Special Report

Brokeback Mountain and the Romance of Gayness

The story behind the Hollywood hit of the season.

By 1.17.06

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I confess, I am a "High-Grade Non-Homophobic." There, done! Out of the closet at last! I took the homophobia test yesterday and achieved a score of 17, thus putting me in the category of "high-grade non-homophobic," the average score for white, male college students being around 30 (lower is better). The test was developed by Lester W. Wright, Henry E. Adams, and Jeffrey Bernat, and appeared in an article entitled "Development and Validation of the Homophobia Scale," in the Journal of Psychopathology and Behavioral Assessment, Vol. 21, (1999), No. 4, pp. 337-347. You too can take the test if you are brave enough (click here).

Although it is always flattering to be acknowledged as a high-grade anything, I thought important to first establish my bona fides before saying the controversial things that I am about to say about Brokeback Mountain, Annie Proulx, and gayness.

How was I able to achieve such a benign attitude towards homosexuals and homosexuality? Perhaps it is my age. I am ripe -- some would say over-ripe -- and ripeness sometimes brings with it a degree of humility when it comes to knowing what is right and true. Another factor might be that as a psychoanalyst and psychiatrist and teacher of such young professionals I have had many opportunities to treat and supervise the treatment of homosexuals -- those conflicted about their homosexuality and those unconflicted about their sexuality but unhappy about other aspects of their lives. In the course of these many clinical experiences I was able to learn much about the individual psychology and development of homosexuals and the sociology of the gay life.

"Best picture of the year!"
"Unmissable and unforgettable!"
"Big Hollywood weeper with a beautiful ache at its center."
"A big sweeping and rapturous Hollywood love story!"
"Hollywood's first openly gay western."
"Epic love story!"
"A story of forbidden love."

For a movie with such rapturous reviews, seven Golden Globe nominations, full page advertisements, two of Hollywood's newest and brightest stars, a cast of thousands (of sheep), the great mountains of Wyoming (Canada, really), gorgeous Big Sky country, Brokeback Mountain turns out to be a disappointingly small movie. Its mise-en-scene wears the story just as surely as Jake Gyllenhaal's black cowboy hat wears him rather than the other way round.

It's about the size of, say, My Beautiful Laundrette, of a generation ago, in which two young men kiss and make love on screen in a context of social and racial struggle. Controversial in its time, it is now a classic. And no doubt Brokeback will win prizes and become a small classic for its niche audience, if for no other reason. The performances are fine and the young men have taken risks for their career, and Hollywood always rewards young actors for taking risks in the service of homosexual values.

It is a movie in which two movie stars pretending to be two poor, dumb, young ranch hands, forced to be alone and isolated with each other for a couple of months, find themselves having sex, which turns out to have tragic consequences. Based on a prize-winning story by Annie Proulx, one of the problems with the movie is that the screen writers are too respectful of Proulx's story. It is this fidelity to the short story that makes this film, with its awe-inspiring backdrop, seem so small. The story is characterized by emotional minimalism -- the young men, Jack and Ennis, are barely articulate even at emotional high points. Much is communicated by silence or enigmatic looks and shrugs. This may work well in short fiction, but the art of writing a short story is different from the art of writing a movie. And after all a short story can only go so far in developing character and creating dramatic conflict.

ANNIE PROULX (PRONOUNCED PROO) IS, without a doubt, a first-rate writer. And "Brokeback Mountain" is a good but flawed story. Its flaws emerge out of its origins. "Brokeback began as an examination of country homophobia in the land of the Great Pure Noble Cowboy," Proulx says in a recent essay. The use of the word "homophobia" in her explanation (about which more later) and the ambivalence towards men expressed in the sarcasm "the land of the Great Pure Noble Cowboy" is expressed more subtly in her story and more flagrantly in the movie that was made from it. Her grievances with men, or at least men who live by "white masculine values," as she calls them, profoundly influence "Brokeback Mountain." Perhaps her own personal disappointments with men may have played a part in this, perhaps not. She was married three times, the last "...ended in amiable divorce twenty years later after a long separation, and we remain friends. It gradually dawned on me that I am not well-suited for marriage."

She elaborates on the origin of the story:

Sometime in early 1997 the story took shape. One night in a bar upstate [Wyoming] I had noticed an older ranch hand, maybe in his late sixties, obviously short on the world's luxury goods. Although spruced up for Friday night his clothes were a little ragged, boots stained and worn. I had seen him around, working cows, helping with sheep, taking orders from a ranch manager. He was thin and lean, muscular in a stringy kind of way. He leaned against the back wall and his eyes were fastened not on the dozens of handsome and flashing women in the room but on the young cowboys playing pool. Maybe he was following the game, maybe he knew the players, maybe one was his son or nephew, but there was something in his expression, a kind of bitter longing, that made me wonder if he was country gay. Then I began to consider what it might have been like for him -- not the real person against the wall, but for any ill-informed, confused, not-sure-of-what-he-was-feeling youth growing up in homophobic rural Wyoming. A few weeks later I listened to the vicious rant of an elderly bar-cafe owner who was incensed that two "homos" had come in the night before and ordered dinner. She said that if her bar regulars had been there (it was darts tournament night) things would have gone badly for them. "Brokeback" was constructed on the small but tight idea of a couple of home-grown country kids, opinions and self-knowledge shaped by the world around them, finding themselves in emotional waters of increasing depth.

Proulx's method of literary creation -- keen but superficial observations which excite her imagination along lines that have been influenced by her lifelong loves and hates -- help us to understand both the high quality of her prose and its weaknesses. To the extent that her work is taken from life she is very good, to the extent that it becomes burdened by an overload of personal baggage her work becomes strained and false. But before demonstrating some of these strengths and weaknesses, it is important to examine what is meant by "homophobia," since that seems to be what started it all.

"Homophobia" is a word that came into being around 1969 with "Gay Liberation." It was coined by Time magazine and elaborated by Martin Weinberg of the Kinsey Institute as a term with a great deal of psychological freight. It soon came to be a way of paying back the mental health establishment, a kind of turnabout. In the days before Gay Lib, homosexuality was thought of by psychiatrists as a form of psychopathology, with the implication that it can and should be changed or cured. With the arrival of Gay Liberation in the '70s it was the gay establishment's turn. Under political pressure the term "Homosexuality" was removed from the Diagnostic Statistical Manual -- the bible of psychiatric administrators -- as a pathological entity and began to be thought of by gay activists and their supporters in the liberal media as "normal" in the sense that one was born with the trait, like blue eyes or left-handedness -- a normal variation.

Homophobia, it was now proclaimed, was what was pathological, with its own psychodynamic patterns -- a fear of homosexuals, some psychologists speculated -- and thus should be treated and cured by re-education, brainwashing.

Like some kind of expanding, space-occupying monster, the meanings of the word "homophobia" in the homophilic media continued to grow from year to year, so that now there are almost as many meanings as there are people who use the word. It is, of course, not a scientific or medical term, like claustrophobia or agoraphobia, which are clinical syndromes with long histories associated with them and an extensive psychiatric and psychological literature that can be studied and investigated. It has no standard or universally recognized set of descriptors. For some it may apply to people who commit so-called "Hate Crimes" -- those who assault, kill, or manifestly abuse homosexuals, criminal behavior whether hate is involved or not. For others it means any form of expressed opinion which may be inimical to homosexuals and/or their values. For yet others it may refer to anybody who engages in rational discourse -- policy makers for example, or scholars who hold opinions about homosexual issues that are in opposition to those held by the gay establishment. The latter by this time is a powerful army made up of three divisions: gifted, articulate, well-funded, gay men and women activists; a large and sympathetic component of media people in Hollywood, journalism, and television; and the softer disciplines of the academy -- the social sciences, schools of education, and the humanities.

The same kind of dangerous overgeneralization that was used to characterize previous social victims -- Jews, homosexuals, blacks -- now operates on anyone who is brave or foolhardy enough to express politically incorrect views on gay issues. Since "homophobic" can mean murderer as well as dissenter, it has connotations of dangerousness and intolerance, in the way that all Jews were Christ-killers and usurers, all Blacks were rapists of white women, and homosexuals were pedophiles.

Ms. Proulx likes to write about life in the cooler part of rural North America -- between the 40th and 50th parallel -- and between Newfoundland and Wyoming. Proulx stories are stories about people living hardscrabble lives in situations that can only get worse -- the land is being used up, or the sea is being fished out, victims of time and place -- and how they respond. "If you can't fix it you've got to stand it," says Ennis Del Mar, one of the two young protagonists in "Brokeback Mountain." It is this platitude that informs his narrow, dreary life. His longtime friend and lover, Jack Twist, cannot live according to Ennis's drab slogan and dies trying to escape it.

"Brokeback" and its problems center on the ambiguities of love and sex. It is to Ms. Proulx's credit that she never uses the word "love" in the story. But it's there nonetheless. There is some mysterious force at work between the two men that holds them together for twenty years, and the reader wonders what it is.

WHEN GAY WRITERS TALK ABOUT homosexuality in public it often suits their rhetorical needs to use the word "love" as a euphemism for sex. Here, for example, is Tony Kushner on the subject. "The way you give love is the most profoundly human part of you. When people say it's ugly or a perversion or an abomination, they're attacking the center of your being." Since no one considers the emotional component of love between men, such as the love between fathers and sons or close friends, to be perverse or ugly, what he means when he says "give love" in this case is have sex. And to refer to having sex as "profoundly human" is baffling. Having sex is the thing we have in common with all mammalian species. Conventionally what we mean when we use rhetorical phrases like "profoundly human" is the very opposite of having sex -- what we usually mean is something that has to do with soul or spirit or mind rather than genitals.

This euphemistic usage of the word love is a development which occurred after the onset of AIDS in the early eighties. Before that time love was an important aspect in a homosexual relationship mainly in more or less stable couples who cared about one another above and beyond their sexual relationship. This state accounted for about 25% or 30% of homosexuals in the seventies according to the work of the Kinsey Institute. To the other 70% or 75% of gay men stability and loving relationships were merely rhetorical. The majority of gay men wanted complete and unbridled sexual freedom at the time of the story (before AIDS) and non-sexual love and commitment were not high on their agenda.

Proulx's story has many first-rate qualities but its understanding of male psychology is not one of them.

It's a story that hates men -- fathers in particular. There are three fathers and one father-figure in the story. All are depicted as "duck studs," brutal and cruel in the service of teaching manliness. The movie goes even further, turning every man with a speaking part into a crude, drunken, violent fool.

"Write about what you know!" The advice comes ringing down the ages from every great writer. But Proulx does not seem to know much about male sexuality, or homosexuality, or even maleness in general, or what it means to be a man. And because she has her own agenda for the story, she has to create characters who will fulfill that agenda, rather than creating real characters who will find their own fates.

What is her agenda? Homophobes are the real problem for loving men. This theme requires that she invent a story about true love (not merely sex) between two unambiguously gay men that must have a tragic end in a place like "homophobic rural Wyoming" which is "the land of the Great Pure Noble Cowboy." Her agenda is to diminish the iconic myth and to show them as fatuous brutes.

BECAUSE OF THE HEAVY MESSAGE burden the film has to deliver there is much that is bogus and inauthentic. The first things are the boys' personae. They are supposed to be dirt poor, high school dropouts, ignorant, not very bright, inarticulate. One, Ennis, is chronically depressed, the other, Jack, affably sociopathic. Instead of being played by gorgeous, well-built movie stars with perfect teeth and bodies and wearing their $99 cowboy hats, they should be played by actors like Steve Buscemi with his mouth full of rotten teeth and Michael J. Pollard with dirty fingernails and with both wearing old beat-up $19 straw ranch-hand's hats.

The nature scenes, the bars, the grubby plastic furniture, all contribute to a sense of pseudo-authenticity that masks the phoniness of the extraordinarily attractive and charming movie stars trying to play impoverished, ignorant, inarticulate, rural boobs. In the movie Jack appears smart enough to become a crack salesman demonstrating complex farm equipment; in the story he's not competent enough to do anything but hold onto a bucking bull.

But most of all, the phoniness is in the character inconsistencies and the lack of understanding of men -- their sexuality, their homosexuality -- making them act according to some preordained plan instead of like real men or real homosexuals, all in the service of fulfilling the theme of the story -- "destructive rural homophobia."

Although there are inconsistencies and falseness in Ennis's character (his adolescent schoolgirl reaction to Jack's return after a four-year absence), the major problem is with Jack Twist. Jack is the instigator of sexual intimacy with Ennis. And the sexual hunger that is shown repeatedly in the story suggests that he has little or no conflict about his intense passive homosexual wishes. A homosexual man with such intense needs as Jack, which are not satisfied by means of his heterosexual relationship, will not usually wait four years or even four weeks to have his sexual needs satisfied. It just doesn't work that way in real life. He is the kind of homosexual who has no trouble finding ways to satisfy these sexual yearnings. And Proulx shows us nothing in Jack's behavior that might suggest any conflict about these feelings. The only thing that deters him from visiting Ennis more frequently is Ennis. Why does he put up with this sexual deprivation? Because the author's agenda demands it. Proulx's plan requires that the story be touching and tragic. Unless, by the story's end, the reader/viewer empathizes with Ennis and hates homophobes she will not have achieved her aim. And the key to that is that the two must love each other in an unselfish, non-sexual way.

Proulx tries to establish this in the central literary moment in the story, near the end, meant to explain Jack's motivation for his strange relationship with Ennis:

What Jack remembered and craved in a way he could neither help nor understand was the time that distant summer on Brokeback when Ennis had come up behind him and pulled him close, the silent embrace satisfying some shared and sexless hunger.

They had stood that way for a long time in front of the fire, its burning tossing ruddy chunks of light, the shadow of their bodies a single column against the rock. The minutes ticked by from the round watch in Ennis's pocket, from the sticks in the fire settling into coals. Stars bit through the wavy heat layers above the fire. Ennis's breath came slow and quiet, he hummed, rocked a little in the sparklight and Jack leaned against the steady heartbeat, the vibrations of the humming like faint electricity and, standing, he fell into sleep that was not sleep but something else drowsy and tranced until Ennis, dredging up a rusty but still useable phrase from the childhood time before his mother died, said, "Time to hit the hay, cowboy. I got a go. Come on, you're sleepin on your feet like a horse," and gave Jack a shake, a push, and went off in the darkness. Jack heard his spurs tremble as he mounted, the words "see you tomorrow," and the horse's shuddering snort, grind of hoof on stone.

Later, that dozy embrace solidified in his memory as the single moment of artless, charmed happiness in their separate and difficult lives. Nothing marred it, even the knowledge that Ennis would not then embrace him face to face because he did not want to see nor feel that it was Jack he held. And maybe, he thought, they'd never got much farther than that. Let be, let be.

The excerpt above arouses deep suspicion. It is unique in the story -- quite different from the writing in the rest of it. It is deeply emotional and elegiacal, qualitatively different from the cool, dry narrative that surrounds it. It sounds like it came from deep within Proulx's life experience. "Write what you know!" Having raised two sons it would not be surprising to know that she was able to reconnect with a touching moment in her own life to provide this scene with the necessary feeling.

Why is this scene so important and necessary? Proulx worked on the story for six months, twice the length of time that it usually takes for her to write a novel, she says, having revised the story sixty times. And guess what was the most difficult scene for her to write? The scene above.

This epiphanous moment has power and would explain Jack's prolonged fixation on Ennis if it were consistent with anything else about Jack -- but it is not. So we have only the author's word for the power of this recollection.

THIS IS ONLY THE LATEST FILM of many plays and films of the past thirty-five years that form part of the gay agenda to create a romance about gayness, just as, at one time, Hollywood created a romance about cowboys -- brave, true, shy, handsome, modest, and sober. Today and for the past generation Hollywood and the media portray gays as charming, lovable, vulnerable, and gifted; and as victims -- of AIDS (striking out of some indeterminate source), homophobia, or some governmental or religious prejudice.

This romantic model is as phony as the old cowboy model but what is important is that it serves the political aims of gay activists -- currently gay marriage.

The realities are more complex, more varied, and more interesting. First, some of the realities about the gay life. Approximately three percent of the population may be homosexual, depending on how it is defined and measured demographically. This group is very varied, by age of onset, race, class, choice of sex-object, mode of gratification, pattern of behavior, etc. About 3 percent of all homosexual males have stable, well-adjusted relationships. These are closed couples held together by strong affectionate bonds and living lives much as heterosexual couples might. The remainder of the population do not have such stable commitments and prefer freedom and independence. It is from this latter group that dangerous sexual behavior may emerge: "bareback riding" (unprotected sex); promiscuity; "gift-giving" (homosexuals infected with HIV virus who want to transmit the virus to those who don't have it); "bug chasing" (men who do not have AIDS but want to acquire it); as well as other dangerous activities, none of which would fit the romance of gayness.

Now, some of the realities about homophobic crimes -- murder and manslaughter -- so-called hate crimes. Hate crimes are acts you hear quite a lot about in the homophilic media. The FBI has kept records of such crimes since 1995. If you look into these records, you will find that the number of murders and/or manslaughters against male homosexuals number between two and six in any year between 1995 and 2004. Only one of these occurred in Wyoming -- in 1998. Most of them tend to occur in California, New York and Texas. So much for Ms. Proulx's destructive rural homophobia. Of course even two murders a year against male homosexuals is too much. But strangely enough we hear very little outcry and protest when you look into the number of deaths of male homosexuals caused by AIDS -- 10,000 in any year. Such facts do not contribute to the romance of gayness.

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About the Author

Yale Kramer is a psychiatrist and essayist for Horsefeathers, the blog that fights folly, ignorance, and cant.