Brokeback Mountain is a movie that has received much praise and attention, and it is one that deserves it. Yet there is an aspect of the film that has gone unnoticed. Though it is often spoken of as a love story between two gay cowboys, it isn't really that at all. Paradoxically, it is a love story between two "homophobic" men -- two genuinely macho guys who felt visceral revulsion at everything that our culture has come to associate with the word gay.
Admittedly, this is a contrarian view of the movie. For example, in a review of Brokeback Mountain in the gay magazine David, the author has called the movie "arguably a gay polemic," and asserts that it presents "its simple, passionate argument against the notion of forcing homosexuals into heterosexual 'normal' marriages, which doesn't strengthen the institution any more than banning same-sex marriages does." Yet this interpretation leaves a host of unanswered questions. For example, who "forced" the two cowboys into "normal" marriage? And what power forced them to remain in the closet, long after the era of Gay Liberation had commenced? Who told them that they had to stay in Wyoming and Texas? Are we simply to blame a homophobic society for their refusal to accept their gay status. Or are the two cowboys simply the weak and ignorant dupes of our societal norms? And would the movie have really had a happy ending if gay marriage was legal?
The whole "gay polemic" interpretation of Brokeback Mountain begins by assuming that the two lead characters, Jack Twist and Ennis del Mar were homosexuals. But were they? Or, let's put it this way, did they consider themselves to be homosexuals?
On the day after the two young men first have sex with each other, on the slopes of Brokeback Mountain, they have an exchange in which both emphatically deny that they are "queer" -- and, if the word had been available at the time, they would been equally insistent on denying that they were gay.
Though the movie begins in 1963, before the Stonewall Revolution, the love story goes on several decades into the era known as Gay Liberation. Yet at no point in the movie does this supposed liberation have any effect on the destinies of the two main characters. At no point does either of the guys think, "Say, I'll go to a gay bar and pick up guys." One of the characters, Ennis del Mar, remains completely faithful to the other; the other, Jack Twist, when he seeks homosexual release, does not go to an American gay bar, but crosses the border to pick up a straight Mexican hustler. The last thing he is looking for is a gay man. The last thing they want is to participate in gay culture. That is for sissies and queers, and not for men like them. Indeed, nothing could be more foreign to them than what is now called gay culture.
If Brokeback Mountain had really been a love story between two gay men, it would have been much shorter. Both the cowboys, after discovering their sexual attraction to each other, would have simply come out of the closet, moved to San Francisco, opened a boutique that specialized in boots and stirrups and other leather gear, and would have lived happily ever after. The poignancy of their story lies precisely in the fact that neither of the two heroes can escape by this route. It is completely shut off for them. That is the reason Brokeback Mountain looms so expressively throughout the movie -- it is the only place where they can love each other and still remain men in their own eyes. To come down from the mountain, and settle down into gay domesticity is not an option for them, because it would rob them of their dignity as men. It would be to accept the label and stigma of being gay. It would force them to admit to being something less than a real man in the estimate of our society, and it would transform them into gay men -- a queer kind of quasi-male our society is willing to tolerate, and even to chuckle over and smile at, the way people chuckle over and smile at the funny sissies on Will and Grace. But neither of the cowboys could allow such an insult to their pride and dignity, and thus their only escape was to return to the isolation of the mountain, where, by themselves, they could achieve what even the most gay tolerant society could not give them -- a sense of manliness. It was not gay marriage they were seeking, with its pretence of ersatz husband and ersatz wife; it was liberation from the clichés and the stereotypes that devalued and dismissed their manhood, and that would have imposed on them the obligatory patterns of modern gay identity -- a particular way of talking, walking, laughing, joking that was simply not their way of talking, walking, laughing, joking.
Now there is another possible reading of the two cowboys' refusal to accept the label of being homosexuals, queers, or gays, and this is to argue that both of them are in a state of psychological denial about their true sexual identity. On this interpretation, both the cowboys are really gay, but because of the prejudice with which they were raised, they are psychologically compelled to deny their gayness. Thus, instead of being the heroes of their story, they are really hapless and uncomprehending victims -- victims of the homophobia that has been programmed into them by their culture. Unable to accept the proper label to describe themselves, as healthy and normal gay men do, the two men go on to lead pathetic lives of pathological self-deception, desperately trying to prove that they are really normal guys, and not queers. Had they only sought out professional psychological counseling, or called the Gay Hot-Line, then the movie might have had a happy ending, after all.
Such a reading of the movie does in fact turn it into nothing more than a "gay polemic," and utterly misses the genuinely tragic element in the story. Ennis and Jack were not in a state of denial; they certainly knew they loved each other passionately. Yet both of them were equally convinced that, despite their love, they were normal guys, and they refused to accept being labeled as anything else -- or being labeled at all. They repelled the stigma of homosexuality not because they were in denial, but because they were in revolt. They refused to accept the label that society wished to impose upon them -- and that is what elevated their struggle into genuine heroism, and not merely pathological denial.
Many years ago, the American sociologist Ervin Goffman wrote a profound little book that he entitled Stigma. It is a study of the psychological effects on those who have been branded by the society around them with the demeaning label of being social deviants. When all those around us call us by such a label, it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to keep a sense of our own humanity. We begin to see ourselves as others see us, and to categorize ourselves as others categorize us. Instead of defining who we are, we begin to accept the definition that others have imposed. In some cases, the label may be vicious and demeaning, like "queer" and "faggot"; in other cases, the label may be sympathetic and well-intended, like "gay," but in either case, once we have accepted the label at the hands of others we find ourselves trapped by it. From this perspective, it makes little difference whether those who are assigning the labels are being tolerant or intolerant, bigoted or "scientific" in their approach.
It was against this oppressive and dehumanizing labeling system that the two cowboy heroes in Brokeback Mountain were rebelling, and it is what gives their personal struggles a universal significance that far transcends such labels as "gay" or "straight." For both of them, like all of us, found themselves trapped in a world in which an anonymous society is always ready to label us, and both of them fiercely resisted the stigma that they knew other people would brand them with. Their resistance to being labeled, however, was the furthest thing from psychological denial. On the contrary, it was the noblest expression of human dignity: the refusal to let others treat us as things. When in the movie The Elephant Man, the hero cries, "I am not an animal," he is exhibiting the same refusal of a label, and in that moment he rises to the level of the genuinely heroic and the fully human.
The same can be said of our two cowboys when they both said that they aren't queers. They are ferociously resisting the label that the world insists on applying to them. They know how queers act, and they know that they don't act like that, and they know that they never can. For them, gay sub-culture was a totally alien culture in which neither of them could have found a place. All that they knew, all that they could be comfortable with, was the world of normal guys. It was where they belonged, and it was where they were at home. To have told them, "You must throw away your old self and assume a gay identity," would have been asking them to change the deepest core of their characters, and neither was willing to make such a sacrifice, even if they had been capable of it.
Thus, the two cowboys were only left with Brokeback Mountain. It was only on Brokeback Mountain that they could love each other without being queers or fags or even a nice gay couple -- the only place where they could love each other passionately and still hold up their heads like men.
Yet this was precisely the source of the tragic dimension of the story. Brokeback Mountain was not a life, but an escape from life. It was something to look forward to or to look back upon -- but it could never become for them a permanent place of abode. Both of the cowboys were heroic enough to keep their love for each other alive over the course of several decades, but it was a love that could only find fulfillment when they had left the world behind and had ascended to the isolation and seclusion of the mountain. Thus their rebellion against the way of the world ended as all such rebellions end -- in the inevitable defeat of the rebels and the victory of the world.
There was no other outcome to the story that was possible. To try to turn Brokeback Mountain into a "gay polemic" is not only to insult the human dignity of the imaginary characters of Jack and Ennis; it is to insult the dignity of all those men who have tried to rebel, as Jack and Ennis did, against the dehumanizing effects of those two words "homosexual" and "heterosexual" -- words that, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, did not even exist in the English language before 1900, but which now hang heavily and oppressively over all of us.
The French philosopher Michel Foucault, in his History of Sexuality, argued that we live not in an age of sexual liberation, but in an age of sexual repression -- a subtle form of repression, however, in that it works by forcing us to define our identity in terms of a preexisting conceptual system that has been devised for us by the triumphant psychotherapeutic establishment. Thus, a boy growing up in America today must constantly be asking himself, "Am I a homosexual or am I a heterosexual" -- an interior interrogation that no boys have ever been forced to enact. Is this liberation? Or is it psychological oppression of a peculiarly insidious nature?
What the two cowboys of Brokeback Mountain were rebelling against was not being forced into normal marriage by society, but against being forced to define their humanity in accordance with other people's ideas of what they should call themselves. They simply wanted to be treated and looked upon like men -- not as queers or homosexuals or gays -- but simply men. That is what gives their story such poignancy and nobility. Had they been merely puppets in a gay polemic, then their love for one another would have lacked the tragic intensity that it possessed, and the movie itself would be stripped of its haunting grandeur. But Ennis and Jack were not puppets; they were real human beings caught in a tragic dilemma, and it is this that makes Brokeback Mountain a genuine work of art, and not a piece of propaganda, however well-intentioned.Lee Harris is author of Civilization and Its Enemies.