Ronnie Gilliard Ellis Jr. met Earl, his partner of 44 years, in his thirties. But it wasn’t until the two were “well over 50” that they began coming out to others as a couple.
Now 79 years old, Ellis. Jr remembers growing up in Raleigh, North Carolina as a gay man and hiding his sexuality. “The gay bar was one block from my grandmother’s house, so I could walk to the bar and not get caught,” he said.
His story is one of 12 told in a documentary that’s part of an exhibition called “Not Another Second,” which premieres this week at The Watermark at Brooklyn Heights, a luxury senior living facility that opened last year.
The experience, much of which is also available online, aims to illustrate the unique triumphs, setbacks and challenges faced by a generation that came of age at a time when the American Psychiatric Association considered “homosexuality” to be a psychiatric disorder.
Many of their stories focus on how many years they spent in the closet. The discussions explore how they kept their true identities a secret from friends, family and colleagues. Each interview also highlights the various ways they helped pave the way for future generations. For instance, the film details how Reverend Goddess Magora Kennedy, an 81-year-old lesbian featured in the exhibition, participated in the Stonewall riots.
The exhibition tells their stories via portraits taken by German photographer Karsten Thormaehlen, whose work includes “Happy at 100,” a photo series of centenarians. Their portraits are supplemented with quotes from each individual as well as statistics about LGBTQ+ elders. Additionally, those who attend the exhibition can watch one-on-one interviews with the participants using their phones.
The showing comes nearly two years after Watermark Retirement Communities, which operates several senior living residences across the U.S., committed to obtaining “platinum accreditation” from Sage, an organization that advocates for LGBTQ+ older people. Achieving this credential ensures that at least 80% of employees participate in a one-time training session conducted by Sage.
“Not Another Second” is a collaboration between Watermark Retirement Communities and Sage. According to the former, it’s also the first in a series of “cultural campaigns” that the company plans to debut in the future.
According to both organizations, all footage was shot before Covid-19 began to take hold in the U.S. Of the 12 individuals featured, seven are Watermark residents, while five got involved with help from Sage.
The concept for “Not Another Second” was created by RXM Creative, an agency founded in 2014 by former 360i creatives. Interviews were directed by Sharkey Weinberg and produced by Convicts NYC, the studio behind the “NY Tough” video that went viral last year (and ultimately attracted criticism after filmmakers accused the company of using footage without permission).
While much of the content lives online, it was brought to life within an art gallery at The Watermark in Brooklyn Heights with help from Nascent Art, a company that specializes in providing “art solutions for spaces.”
The exhibition faces restrictions because of the pandemic. Those who want to attend the display must book a ticket in advance, and space is limited to 10 people per every hour and a half.
“In ‘normal times,’ the vision was much bigger,” Jill Harlow, national director of brand and marketing at Watermark Retirement Communities, said. “You would get more interaction with people. Certainly that was the grander vision—people interacting and connecting.”