Gen Silent: Stu Maddux and the ’Greatest Gay Generation’

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Friday February 19, 2010

Director Stu Maddux has made some compelling documentaries: Bob and Jack's 52-Year Adventure profiles a long-term male couple, giving the lie--as do so many life-long commitments--to the myth of gay "promiscuity." On the flip side, Maddux has also made Trip to Hell and Back, a film about a horse rider who also deals crystal meth--an examination of how a friendly public profile can hide a complex, and much more ambiguous, personal story.

But for power, relevance, and sheer heartbreak, Maddux's film in progress, Gen Silent, may excel anything he's done before. The filmmaker spent a year in Boston following the lives and travails of a group of GLBT elders as they came head-to-head with a medical system that is unprepared at best--and overtly hostile at worst--when it comes to meeting their needs.

Maddux was on hand at a Feb. 18 reception at the New England Foundation for the Arts to talk about his film, which he's still editing and which is set to premiere in May at the Boston LGBT Film Festival. The event was filled to capacity with people of all ages; a cross-section of generations, professions, genders, and persuasions filled the spacious room, which boasted a view of the Boston Common. A buffet of Chinese snacks-egg rolls, mini-cartons of lo mein noodles and vegetables-lined one wall; a row of chairs lined the opposite wall. Wine was available, both red and white.

A screen and projector commanded the room's center, however, leaving no doubt that the focus of the evening was the film; meantime, the filmmaker moved through the space, chatting with attendees. A staffer from the office of openly gay Massachusetts State Rep. Liz Malia was there, as were several of the individuals featured in the film, and the staff of the LGBT Aging Project, an organization dedicated to the safety and dignity of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender elders.

The financial controller for the New England Foundation for the Arts, Joanne Herman, took the mike to greet those in attendance. Herman, a transwoman, is the author of the book Transgender Explained; at one point, she offered signed copies to donors willing to pledge $500 on the spot. The film, like many independent documentaries, needs financial backing, not only to be made, but to be marketed and distributed. The goal, of course, is to get the film before audiences: to that end, Maddux would like to see it picked up by a TV network. He explained to the audience that getting the movie shown on TV-and whether it might be HBO or LOGO that puts it on the air-comes down to dollars that will support the project as Maddux works to get his film into as many film festivals as he can.

"This is a good film," Maddux told the audience-not with smugness or pride, but with the earnest conviction of someone with a larger message. "Someone else could make a film on the same subject that isn't as good-but that has more money behind it." In which case, Maddux seemed to be saying, that lesser film would then be the one more likely to inform the public and influence decision makers.

One member of the audience called out a question to Maddux. "What can we do to help you tonight?" she asks.

Maddux chuckled. "You know the answer to that," he responded. "Cash."

Maddux clearly has a passion for the project, and it's easy to see where that passion comes from. Imagine having been in the vanguard of GLBT rights in America--what Maddux calls "our greatest generation" for the gay community. Imagine experiencing what they did: the fear, the courage, the victories, the setbacks, the culturally ingrained prejudice and animosity and then, gradually, the progress toward visibility, tolerance--and even acceptance. "You wouldn't be here if it wasn't for us," an elder woman, one half of a lifelong female couple, declares in the film. And she's right: without the sacrifices, the bravery, and the determination that the previous generation invested into declaring and defending their very humanity, gays would still be living fearful, furtive lives.

But the heartbreaking thing is that those same brave souls, faced now with nursing homes where the fellow residents--and even the staff-- can be hateful, shunning, and downright abusive, are withdrawing once more into the closet. The film reveals how gay elders are harassed and marginalized, told that "it's not too late to be 'cured,' " or forced to "pray" and ask "forgiveness" for their alleged "sins."

Among GLBT elders there's a deep distrust, one person in the film explains, of institutions in general, given that elder gays have spend their lives faced with large-scale organizations--from the military to corporate culture to churches to society itself--that afflicts GLBTs with assumptions and accusations questioning gays' mental and moral fitness, and attacking gays as being "perverts." The sad thing is how readily their health care system affirms the worst expectations of gays and lesbians, discounting their lifelong bonds to spouses and relegating them to second (or third) class status.

"A Growing Epidemic"

Just as heart-rending are stories like that of Chris Anne, one of the film's subjects, a transwoman whose entire family abandoned her when she transitioned. Alone and bereaved, Chris Anne faces terminal lung cancer; her attempts to reach out to family members are rebuffed in the harshest possible terms ("To whom it may concern: LOSE THIS ADDRESS!" is scrawled angrily across one returned letter).

"You know, I did a film about six years ago called Bob and Jack's 52-Year Adventure, because I was interested in finding more examples of people who have lived their lives together," Maddux told EDGE. "It turned out that there are a lot of examples out there, they're just not really visible. I decide to look into why there are so many invisible LGBT elders out there--people who are our greatest generation--and it led me to this problem. We've got a growing epidemic of GLBT elders who are going back into the closet because they fear the people giving them care."

Though scant, there have been some media stories on the plight of gay and lesbian elders finding themselves subject to bias and harassment in assisted living facilities. The impression one comes away with after reading the articles is that the environment-with its social snubbing, and its dichotomy between caregivers and clients-is a virtual replay of high school. Or, perhaps better said, grade school.

"That's exactly the way some of these elders have described it," Maddux confirmed. "They have that feeling of when they were oppressed, at the beginning of when they first came out, all over again. And this is from the person that is now oftentimes sleeping next to them in shared rooms, or sharing a meal with them. There's no escaping these bullies. As one elder said, 'I think these gays are still in the trenches in World War II, telling their lesbian jokes.' "

As sad as the plight of GLBT elders is, it's also one more illustration in a stark generational divide. In matters of equality, Americans are fairly cleanly divided by age, with younger Americans generally supportive of equality causes and older Americans constituting the cohort that is against marriage equality, military service by openly gay troops, and family parity measures such as equitable adoption laws. Perhaps we could not realistically expect that, as the generation that brought gay civil rights to the fore ages, they would have been embraced by their generational peers; after all, if our gay elders came of age in a climate of fear, it was their straight counterparts who were the source of anti-gay hostility. Though GLBT elders clearly deserve dignity and respect-and need relief from the animus they face all over again in their vulnerable golden years-might the fact that America seems to be "aging out" of its cultural homophobia be an encouraging sign for the future? Could Generation X or Y enter the autumn of their lives without facing similar terrors?

"I think it's going to subside," Maddux said of anti-gay animus. "I don't think it'll go away. I'm from the Midwest, and I know from my background that the wheels move slow. It's going to take our lifetime to get [the medical system for elder care] ready for the young people coming out today. I am hopeful about that, much more so than for my generation, people already in their 40s.

"But I think the most important thing is to record the history of the people who are there now, in their 70s and 80s," Maddux added, "because we're going to be looking to them when we're their age for examples of how we got through all this. They are the silent generation, having to cut the path for all of us. And now we owe it to them to make sure that they aren't silenced at the end."

But how do we best approach the problem? Gen Silent offers some hopeful ideas on that front. A movement toward GLBT-specific retirement communities and facilities offers promise, too, but could setting ourselves apart actually be a recipe for disaster? IT might be attractive to retire to a commune of one's sexual peers, but could it not also be seen as retrograde-or even a self-imposed form of "separate but equal?"

Maddux disagreed, citing Jewish retirement communities. "There is such a thing a hopeful pluralism, where we celebrate the diversity that we have, and it's okay to want to be around people like ourselves," he told EGDE. "That doesn't mean that we are discriminatory toward the world at large. I don't think that would set us back at all."

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.