Inspired by editor Robert Trachtenberg’s 2005 book, When I Knew is a hugely affecting piece of gay and lesbian oral history. The title makes the premise self-evident: Filmmakers Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato (The Eyes of Tammy Faye) asked more than 150 men and women from around the country to talk about the moment they realized they were queer, then distilled the footage into a tight 35-minute package.
The brevity means many folks are barely heard from, but that hardly means they’re short-shrifted: A group of people whose moment of self-discovery was complicated by their religious beliefs only get in a sentence or two each, but their individual testimonies form a single, archetypal story when taken together. Of those allowed to tell their tales in depth, some predictably offer humorous anecdotes (one guy’s first longings were stirred by the faceless man on the Doan’s pills package), while others offer heartrending tales of intolerance and cruelty (such as the woman who was married and pregnant when she realized she was gay, and was immediately cut off by her parents, who said they feared their grandson would be gay as well).
The personalities and voices come through far more vividly than those in Trachtenberg’s book (to an extent, it placed graphic design over substance). While the documentary ends on an upbeat note (one of the final stories involves a man whose nonjudgmental mother deduced his sexuality before he did), this is much more a state-of-the-union report than a piece of feel-good Pride Month propaganda. “One day, maybe coming out and ‘when I knew’ will be the same thing,” observes Bailey at the end. When that day arrives, Bailey and Barbato’s film will serve as an invaluable time capsule.