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An actor who
changed gay lives

An actor who
changed gay lives


He didn't win an Academy Award. But Heath Ledger's performance in Brokeback Mountain moved real people to grieve, get honest, come out, and claim their own destinies. Here are a few of their stories.

The tormented romance between Heath Ledger's Ennis Del Mar and Jake Gyllenhaal's Jack Twist resonated across sexual orientations and gender identities. After the film's December 2005 theatrical release, gay men went online seeking kindred spirits to discuss its effect and found places like journalist Dave Cullen's Ultimate Brokeback Forum, which now has grown to over 6,500 members. Moved by Ledger's January 22 death, some of these admirers bought a half-page memorial ad in the January 29 issue of Variety and began collecting personal stories for a scrapbook they plan to send to Matilda, Ledger's 2-year-old daughter.

"Brokeback Mountain did cause a lot of gay people who were in the closet to come out," says Cullen, 46. "A striking number of people lost a lot of weight or stopped smoking or made other changes to their lives in recognition of how they had to stop living that way."

Nick Villanueva of Idaho was still in the closet when he went with his wife to see Brokeback Mountain the January after its release. "Afterward, I was completely torn apart inside," says Villanueva, 35, who has five children. "Just like Ennis, even though happiness for him was [being] with Jack, it was not an option. He went back and married Alma and had kids. That's exactly what I had done. Watching Ennis and seeing how lonely he ended up being, I realized that really could be me emotionally."

By March 2007, Villanueva had come out to his family, and he and his wife of 11 years were divorced. He says seeing the film had been "a nail in the coffin" to issues they had already been having. Brokeback still plays a role in his life. Within the last month Villanueva came out to a coworker and then asked her to watch the film as a way to understand his life.

"What I appreciate now is the way Heath Ledger portrayed Ennis," Villanueva says. "I don't know if anyone else could have done it the way he did because of the kind of actor he was, the way he poured himself into characters. That's what reached out to me on an emotional level."

Ennis Del Mar also felt familiar to Joe Argazzi. Like the character, Argazzi had dated a man who wanted to build a life together. "I related to Ennis," says Argazzi, 52. "I had to get away."

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Todd Henneman