The rocky political trail that led to Brokeback 

The Brokeback Mountain phenomenon didn’t happen by accident—it comes after decades of gay activism, political progress, and gradual changes in the media’s coverage of homosexuality

BY John Morgan Wilson

March 02 2006 1:00 AM ET

As the
groundbreaking film Brokeback Mountain faces its
brightest spotlight yet on Oscar night March
5—eight nominations, including Best
Picture—its unique place in our cultural history is
already secure. With its wave of critical raves and
awards, venomous counterreaction and talk of a
heartland backlash, and endless jokes about “the gay
cowboy movie,” there’s never been
anything quite like it.

Yet amid all the
media coverage and general hoopla, a vital link in its
evolution has been largely overlooked: the unprecedented
emergence of gay performers, entertainment executives,
and other key figures from the Hollywood closet that
took place long before the short story by Annie Proulx
was turned into the most talked about American movie since
Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ.
This personal exodus from secrecy and shame by so many
in Hollywood’s creative community has had a
profound impact on movies, TV programming, and our culture
in general, with Brokeback Mountain only the
latest and most notable example. Brokeback may
have been principally made by heterosexuals, but only
after Hollywood’s most fearless homosexuals paved the
way.

Ten or 15 years
ago, Brokeback Mountain would not have reached the
production stage, certainly not as a mainstream Hollywood
movie with a major director like Ang Lee and name
actors like Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal in the
leading roles. Prior to Brokeback, Hollywood
produced other prominent gay-themed films—silly
comedies like The Birdcage, with its flamboyant
gay characters, and earnest message dramas like
Philadelphia, in which the gay protagonist dies of
AIDS complications. But before Brokeback, there had
never been a major motion picture that portrayed love
between men so sensitively and unabashedly, giving it
as much due on the big screen as heterosexual romance
has always been accorded.

It didn’t
happen by accident, or in a social or political vacuum. It
comes after decades of increasing gay activism, gay legal
and political progress, and gradual changes in the
media’s coverage and the public’s
perception of homosexuality. Largely forgotten in this
cultural transformation is the controversial role
played by “outing”—a term coined
by militant gay activists who began exposing closeted
celebrities and other public figures as a potent new
political weapon in 1989.

Outing got its
start in the pages of OutWeek, a militant gay New
York weekly that began exposing influential public figures
who were known to be secretly gay. The idea was to
increase gay visibility, and with it political power,
and to bolster the effort for more AIDS funding,
prevention, and treatment. OutWeek’s bold
approach caught on with other gay activists and struck
abject fear into Hollywood. As the mainstream media
covered the issue, the names of “outed”
individuals soon found their way into publications
like Newsweek, People, and Daily
Variety.
How to cover this phenomenon had mainstream
editors flummoxed, because journalists had
historically protected certain celebrities by falsely
portraying them as heterosexual, a time-honored
collusion between the entertainment industry and the media
that many gay activists felt reinforced the stigma and
validated the shame.

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