from different backgrounds and experiences, yet have one thing in common — all decided late in life to live openly as gay, lesbian or transgender individuals. On December 6 at 8 p.m., “Out Late” will be shown at the Bay Street Theatre as part of a benefit screening for Long Island gay and lesbian organizations.
Alda and Brooke have produced a number of commercials via their production company, Forever Films, but “Out Late” represents their first foray into the world of feature films. They were inspired to make the documentary after having a conversation with a long time friend who’s mother had gotten divorced when he was a young boy and had remained single ever since. When asked why he thought that was, the friend responded by saying, “I don’t know. She might be gay.”
Though they never found out if that was the case with their friend’s mother, the discussion sparked an idea in the minds of the filmmakers. Were there, in fact, people who had made the decision to come out after living a straight life for decades?
“It happened at time when we were pitching film ideas to a network,” says Alda. “We wondered, what if people in their 60s, 70s and 80s hadn’t come out and then decided to? What would it be like?”
The filmmakers were told that the network had tried to pursue that story before but subjects couldn’t be found. Alda and Brooke were undeterred and began doing their own research. They soon realized there were enough candidates out there to justify a film. When network funding for the project fell through, Brooke and Alda decided to produce the film independently.
“Personally, I fell in love with it,” says Alda.
Making the film on their own gave Alda and Brooke the freedom to do it their way and in their own time frame. They sought out their subjects through a network of internet postings, community groups, word of mouth and even churches and in the end, assembled a group of people who felt liberated expressing their new found sexuality and openly revealed what it was like for them in their former lives.
Elaine, for example, tools around her Florida neighborhood in a spiffy convertible and spends the evenings dancing away at a lesbian disco. She says throughout her marriage, she always knew she liked women. Ken, a Canadian, recalls poring over the pages of the Eaton’s and Simpson’s catalogs and photos of “adorable men in underwear.” His wife, he says, was warned by a friend to keep an eye on him. “I think he likes the boys,” the friend told her.
There’s also Walter, another Canadian, who lived a solitary life before he came out at his church and found his partner through their shared interest in quilting. Meanwhile, Cathy had lived quietly in Kansas with her partner of 25 years, but felt the need to come out publicly in 2005 when their best friends and neighbors put a sign on their lawn supporting that state’s proposed ban on gay marriage.
But of all the characters in the film, undoubtedly the most profound life change was made by LeAnna, a twice married Navy man who transgendered at the age of 60 after years of being beaten because of his “prissy ways.”Â
“From an outsiders point of view, when we met her she was a big and overwhelming physical presence with pockmarks, size and girth and tattoos,” explains Alda. “Yet she feels so beautiful. She’s the person she’s always been meant to be.”
“I wish she had the courage to come out earlier,” says Brooke.
Finding a partner was a strong pull for all of the film’s subjects and for the most part, they succeed (including LeAnna who is now living with a transgender woman). But as many single people know, it’s hard enough to meet people at age 30 or 40. Imagine the difficulties for someone who enters the scene late. Because Elaine is unwilling to lie about her age, the pool of available women is very small. After four years, Alda and Brooke say she is still looking for a partner. Brooke notes that despite her age, Elaine makes some of the mistakes typical of someone who is just starting to date.
“In the film, there’s a woman who Elaine had a crush on,” explains Brooke. “For a first date, she sends a dozen roses. She comes on very strong and makes those adolescent errors. It’s so painful.”
Perhaps the film’s most intriguing dynamic is between Cathy and her partner, Michelle, and their conservative Catholic neighbors. Despite the fact that Cathy and Michelle are their best friends and godparents to their children, the neighbors have never openly acknowledged them as a lesbian couple. Theirs is a quiet acceptance and one that Cathy could no longer tolerate once the sign supporting a ban on gay marriage appeared on their lawn.
“This tension and the friendship still exists,” explains Alda. “Cathy doesn’t want to get in their face about it, but she’s putting a face forward as someone who is gay and makes the neighbor wrestle with that.”
When Cathy and Michelle travel to Canada to get married, the neighbor comes along and even stands with them during the ceremony.
“She doesn’t know what to make of it,” says Alda.
Â “The neighbors are the most talked about and questioned in Q&As after the film,” says Brooke. “They’re not bad people. They have conflict. People are really struggling. They say I love them, but don’t want to accept them.”
With their film, Alda and Brooke dispel the notion that the gay and lesbian community should settle for subtle acceptance and quiet tolerance from friends, neighbors and relatives. “Our film has that message,” says Jennifer. “Don’t settle for tolerance or acceptance — insist on celebration. It’s hard for gay people to do that.”
Of all their subjects, perhaps Elaine does that best. Her decision to come out late in life came about largely because of “The L Word,” a television show about lesbians.
“She needed to know there were enough people in the universe leading normal happy lives for her to feel comfortable coming out,” says Jennifer. “The fact it was on the Showtime network told her we’ve arrived. I have nothing to lose.”
“Because of Elaine’s spirit, she does make people celebrate her,” adds Bea. “She’s now almost 82 she’s not going to give up.Â She’s a ball of fire. It’s about her whole being and celebrating who she is.”
The benefit screening of “Out Late” will be held at the Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor on Saturday, December 6, 2008 from 8 to 11 p.m. The screening will be moderated by WLIU’s Bonnie Grice with a party to follow. Tickets are $45 and proceeds benefit SAGE-LI (Services and Advocacy for GLBT Elders – Long Island) and LIGALY (Long Island Gay and Lesbian Youth). To reserve, call the Bay Street Theatre box office at 725-9500.
Above: Elaine, out at 79, in her convertible