Covered Mountain 

The author of Covering: The Hidden Assault on our Civil Rights sees the gay rights movement as a history of weakening demands for assimilation. So where does Brokeback fit in?

BY Kenji Yoshino

January 31 2006 12:00 AM ET

Brokeback Mountain continues to bring gay life out of
the closet as never before, as suggested by its
commercial success (over $42 million at the box
office) and critical plaudits (four Golden Globes and eight
Oscar nominations). On the other hand, the movie continues
to accede to various demands to conform to straight
norms. In walking that tightrope, the movie reflects
where we are in the unfolding saga of gay
rights.

The history of
gay rights can be retold as a history of increasingly
weakening demands for assimilation: the demand to convert,
the demand to pass, and the demand to cover. Through
the middle decades of the 20th century, gays were
routinely pressured to convert to
heterosexuality—whether through lobotomies,
electroshock therapy, or psychoanalysis.

As the gay rights
movement gained traction, the demand to convert
gradually shifted in emphasis toward the demand to pass.
Gays would be left alone as long as they remained in
the closet. This shift is exemplified by the
military’s 1993 movement from categorically excluding
gays to its current “don’t ask, don’t
tell” policy, under which gays can serve as
long as they remain in the closet.

Today, we are
seeing another shift. Gays are increasingly allowed to be
open about their homosexuality as long as they
“cover”—sociologist Erving
Goffman’s word for how individuals “tone
down” known stigmatized traits. In some sectors
of American society, it’s all right to be openly gay
as long as you don’t “flaunt”
your sexuality, by, for instance, holding hands with a
same-sex partner, engaging in gay activism, or behaving in
gender-atypical ways.

Brokeback Mountain, which spans two decades beginning
in 1963, depicts cowboys trapped in the first two
generations of gay history. The emotionally frozen
Ennis can never fully embrace his love for Jack
because he has been subjected to a particularly terrifying
form of conversion therapy. When he was 9, his
father took him to see a man who had been beaten to
death for having “ranched up” with another
man. The heterosexual imperative reflected in that
murder drives both Ennis and Jack to marry women. But
Jack believes a different life is possible—he
tries to persuade Ennis that they can inhabit a closet built
for two. The tragedy of the film is that Jack is too far
ahead of his time—it is the less courageous
Ennis who survives.

From a gay
perspective, the film is bearable to watch only from the
vantage of the present day. Of course, gay hate crimes
continue—Wyoming, where Brokeback is set, is
also where 21-year-old Matthew Shepherd was murdered
in 1998. But if Jack and Ennis were alive today,
they would have had a shot at living a different
story, as the warm reception accorded the film suggests.

At the same time,
the significant opposition to the film shows the
distance gays have yet to travel. Conservative critics have
denounced the film as “homosexual
propaganda,” a “commercial for gay
marriage,” or the “rape of the Marlboro
man.” A theater in Utah went so far as to pull the
film from distribution.

Like many openly
gay individuals today, the film has responded to this
opposition by covering. Even the film’s most ardent
advocates have “de-gayed” it to make it
more palatable to the mainstream. Focus Features,
which released Brokeback, published ads that feature
Ennis and Jack with their on-screen wives rather than with
each other. Adulatory commentators have insisted that
the film is a love story that transcends its gay
particulars with such ferocity that they implicitly
concede those particulars are deeply shameful. And of
course, much of the film’s appeal is that Jack
and Ennis are real cowboys—so straight-acting
they evade the gay stereotype.

Gays will not
achieve full equality until a film does not need to cover
in these ways to have mainstream appeal. But perhaps the
concessions made by the film only make
Brokeback more poignant. They testify to the
difficulty of moving beyond the covering demand toward full
liberation. We should not expect love that was for so
long unspeakable to break its silence without a
quaver.

Tags: Commentary

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