This film takes us back to the basics.
The dual themes are huge and simple: love and the terror of it. A sprout of love that is playful, tender, rough and hot struggles to thrive in terrain that is bleak, forbidding, silent and cold. Along the way we see the terrible destructiveness of homophobia – not just on Ennis and Jack, but on their wives, their children, and almost everyone else in their lives. We see how homophobia harms everyone, and why we’ll all benefit when our culture finally outgrows its childish terror of same-sex love.
The film also accurately shows what being “in the closet” really means. It rarely means – as so many of us delude ourselves into believing – that “nobody knows.” As often as not, what it really means is that everyone knows, but no one speaks. Ennis’s wife knows for years that her husband is sexually involved with Jack, but only long after their divorce is she able to say so, and then only as an ugly accusation which forecloses on any understanding or real communication. Jack’s father knows who Jack’s “friend” really is, but can only glower in silent contempt at Ennis. And Ennis, even when he’s completely alone, can only say “Jack, I swear—” Even in solitude, he can’t bring himself to say aloud “I love you.” The silence in this film is deafening.
Like every other gay man I’ve ever met, I’ve known the immense destructive power of homophobia up close and personal in my own life. But as I watched this story, I felt gratitude for my own good fortune to have grown up in an environment much more gay friendly than the world of Ennis and Jack. When I was a young man struggling with my own internalized homophobia, there were friends, teachers, family members, and counselors who all stepped forward to encourage me to be who I am, and who demonstrated that they loved and supported me in my efforts to come to terms with myself. I don’t know how I would have survived without them. Neither Ennis nor Jack ever hear a single kind or respectful word about their most tender, most cherished feelings. Love is powerful, but unless our feelings are reflected back to us in the love and respect of others, it’s all but impossible to embrace them ourselves. No one overcomes the cancer of homophobia in isolation, and we have a collective responsibility to see that no one has to try.
Every culture places restrictions on what kinds of people we’re permitted to love – no one from that clan, in that class, of that race – of that sex. Romeo and Juliet stories are a perennially popular genre because there is something anarchic about love. It regularly breaks the rules, goes where it isn’t supposed to, and crosses every barrier we try to erect against it. Stories of star-crossed lovers speak of the tragedy of the human condition. They remind us that, as a species, we’re most afraid of what we most need. But there is something in these stories to celebrate, too. They speak of the courage and dignity of the human spirit, because human love struggles to fulfill itself everywhere, no matter how daunting the obstacles.
Finally, the film reminded me of what I am about, and what all of us are about. It is false and demeaning to describe our deepest feelings as a “sexual orientation.” The phrase “sexual/affectional orientation” is a little better, but still too clinical. Simply put, what we’re about is love. When we refer to ourselves as ‘gay’ or ‘queer’ we’re talking about where our love wants to go.
This thought answered the question that the film left me asking. “What can I do?” I felt an urgency to do something to alleviate the overwhelming suffering that it portrays. But what? I can write, I can contribute money, I can vote and campaign. But I already do these things, and nothing I can do today can undo what homophobia has done to the lives of millions down the centuries. Brokeback Mountain reminded me to get back to the basics, to remember that the most helpful thing I can do is live from the truth of what I’m about.
There’s a place in everyone’s heart that no hatred, no shame, and no fear, have ever touched. Anyone who has loved for even a moment has been in that place, and it isn’t until we have been there that we can fully comprehend the poignancy, the joy, the tragedy, and the dignity, of our shared condition as human beings. What I can do is make that place my home by doing all in my power to live every moment of my life in loyalty to what I’ve learned there. What I can do is live with pride and dignity and gratitude the one and only life that is in me to live. What I can do is love.