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Issue Date:  February 3, 2006

My own 'Brokeback Mountain'


Sooner or later, more than a few of us men do a mountain stint.

For me, movie scenes from “Brokeback Mountain” flash bigger-than-life reminders of time I spent on that lonely hilltop. My Brokeback occurred 20 years ago in San Francisco. Serving as a naval officer, I was engaged to be married to a woman.

But a severe case of cold feet pushed me to a critical turning point. Unlike Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal), the movie’s protagonists, I broke off that engagement six weeks short of my wedding day.

Believe me, it was not easy telling my fiancée a hurtful truth. I was gay, but my being gay was not her fault. Yes, I really loved her, but a marriage would have been disastrous for both of us.

I shiver to think what my life would look like today if I had continued denying a gay male identity, trying to live a lie that I could no longer sustain.

I was an only son, and pressures of family, church and state weighed heavily on me. So much expectation rested on my shoulders to marry well and carry on the family name. For Ennis and Jack, different societal forces, very real threats of violence and death, ensnared them.

Looking back on my life, I realize the inner courage that this then very conflicted 28-year-old naval officer managed to muster was nothing less than a miracle.

My fiancée’s mother phoned a few days later and said to me, “Chuck, I know that what you did for my daughter, telling her, you did out of love for her. And I will never forget that.”

Fortunately, I lived in California. Gay life and same-sex love had traveled a long way from 1963 to 1983, from the loneliness and heartbreak that E. Annie Proulx’s short story tells in wrenchingly stark prose.

The story’s plot line and mood are only enhanced on film. The motion picture captures all of the pathos and more, with full moons and crystalline blue skies, the alpine beauty of big-sky country Wyoming-style, the wide-open stretches of landscape that Ennis and Jack share with coyotes, bears and herds of sheep.

For me, Gustavo Santaolalla’s haunting music captures perfectly the prevailing melancholy. That music and the dark Wyoming skies pierced only by moonlight enabled me to go back in time, connecting with my own private Brokeback. In the film, it is the mountain’s biting cold that brings Ennis and Jack together, if only for the warmth of human connection in a bedroll. Suddenly, the spark of same-sex male desire ignites and never really dies out.

Many men have been there. It’s a breaking point -- where only the raw male physicality of sexual desire cuts through. Words can’t quite bridge the disconnection and loneliness many of us feel -- imprisoned behind walls of stultifying silence and denial.

But you don’t have to be a cowboy to feel the pain of the ill-fated love story of Ennis and Jack. My husband and I saw “Brokeback Mountain” before visiting my family in Johnstown, Pa. If there is ever a gay-themed story with hometown resonance, this story qualifies.

Home for the holidays, I recalled another powerful scene from the movie. It’s the one in which a highly constricted, emotionally disconnected Ennis holds two shirts. One shirt is Jack’s. That clothing and the memory are all that remain.

Undoubtedly, during the last 40 years, society’s knowledge and understanding of gay people and same-sex relationships have grown. Yet I fear that that for far too many men, Brokeback’s chains still shackle and bind. From small towns in rural America and even within close-knit urban communities -- I wonder about men too constricted to trust their true feelings, too afraid to come out fully, too burdened to be more honest with themselves, family and friends.

I guess I’m lucky. More than 20 years later and well off my Brokeback hilltop, I celebrate nearly two years of being happily married to another man.

Still, married or single, there is something about “Brokeback Mountain” in all of us. Personal narratives on the film’s Web site,, testify to the film’s universal appeal -- for both men and women.

Despite the movie’s instantaneous success at the box office, a “Brokeback” backlash of misunderstanding has surfaced.

A few weeks ago, the movie was pulled from some theaters in Utah. One critic charges Hollywood with forcing a homosexual agenda on America by raping the Marlboro Man.

But I am not worried. The truth-telling power of this film derives from its ability to break the back of prejudice, intolerance and misunderstanding. For those who leave Brokeback’s pain behind, there’s no turning back -- no return to the self-destructiveness of self-denial, to the prison of silence.

Backlashers beware. The movie’s box-office triumph is your worst nightmare.

Chuck Colbert is a freelance writer who lives in Cambridge, Mass. He has contributed many articles to NCR.

National Catholic Reporter, February 3, 2006

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