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The rocky
political trail that led to Brokeback 

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

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.

The alarmed reaction to outing wasn't limited to Hollywood or the mainstream press; the debate in the gay subculture was volatile and divisive. For several years after OutWeek began naming names, exposing someone's homosexuality against their wishes was widely regarded as a reckless and unfair invasion of privacy. Its proponents were vilified as malicious, irresponsible, or simply envious of the secretive public figures they'd suddenly reduced to trembling.

It now seems clear that outing has been considerably less damaging to careers than many predicted. In a radio interview in 2003, the year actor Richard Chamberlain first acknowledged his homosexuality publicly, he recalled being "terrified" in the early '90s that his career would end after seeing a rumor of his homosexuality in print, but added, "In the end, it didn't change my life hardly at all." Whether right or wrong, fair or unfair, outing has accomplished much of what its proponents had predicted, focusing attention on gay rights and the pathos of the closeted life as never before, while making it easier for more people in all walks of life to come out on their own.

The most measurable impact has arguably taken place in Hollywood, where the number of unapologetic lesbians and gay men who work behind or in front of the camera has grown from a brave few to literally hundreds, if not thousands. As more of the industry's movers and shakers came out, they gained new respect from many of their colleagues and found their clout expanded rather than diminished. This newfound freedom allowed them to support worthy gay-themed projects without the fear for their reputations and careers that would have discouraged or paralyzed them in earlier years. This led to a dramatic increase in gay characters and themes in TV and film, which has had its own ripple effect on the public consciousness.

Today, sympathetic gay characters on-screen are no longer an oddity or aberration. It's almost routine now to hear gay men and women thank their partners when they accept their Oscars, Emmys, and other awards, quite comfortable being themselves before their colleagues and tens of millions of viewers at home. And while no major stars--action or romantic leads--have yet found the courage to come out in the prime of their careers, plenty of other Hollywood personalities have.

At the end of the 1980s, it was still difficult to name a performer of much stature who was avowedly gay. Today, the "out" list burgeons with well-known talent: Ellen DeGeneres, Sir Ian McKellen, Melissa Etheridge, Rosie O'Donnell, Elton John, Nathan Lane, Lily Tomlin, Alan Cumming, Harvey Fierstein, k.d. lang, George Michael, Rupert Everett, Bruce Vilanch, Sandra Bernhard, Alec Mapa, Chad Allen, B.D. Wong, Tab Hunter, George Takei, and many more. Add to these the names of influential executives and creative forces like David Geffen, Scott Rudin, Nina Jacobson, Tony Kushner, Gus Van Sant, Lee Rose, Clive Barker, Ilene Chaiken, Bill Condon, Craig Zadan, Neil Meron, Todd Haynes, Carolyn Strauss, Alan Ball, Paris Barclay, Terrence McNally, Marc Cherry, Craig Lucas, Paul Rudnick, Darren Star, and Charles Busch, among countless others, and the continuing impact of Hollywood's new openness becomes especially clear.

Not too many years ago, printing these names in this context would have been unthinkable. Today, it's lost its potential to shock, titillate, or cause harm--one of the goals of outing in the first place. Love it or hate it, outing has made it safer for people everywhere to express themselves openly and honestly, and in Hollywood most of all.

Which brings us back to Brokeback Mountain. To many filmgoers, it may just be another well-told drama with a gay twist. But to gay men and women who understand how myths and dreams are shaped by cinema, and who long to see their stories told by Hollywood, Brokeback Mountain is an important landmark in their largely untold history. It comes only after Hollywood's bravest kicked open their closet doors, stuck their necks out, and made their voices heard.

Without these trailblazers, Brokeback Mountain might still be an acclaimed but problematic short story, waiting to be filmed.

Advocate Channel - The Pride StoreOut / Advocate Magazine - Fellow Travelers & Jamie Lee Curtis

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John Morgan Wilson