Annie Proulx’s Brokeback Mountain is a tragic story of forbidden love. It chronicles the romance between Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist, two cowboys who fall head over heels for each other in the spring of 1963. Their relationship endures for twenty years, never fully resolved, never fully let go of, and always surrounded by fear, confusion, and above all, by love. Brokeback Mountain depicted a story that was both accurate in its portrayal of queerness in the setting of its story, and in making it relatable to queerness and homosexuality today.
Later, when turned into a movie, it broke even more barriers, and furthered its social effects on Hollywood and Society.
Brokeback Mountain accurately describes the attitudes of society towards homosexuals in the 1960’s, specifically of those that live where the story took place. In the 1960’s, police raids of gay bars were routine, and extremely violent. The stigma associated with even the idea of being homosexual was crippling. It was considered a disease, and looked down upon severely.
But finally, the gay rights movement was gaining its footing. During this time, influenced by the model of a militant black civil rights movement, the “homophile movement,” as the participants dubbed it, became more visible. Activists, such as Franklin Kameny and Barbara Gittings, picketed government agencies in Washington to protest discriminatory employment policies. But the south, the setting of Brokeback Mountain, was very different.
Although these were great steps towards equality, many states in the south and west were very far behind. The treatments of gays shown in the story were painfully accurate. At one point, when Ennis and Jack reunite after four years, they fear what would happen if they got caught. Ennis tells Jack the story from his childhood, saying: “There was these two old guys ranched together down home, Earl and Rich- Dad would pass a remark when he seen them. They was a joke even though they was pretty tough old birds. I was what, nine years old and they found Earl dead in a irrigation ditch. They’d took a tire iron to him, spurred him up, drug him around by his dick until it pulled off, just bloody pulp. What the tire iron done looked like pieces a burned tomatoes all over him, nose tore down from skiddin on gravel.” (29)
Incidents like this were not uncommon in the 60’s, and as horrifying as it seemed to read this passage in the book, what made it worse was the Proulx was in no way exaggerating, but rather relaying the harsh truth of the events that would occur during this time. Brokeback Mountain is still relatable to by many people, especially by those that can identify with the characters in the story. Wyoming, the state where Ennis and Jack met, is in an area of the United States that is still not completely supportive of the gay rights movement. In an article published in The New York Times in 2005, after the release of the film based on Brokeback Mountain, many people who identified as homosexual came forward to speak about their experiences. They grimly spoke about the intolerance they still face, and Derrick Glover, a 33 year old gay rancher said, “Where I live, you can’t really go out and be yourself. You couldn’t go out together, two guys, as a couple and ever be accepted.
It wasn’t accepted in the past, it’s still not, and I don’t think it ever will be.” Glover came from a family of ranchers, and his family had herded the lands around their home for generations. He grew up “herding, branding, culling and haying, horses hobbled on picket lines and calves pulled forcibly from their mother’s bodies during spring calving,” and every summer he would set out with his brother in a panel truck carrying their two quarter horses, to compete in calf and steer roping competitions. His tale sounds just like that of Jack and Ennis, growing up and knowing nothing but being a cowboy, but just like Jack and Ennis, he would never have been accepted for who he was. Because of this, he was leaving his home and moving to an area with more people and more tolerance. This situation, oddly reminiscent of Stephen in “The Well of Loneliness,” is something that occurs shockingly often.
At one point in the story, Ennis declares, “I ain’t queer,” despite the fact that he had sex with Jack. He refused to acknowledge that he could possibly be a homosexual, and that somehow, maybe, he could be falling for another man. Ennis is more masculine of the two, and in declaring his homosexuality, even to himself, he would be losing an aspect of his masculinity. Ben Clark, another man who spoke of being growing up on a ranch and being gay, said of it, “”But I had no idea what to do about it, ever. I was raised in a ranching, rodeo world – wrangling, packing horses, riding bucking stock, working in hunting camps – but always with the sense that I had to conceal who I was because cowboys could never be gay.” Cowboys have always been seen as men who are rough and wild, who face nature with stern faces and no fear, men whose masculinity was literally one of the main essences of their being, and this stereotypically cowboy image is what hinders the acceptance of so many homosexual men in the west. Of this image, Mr. Clark said, “”I could not accept being gay because of the stereotypes that were drilled into me…Gay men are emotionally weak.
They are not real men. They are like women.” This sentiment, unfortunately, is echoed throughout much of the United States, and the rest of the world as well. By showing that these macho, strong, ranch hands and cowboys could be gay, Brokeback Mountain rejected the normative ideas of what is considered “queer” and “gay.” It showcased two homosexual men as regular men, and didn’t attempt to fit them into the stereotypical, effeminate image of gay men. Homosexual men used to be seen as perverts, men who just wanted to have sex with other men, but Brokeback Mountain destroys that idea. It shows queerness and homosexuality as what it truly is- love. It showcases the intense affection one person can have for another, regardless of their gender. In 2005, Brokeback Mountain was turned into a movie, and was met with great approval. Starring Jake Gyllenhall and Heath Ledger, the movie went on to receive many awards, including three Academy Awards for Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Score as well as four Golden Globe awards for Best Motion Picture – Drama, Best Director, Best Song, and Best Screenplay and four BAFTA Awards for Best Film, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor (Jake Gyllenhaal).
The film also received four Screen Actors Guild nominations for Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress and Best Ensemble, more than any other movie released in 2005. It was a hit. More than that though, it reached thousands more people than it did as a book. What was once just a short story by a Pulitzer Prize winning author was now a major motion picture being shown all over the United States. It opened up people’s eyes, it started discussions, and it helped break down barriers in the normative stereotypes of what gay men were. Instead of just imagined characters, Jack and Ennis now had faces put to them, and these faces were well known actors. Leonard Maltin, a film critic and historian, said that Brokeback Mountain was “… in some uncharted waters, because it shows what it’s like for two men to feel that kind of longing and passion for each other, and people aren’t used to that…No one movie is going to turn things around, but they can be building blocks.
That could be this movie’s legacy.” The movie helped in attempting to erase Hollywood’s homosexual stereotypes, and to raise consciousness of gay rights. Gay rights groups immediately embraced the movie after it came out. The Gay and Lesbian Alliance against Defamation (GLAAD) established online resource guides for the movie. The guides had links to both articles and support groups for cowboys and ranchers who identified as homosexual, and who often felt confused and alone in the struggle with their sexual orientation. The Human Rights Campaign also joined in, issuing “Oscar Party Kits,” with posters of Brokeback Mountain, and cards that read “Talk about It” to encourage the discussion of gay rights. Brokeback Mountain put a new spin on cowboy stories.
It showed the life of two queer cowboys, who could never fully give in to their love. It created a story that could have been plucked straight out of Wyoming in the 1960’s, through its accuracy and effectiveness. It was raw and real, and it was unapologetically showed the struggles faced by homosexual cowboys and ranchers, both in the 1960’s, and even today. The movie of the same name attempted to break down barriers in Hollywood, and it spread the story of Jack and Ennis even further, opening more people’s eyes to the reality of queer relationships, and how they don’t always fit into certain molds. Brokeback Mountain is a classic piece of queer literature, one that will continue to be both authentic and relatable for years to come.