Wednesday, June 7th, 2023

The high costs of homophobia

One October afternoon in 1997, I settled down with the latest issue of the New Yorker and started reading a story by Annie Proulx, whose novel The Shipping News had been both a best-seller and won the Pulitzer Prize.

Stories about the American West (which is east of where I live) are unusual fare in the New Yorker, love stories that are explicitly sexual and involve two man are totally unexpected. Love stories require obstructions—and the hatred of homosexuality in Marlboro Country (more specifically, the sparsely populated state of Wyoming) that one of the 19-year-olds had had his nose rubbed as a child made it impossible to accept that men who loved each other (and I do mean both physically and emotionally) could survive. The tragedy in this particular love story is less the inability of Ennis to understand or articulate his feelings than it is his inability to believe there might be a place for us… somewhere. (Yes, I recently watched “West Side Story,” with its doomed couple yearning for such a place, somewhere, somehow, some time. The insuperable obstacles are central to love stories, as I’ve already said.)

Proulx’s story packed a knockout punch. Rereading the story in her first collection of stories set in Wyoming, Closer Range, even knowing what was coming, I was left reeling by the tragedy of Ennis and Jack a second time.

Perhaps the same day as I did (depending upon postal delivery), Diana Ossana read the story in the New Yorker and was similarly affected. She gave it to her “writing partner” (I don’t know exactly what this means), Larry McMurtry (whose works have been adapted to the screen in Hud, The Last Picture Show, Terms of Endearment, Lonesome Dove, etc.). She has been quoted as saying that “Brokeback Mountain” is the only time McMurtry accepted a suggestion from her without any second-guessing. They purchased the screen rights. The story won awards and has been anthologized in various places in addition to Proulx’s own collection.

Even with McMurtry’s connections and track record, their screenplay did not seem to suggest a commercially viable movie. Two young macho men not just “getting it on” (“situational homosexuality” with the situation being isolation in the mountains with a herd of sheep) or having an unregretted “summer of love,” but a major, long-lasting, consuming passionate love. Check the multiplexes for anything along these lines… Or even for westerns, traditional or contemporary.

Ang Lee‘s movies, set in an unusually wide range of times and places, have recurrently dealt with the feelings of guilt of misfit outsiders (from “Pushing Hands” right up through “The Hulk,” with the sadly underrated “Ride with the Devil” being particularly germane to a world defined by macho excesses) and with the costs of repression (“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and “Sense and Sensibility” in particular). He had even made a movie, “The Wedding Banquet,” centered on one character (Winston Chao’s) believing that his love of another man (Mitchell Lichtenstein) could not be accepted in his military family… and that he had to marry a woman.

Although Lee’s movies tend to be a bit stately and tasteful, he was clearly the right director to bring “Brokeback Mountain” to the screen. Despite the avalanche of publicity, I don’t know how he got the hunky Heath Ledger Casanova) to play the tongue-tied (not just “silent type”) Ennis, or heart-throb Jake Gyllenhall (Donnie Darko) to play Jack, the one who makes the first (and second and various later) move and the one who gets f___ed. (Although the sex is not at all graphic, the usual movie tactic of pulling away from the characters grinding against each other face-to-face does not occur here.) Lee felt that it was necessary (as Proulx and Ossana and McMurtry had) to make it clear that Ennis and Jack were not just friends or had an unrequited passion (though one New York Times writer still claimed this).

Although I did not have a stopwatch along, I think the heterosexual sex scenes have more total running time than the homosexual sex scenes in the movie (with more male-male than male-female kissing scenes). The story focuses on the Jack-Ennis love, moving quickly over the marriages each contracted while trying to suppress their love for each other.

I think that the movie runs on a bit too long and somewhat sags in the middle. The middle is primarily the story of men who believe they must marry and can (thereby) overcome their forbidden feelings. The whole “homosexuality is a choice” and “by effort of will you can turn yourself straight” campaign of antihomosexual crusaders (who are making explicit social assumptions that used to operate less publicly) has a very high cost on the women (and children) of men trying to “go straight” and using women to try literally “to reform.” Although I was born six years later than Jack and Ennis, I know many gay men who tried to deselect themselves from their homosexual orientations (that is, “choose” to be heterosexual) and who caused considerable pain to wives who thought there was something wrong with them until they finally were told—or, as in the movie saw—that their husband was oriented to love (and sex) with males. (And the toll of the conflict and divorces the children of these failed projects bore.)

That is tragic material, too, but the stories of the failed marriages nearly derails the main story in my opinion. A friend suggested that it is important—especially for straight audiences—to have the attempt to “go straight” extensively shown and that this demonstrates how deep and ineradicable the men’s love for each other is. (He also said that he would have liked more middle, showing the men’s passions develop, though I think that their passions were fully developed in the summer on Brokeback Mountain, had literally nowhere to go, and that it is the persistence of their love, one both had tried to “quit,” that is shown alongside the collateral damage on their wives and children.)

Also, Ang Lee is very good at drawing nuanced performances of disappointed women from actresses. Jack’s wife (Anne Hathaway) seems to me closely related to the Cybille Shepherd character in “The Last Picture Show” (aging into a character more and more like her mother, who was portrayed by Ellen Burstyn in it). Alma (Michelle Williams), who marries Ennis and quickly has two daughters, has more screen time, and more evidence of the direction in which her husband is straying (and, most of the time, yearning). It takes her a long, long time to say what she knows, and when she does, it’s like a volcanic eruption. In response—as in response for Jack’s recurrent pleas to live together—Ennis freezes in pain and guilt and his code of macho stoicism (“If you can’t fix it, you’ve got to stand it” is repeated in the last sentence of Proulx’s story. With two young daughters, it seems to be Alma’s credo, too, but she eventually comes to realize she can “fix it” at least for herself.)

The plot is not particularly complex and I don’t want to be accused of “spoiling” the ending—though I believe that to be impossible in that a very, very key point of divergence between what one of the leads is told and what he is certain is true is open for viewers (as for readers) to decide… and knowing from my second reading of the story and from viewing the movie, that knowing what’s going to happen does not much reduce the emotional wallop when it does.

I do, however, know that those who have seen the movie and not read the story miss something (at least a convenience sample of those I’ve asked did).


I will quote Proulx. This is when Ennis is in Jack’s closet:

“The shirt seemed heavy until he saw there was another shirt inside it, the sleeves carefully worked down inside Jack’s sleeves. It was his own plaid shirt, lost, he’d thought, long ago in some damn laundry, his dirty shirt, the pocket ripped, buttons missing, stolen by Jack [when they were about to bring the sheep down from Brokeback Mountain in August 1963; Ennis does mention having forgotten his shirt up on the mountain in the movie, but non-initiates are unlikely to think this matters] and hidden here in Jack’s own shirt, the pair like two skins, one inside the other, two in one…”

For me, this was the knockout punch in the story. In both movie and story, there is more representation of grief still to come.

End Spoiler Alert

Other than seeming a bit too long to me and giving too much screen-time to the lives of quiet desperation Alma, Ennis, and Jack live for nearly twenty years, the movie adaptation seems masterful to me. The cinematography by Rodrigo Prieto (Amores Perros, Frida) is superlative—both in the open country and in the tawdry interiors (and a Texas Thanksgiving dinner that could have come out of a Douglas Sirk movie). The music by Gustavo Santaolalla (Amores Perros, 21 Grams, Motorcycle Diaries) is also outstanding.

The acting, rightfully, has been picking up awards. For his imploding Ennis (which he has said is the most hypermasculine character he has been asked to play). Heath Ledger is phenomenal (and won the New York Film Critic’s Award for best actor). Although Ledger has gotten the bulk of the praise, I think that the part of Jack is more difficult and that Jake Gyllenhaal is perfect (the National Board of Review gave him its award for best supporting actor). As the hurt and betrayed and bitter Alma, Michelle Williams is also perfect (she and Ledger have Golden Globe nominations). In the simpler and smaller part as Jack’s wife and Daddy’s girl, Anne Hathaway is also excellent. I’m fairly certain that more awards are on the way for the movie and its players. (And the rest of the cast is also plays their parts faultlessly.)

I definitely want to watch “Brokeback Mountain” again when it comes out on DVD—with close-captioning on, so I can tell what some of the mumbled dialogue says—(though that some of the lines are unintelligible is probably part of Ledger’s characterization of agonized inarticulateness.The problem is not any residues of his native Australian accent. During the movie, I forgot that he was born in Perth. And I faulted the sound recording until I thought more about it.


Appendix on gay and enduring homo-hatred

The word “gay” is bandied about very loosely in regard to the movie “Brokeback Mountain.” First, it is not a “gay movie” (except in the sense I suggested that a “gay movie” is a movie that sleeps with other movies; this one definitely sleeps with earlier McMurtry and Lee movies). The story was written by a straight woman, adapted for the screen by a straight couple, directed by a straight man, and stars straight movie stars (though, perhaps, they have now earned the label “actors”).

And it is a story of the tragic internalization of homo-hatred, not a movie about “gay cowboys.” First off, they are not cowboys. They ride horses in their line of work, but they are responsible for sheep, and anyone who has seen very many westerns knows that the cattle barons and the would-be sheep-raisers are recurrent foes. Jack, for a time, is a “rodeo cowboy,” riding bulls.

One might argue that Jack is “gay.” He is more conscious of his erotic attraction to men than Ennis is, though in the opening scene, when he examined Ennis in the mirror of his pickup truck, he may well not be conscious that his interest is erotic. As I’ve already noted, Jack makes the moves. Their relationship would not have become sexual or been revived (however intermittently) without Jack, and he eventually seeks other men, whereas Jack seems to be the only man for whom Ennis ever felt love (though what Ennis feels is so far beneath the surface of repression…).

Heath Ledger has been criticized by some for saying that Ennis is “not gay,” though I think he is right. Ennis loves a man (more, in my opinion, even than Jack loves him), but there is no precedent or antecedent instance of loving a man in his life (that we see). Ennis believes that men cannot mate for life and he cannot be happy without mating for life with Jack. It’s not that he is unconscious of his love for Jack, but he has no conception of a kind of person other than victims who love persons of their own sex. He does not expect to be happy or even imagine that he might be.

Ennis and Jack have homosexual sex, but neither has a self-identification as gay (and, as I have explained at considerable length in American Gay, self-identification, at least intrapsychically, is the criterion of gay). In rural Wyoming it seems plausible for someone who spends his waking hours outdoors not to know of the emergence of gay communities during the 1970s. It, however, seems more difficult to imagine that by the early 1980s Jack would not have learned that somewhere (in Texas, even) there were gay bars and gay circles and gay neighborhoods. Jack is less isolated (both in general and from media) than Ennis. Instead of crossing the Rio Grande at Ciudad Juarez, he could have tooled over to Houston… but he didn’t, and continued to dream of splendid isolation à deux on a ranch with Ennis (who never left Wyoming). I’m definitely not saying that Jack wanted an urban gay lifestyle. What he did want was more conceivable and obtainable after “almost twenty years” (a specification that crops up at one of their brief reunions in the wilds).

The continued virulence of homo-hatred in Wyoming (and what used to be and in many places imagines itself still to be the “Old West”) was notoriously revealed by three macho men proving their masculinity by crucifying the very slightly built Matthew Shepherd and leaving him to drown in his own blood. This occurred after the publication of Proulx’s story. In an LA Times interview, she said that she was called for jury duty for one of the trials of Matthew Shepherd’s killers. Among other things, this validates that Ennis’s conception of the reality where he lived—and Proulx lives—was not exaggerated or paranoid.

© 27 December 2005, Stephen O.Murray

About The Author

Stephen O. Murray grew up in rural southern Minnesota, earned a B.A. from James Madison College (within Michigan State University), an M.A. from the University of Arizona, a Ph.D. from the University of Toronto (both in sociology), and was a postdoctoral fellow at Berkeley (in anthropology). He is the author of American Gay, Homosexualities, etc. and lives in San Francisco.