University of North Dakota
As society’s conceptualization of masculinity gradually transforms,
some changes seem to occur invisibly. Every once in a while, however,
something comes along that inspires, unsettles, or shocks us enough
to recognize that a force of change is stirring. Brokeback Mountain appears
to possess such power and I am honored to head up this special section
of the SPSMM Bulletin. The essays that follow are deeply
personal, heartfelt, and, I believe, thought provoking. As authors,
we represent diversity in sexual orientation, gender identity, and
career stage (from doctoral student to senior scholars). Still, this
collection should not be regarded as the final word on Brokeback Mountain from
psychologists and graduate students interested in men’s studies.
Absent are the perspectives of a woman, a bisexual man, a young man,
a closeted gay man, a person of color, and many other points of view
that could deepen our understanding of this provocative film. Neither
the psychological literature nor works within queer theory are cited
here, so there is ample opportunity for others to expand upon or
divert from the viewpoints offered.
Works of art have the potential to connect with us at the deepest
emotional and spiritual levels. As a counseling psychologist, I seldom
have the opportunity to explore the relationship between art and
psyche to the extent that I would like. Through its emotional power, Brokeback
Mountain can lead us to think about the various forms that friendship
and love between men can take, commitment in relationships (heterosexual
and homosexual), and the constraints that society places on the expression
of masculinity and sexuality. This project has presented an enjoyable
opportunity for me and I hope that these essays will inspire readers
to go see the film (or see it again), read the original short story
by Annie Proulx, and use the temporary escape of film and fiction
as a catalyst for reflection.
The University of Akron
At the recent Immigration Summit and Division 51 Board Meeting
and Annual Men’s Retreat, I had an opportunity to spend a day with
my good friend Gary Brooks. Gary suggested that we see the movie Brokeback Mountain together.
A unique and powerful feature of this film is the way that it gets
around the front-line defense mechanisms that are conventionally
used for dealing with love between men, namely by labeling it as
“gay,” thus creating social distance between the viewer and the subject
matter of the film. It does this by not being a self-proclaimed gay
movie, in contrast to a film like In and Out, starring Kevin
Kline. It is rather more of a love story. Neither of the male lead
characters are gay-identified, and, as sheep-herders, they look like
those icons of rugged masculinity, the “Marlboro men.” They simply
fall into love, albeit a rough, conflicted love. Ennis Del Mar, the
epitome of the strong silent male of the 1950s, never considered
it possible to have anything other than a furtive, though long-term,
affair; whereas Jack Twist, the dreamer, was ready for a committed
relationship early on. Jack’s greater willingness to accept the idea
of love between men led to his taking risks that proved very costly.
The relationship itself destroyed each man’s marriage and caused
considerable damage to their families. And thus as a love story it
is a tragedy, in the tradition of Romeo and Juliet.
Despite our conscious views, nearly all of us grew up in environments
that were suffused with heterosexism. Many boys grew up witnessing
other boys being punished by being called “faggot,” which was experienced
as the worst thing a boy could ever be called. Childhood experiences
like this are likely to have left an indelible trace.
The film is subversive. Not being a gay-identified film, it was
able to attract audiences who might not be emotionally ready to accept
the idea of love between men, due to these early childhood experiences.
As a result, significant anxiety about the film emerged early on,
as reflected in the immediate and massive parodying on the internet
of the poster showing the two male leads facing each other against
the backdrop of Brokeback Mountain. Some parodies displayed George
Bush and Dick Cheney, Jack Abramoff and Tom Delay, and even Gumby
Hopefully the film will help people examine deeper attitudes and
emotions about homosexuality.
In some ways getting there was as interesting as being
there. Brokeback Mountain had been in theatres
(with considerable critical acclaim) for several weeks before I
found my way into a seat. I have some feel for why I had avoided Roots,
Dances with Wolves, and Schindler’s List; i.e.,Who needs more
guilt and depression? Besides, I’ve never been a big fan of the
Western movie genre. I assumed I would eventually see this movie
– probably on DVD at home with my wife Patti. Therefore, when my
good friend Ron and I found ourselves with free time in San Antonio
before the annual men’s retreat, an unanticipated opportunity presented
itself. What would it be like to experience this “gay” movie with
a close heterosexual friend?
I’m sure that across the US thousands of straight male friends
have gone in pairs to see this movie. None of these pairs, however,
were in attendance that afternoon (actually, there were two guys
together who hurriedly exited the theatre immediately after the first
love/sex scene). Sitting with another guy to watch two men making
love would be, I had assumed, pretty terrifying. It wasn’t. Even
the anticipated embarrassment from the presumptions of others seemed
pretty irrelevant. Frankly, my myriad homophobic anxieties quickly
faded when the intense beauty, poignancy, and tragedy of the film
overtook me. Of the many powerful reactions evoked by this film,
I’d like to note a few of the deeply meaningful ways that this movie
altered my sense of gay experience.
Foremost, I was profoundly affected by the stark reality of danger
in these men’s lives. Long before any overt violence, these men could
not be free of a pervading sense of fear and threat. I have often
heard gay men talk about issues of “safety.” This movie spared nothing
in its portrayal of the potential horror faced daily by gay men.
While it made me acutely aware that as a heterosexual man I have
enjoyed a psychological luxury not available to gay men in many locations,
it also made me ashamed that I have been so oblivious to this issue.
This movie caused me to think about the immense burden our culture
places on gay men as they recognize the implications of gay identity.
The relationship between Jack and Ennis was as violent as it was
tender. Ennis hated Jack for “what you have done to my life.” He
hated himself for his love of Jack. Neither man understood the origins
of their feelings, placing them outside themselves as alien and unnatural.
Vividly, this film demonstrated the dearth of “space” for these men
to live, both psychologically and culturally.
As a father of two daughters, I was deeply pained by the toll paid
by Ennis and his daughters. A variety of oppressions, both in broader
culture and internalized in Ennis’ psyche, seemed to have contributed
to their estrangement. In a time and place completely void of support
or compassion for gay men, Ennis had few coping options beyond complete
emotional cut-off. Far removed form the insights and emotional support
of PFLAG (Parents and Families of Lesbians and Gays), the daughter
rose above her own social oppression and courageously sought out
a relationship with her father. As committed as this film is to the
telling of honest and bitter truth, I was deeply moved and relieved
that it allowed a note of optimism in its suggestion of possible
rapprochement between Ennis and his older daughter. Although this
fictionalized reconnection was encouraging, such outcomes probably
remain far too uncommon in the lives of many gay fathers. I am once
again made aware of an unrecognized “privilege” I have been granted.
At its conclusion of this film, I found myself deeply moved and
stimulated to think far more compassionately about anguished issues
in the lives of gay men negotiating homophobic culture. But what
about the original theme of “straight guy watching a gay cowboy movie?”
For several years, I have focused energy on countering my internalized
homophobia and can now readily endure some its more straightforward
discomforts. I’m generally beyond homosexual panic to the point I
can hug another man and perhaps even endure questions others might
have of the “real truth” of any close male friendships. At a personal
level, I was delighted to have a “date” with my close friend Ron.
I will confess a degree of anxiety in using that phrase, as well
as a fall-back reassurance that we were “on assignment,” i.e., an
intellectual project. Nevertheless, we are now closer friends from
our afternoon together. Finally, I am once again impressed by the
irony of how gay’s men’s willingness to tell their stories creates
opportunities for growth in the lives in all of us men. In return
for their courage and vulnerability, it only seems just that we “straight”
men commit ourselves to working more avidly to counter all forms
of oppression of gay and bisexual men.
University of North Dakota
Living, as I do, in the northern prairies of the U.S., I was pleasantly
surprised when the film Brokeback Mountain opened
at my local movie theatre. Over 20 years ago I sat mountainside with
my Girl Scout camp director in any area that looked much the same
as Brokeback Mountain. It was in the fading twilight that I finally
came out both to my director and to myself. I was cautioned by this
well-meaning woman to never talk to my parents about my sexual orientation.
Jack and Ennis suffered from the same sense of internalized homophobia.
As a female-to-male transsexual who identifies as a gay man, I was
entertained by the movie, moved by the scenery and story line, and
disturbed by the ending. Why couldn’t Jack and Ennis have ridden
off in the sunset together?
Throughout the movie, Jack and Ennis come together. Their most
intimate moments are colored by violence. From the forceful sex scene,
to the bloody fight, and finally to the verbal display of hatred,
they seem to me unable to connect with one another from a place of
love. Is this simply a characterization of men in the 1960s, or is
this a way to make watching these two men more palatable? To be intimate
with another person is to allow them to be close, to become familiar,
or to develop closeness through a long association. It is generally
implied that intimacy is characterized by loving and concern for
one another. I believe that Jack and Ennis only knew how to come
together in a discordant manner.
Jack and Ennis did what many gay men, such as my father, did during
this time period. They walked away from one another toward an unhappy
heterosexual relationship. Over the years, Jack and Ennis found ways
to meet up to share a secret weekend. At my father’s death, I met
the man who he had been meeting for these secret weekends for over
16 years. The tragedy of this movie is the reality with which it
describes the devastating impact of internalized homophobia. Secrets
are the ingredients for dysfunction and misunderstanding. For Jack
and Ennis, as in my own family, they involved deceit, substance abuse,
Homophobia, unfortunately, is still imminently present in our society.
It wasn’t until the late 1960s that members of the gay community
finally stood up to say “Enough!” The Stonewall Riots and the annual
celebration of Gay Pride Day are important reminders of the ways
that this community has been and continues to be treated as second
class citizens. It is difficult in our society to find people who
have unconditional respect for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender
(LGBT) community. I fear that people walked away from the movie thinking
that Jack got what he deserved. Sadly, his wife wasn’t able to be
honest about Jack’s fate and Ennis must have been left feeling guilty
on many levels. Ennis’ final verbal threat to Jack, from my perspective,
did not rise out of jealousy but rather internalized homophobia.
If Jack was really having sex with other men, then he must be gay.
And, if Jack is gay, then Ennis is surely guilty by association.
As I think back on the movie, which I have seen three times, I
think about the message I would like people to take from it. Certainly
one theme is to hold onto love. I can only imagine the ways they
could have built a life together. Another theme is about the secrets
that harm them. Jack is not able to be honest with Ennis about the
affair he is having back home. Ennis is never able to be honest with
Jack about how he truly feels about him.
If I were to see clients who identified with either of these characters,
I would want them to see how self-hatred and secrecy can be damaging
to their lives. I would want them to understand how short life is.
We don’t always get the chance to say good-bye to the people we love.
It isn’t necessary for you to be a member of the LGBT community to
suffer from the effects of self-hatred and secrecy. These issues
are alive our own lives today.
University of North Dakota
A privilege I have in being a gay academic is the luxury to watch
movies like Brokeback Mountain, read the reviews of the
film, watch the media coverage, discuss all of the above with friends
and colleagues, write a column like this, and feel that doing much
of this is part of my job. There are so many angles from which I
could approach this essay, but will have to forego most of them.
For example, some gay men are put off by thinking about how two heterosexual
men, in a film directed by another heterosexual man, are portraying
two men in a gay relationship. Even the screenwriters are heterosexually
identified (a man and a woman). Where is the gay voice in the most
intriguing GLBT box office hit since A Crying Game a decade
ago? Should we even call it a gay film? Is it more centrally a tragic
I will not delve further down that path, but will acknowledge some
progress in U.S. cinema (and, by extension, society at large) by
the very fact that two young heterosexual actors were prepared to
risk their careers playing characters that would be labeled as gay.
These actors risked being perceived as gay “in real life” and typecast
as gay men in future roles, yet early signs indicate that their careers
and public image are intact, even thriving.
Instead of remaining within my comfort zone of a gay man’s perspective,
I will attempt in the remainder of this essay to think through what
a few heterosexual perspectives on Brokeback Mountain might
be. Thus, I imagine that most heterosexual women will initially feel
attracted to the masculine characters of Jack and Ennis. After all,
Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal are, among other things, Hollywood
sex symbols. How heterosexual women feel when the men fall in love
is an interesting question, but I wonder more about how most heterosexual
men would react to these cowboys. Imagine, if you will, a heterosexual
man attending the film, somehow having missed all of the hype about
it. Would he like these guys at first and feel betrayed or disgusted
when their relationship became sexual? The phenomenon known as homosexual
panic might explain such a reaction. This alleged brief psychotic
disorder is not found in the DSM-IV but has been used as a “gay panic
defense” in legal cases on both sides of the Atlantic for nearly
Two such cases were highly publicized in the 1990s. In the first,
a young man was set up as a guest on the Jenny Jones talk show when
a male friend disclosed his sexual attraction to him in front of
a studio audience. Incensed and humiliated, the object of the gay
man’s attraction tracked down and murdered his admirer after the
show. The gay panic defense was used in court to explain the accused
man’s rage at being the target of gay affection (and, one is led
to believe, at the implication that he too was gay). A few years
later, Matthew Shepard, an openly gay Wyoming college student, was
murdered by two reportedly heterosexual men who testified in court
that they were enraged when Shepard made a sexual proposition to
them. Although judges and juries rarely acquit accused murderers
in cases like these, it is common to feel sympathy on be lenient
on men whose masculinity is perceived to have been threatened by
gay men. An educated perspective on the logic of the accused is something
like “if that guy is into me, what am I doing to turn him on? Am
I giving him signals that I’m gay too? Might I even be gay? No, that
would be horrible! This man is a threat to who I am and what I believe
in. I must annihilate him!”
I would not suggest that the typical heterosexual
man would have nearly so strong a reaction if he were unprepared
to watch the R-rated sexual encounter between Jack and Ennis, but
I suspect that milder feelings of discomfort and self-doubt would
often emerge. Being gay or bisexual is still such a stigma in most
parts of U.S. society that the majority of men are constantly on
guard, to some degree, to protect themselves from any suspicion from
self or others that they might also be gay, bisexual, or even questioning
their sexual orientation. Watching the traditionally masculine Ennis
and Jack fall in love, express their love sexually (though sometimes
violently), and struggle to maintain their closeness through the
years would challenge some men who identify as heterosexual to feel
secure in their own sexuality. As an openly gay man, I applaud any
heterosexual, questioning, or closeted gay or bisexual man who can
Mountain, move past the feelings of being threatened by the
sexual and romantic love of two men, and appreciate the beauty and
tragedy of their relationship. Although their story is a reflection
of the times and places they lived in, those times are not so different
from today and Brokeback Mountain is closer to our own backyard than
we may care to believe.
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