Watching the couples in line for licenses in Beverly Hills on the first day of gay marriage in California, I was struck by how the scene was so commonplace, even boring — just a bunch of men and women waiting their turn at a nondescript government office.
— Bill Boyarsky, “Notes on a California Sea Change” (23 June 2008)
When Kate Geddy first knew she was lesbian, she was 17 and watching The Lost Boys with her best friend. At one moment, they moved the pillows on the bed and were almost within reach of one another. “We were that close to kissing,” she remembers, “It was so forbidden.” Driving home, she heard the Goo-Goo Dolls’ song, “Iris,” and “It triggered something in me.” She had to pull the car over to weep, as she heard the lyrics, so doleful and so suddenly pertinent: “I don’t want the world to see me, ‘Cause I don’t think that they’d understand.”
Geddy’s realization is one of 16 recounted in When I Knew, a short documentary by Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato (whose previous films include The Eyes of Tammy Faye and Inside Deep Throat). The speakers all answer one question — When did you know you were gay? — a structure based on the book of the same name by Robert Trachtenburg. Each story is specific, even as they all indicate the shifting ground of what it means to be gay and then out in the United States. As repeated themes come up (horrified parents, completely supportive parents, fears of feeling different, whole-hearted embraces of feeling different), the film also grants speakers the chance to relive and celebrate the moment when things became suddenly (or not so suddenly) clear.
Many of these realizations are occasioned by crushes — on best friends, neighbors, and teachers, not to mention Barbie and a certain hairy TV star (“I was five years old I had a very funny feeling when I would watch Grizzly Adams“). Other speakers become conscious of their difference when their straight lives become impossible to maintain — and too often these memories are illustrated by distractingly blurry reenactments. A university admissions counselor remembers crying after first having sex with his college girlfriend. It impressed her as sensitive but made him painfully aware that “I was taking my lying and my deceit to the next level, [that] my desires and my feelings weren’t going to go away, I was meant to have them.” A cabinet maker came to her self-understanding much earlier: she shows off a photo of her three-year-old self mouth-kissing her doll “Twinkles.” She smiles, “I’m pretty much saying, ‘Give it up!'”
The filmmakers make clear from the start the structure they are imposing, with regard to formal concerns (“I think you should go in kind of tight, head and shoulders, and let’s just check the focus”) and directions to participants (“I think people should look right into the lens of the camera”). By way of demonstration, both Barbato and Bailey tell their own stories. Bailey recalls his father describing homosexuality as a “terrible weakness.” He sighs, “It’s that moment when you realize the world around you isn’t really designed for you.” Barbato says the moment of knowing is also “when you learn how to hide, learn how to keep a secret, learn how to sort of fade into the background, learn how to watch.”
The film is less focused on the hiding, more on the giddy joy of discovering an identity or feeling first love. John Kinnally remembers, at 10 or 11, being “obsessed with the man on the Doan’s Pills box.” Young John didn’t worry too much about the model’s seeming “agony,” instead observing his “muscley back” and imagining “the parts you couldn’t see, that was sexy to me, the parts I had to fill in.” Another man knew in the eighth grade, he says, when he found himself aroused by a TV documentary on African pygmies. As he describes the thrill he felt seeing their “little penises,” the film provides a clip from some similar documentary that’s less comic than stereotypical, a reminder of just how hard it is to make personal use of pervasive prejudices.
Indeed, for all its focus on happy-happy memories, the film acknowledges as well the persistence of prejudice against homosexuality. As Barbato notes, distinctions between “knowing” and coming out remain in place; more specifically, people remain closeted for all kinds of personal and professional reasons. “Maybe one day,” he says, “when I knew and coming out will be the same thing,” as on that day, there will be no need to decide whether it is safe or smart to do so, it will just be a fact of life, without repercussions or costs, like being straight.
Not all the stories have to do with coming out, but some do, and these tend to be entertaining. Steven Orr recalls his father’s reaction to his declaration, at age seven in Abilene, Texas, that he’d rather pick flowers than play football (which he describes as “like another language that I don’t understand”). “Without missing a beat, Orr smiles, his father said okay, and took to a nearby field to pick flowers. One of the numerous unnamed narrators recalls her mother’s response when she came out to her: “Cynthia, I already know and I really want to watch this TV show.” It’s not exactly nurturing or breathtaking, but it is the sort of indifference that some day, will be typical.