Sunday, September 11, 2011

I Love My Dead Gay Cowboy

One more quotation from Chris Freeman's article on Brokeback Mountain. Tom Gregory, the collector who bought Jack and Ennis's shirts, told Freeman in an interview:
I think Brokeback was so cathartic for my friends because it allowed them to see themselves represented in some way that they hoped, when the movie had a wider release, would make us more acceptable in 2005. It was a hopeful movie for us. For the first time, I think a lot of gay people really thought that finally, now, when people see what we're really like, this persecution will cease [113].
Gregory also told Freeman,
When Ennis says, "Jack, I swear," it is a powerful line. What was he swearing to? I swear I love you? I swear I wish it could have been different? I think it's a great slogan for gay America [114].
It might be that in the first quotation, Gregory was not describing a sentiment he agreed with; it sounds that way to me. I'm sure that a lot of gay men did think that a melodramatic movie would make the persecution cease, though looking at the past six years I think that hope has been decisively dashed. Such a wish is magical thinking, to my mind, but it's typical of American attitudes in general to believe that a single intervention, whether a movie or a heroic African-American ascending to the presidency, would produce fundamental and lasting change without any need for anyone to do more.

Even more mind-boggling to me is the bit about "when people see what we're really like." Again, this is a movie, with the gay characters played by straight actors, far more attractive than the majority of American men straight or gay. (Gyllenhaal and Ledger are also more glamorous than the characters as they are described in the original story.) The characters are not at all representative of American gay men. I've written before about the film that "Middle-class gay men especially were excited about a love story involving trailer trash they’d have scorned in real life." As Brokeback Book's editor William R. Handley reports,
Noah Tsika told me that when he saw the film in New York, among the many gay men who had dressed up as cowboys for the occasion, one was heard to complain on the way out of the theater, "I didn't realize they [Jack and Ennis] were going to be white trash!" [11]
I've long thought that a major weakness of the assimilationist gay movement is its fundamental dishonesty. It tries to sell to straight America a false image of gay men, not "what we're really like," not even what we wish we were like, but what the movement thinks will sell. "What we're really like" may include a few men like Jack and Ennis, but it also includes drag queens and leathermen, collectors of movie memorabilia and hairdressers. The scary thing is that so many gay men could look at Brokeback Mountain and think, in all seriousness, That's what we're really like!

The other factor involved is pity. Feel sorry for us! the assimilationist gay movement cries. We can't get married! We get queer-bashed! And if you don't kill us, we'll kill ourselves! Just so, it's too easy to focus on Ennis swearing something inchoate to a dead man's shirt. If Jack were to come back to life, with his inconvenient, unrealistic and scary demands that the two of them build a life together, it's a safe bet that Ennis would forget his fine sentiments and oaths. A dead gay son is so much easier to love than a living one.

Slogans are all very well. They're probably useful in building a movement for social justice. But they're no substitute for getting out there and doing the hard work. I saw Brokeback Mountain in the theater twice, and bought the DVD but never watched it all the way through. I wonder now if one thing that put me off watching it again was the absurd things that so many other gay men said about it. Not that that's any excuse.

Incidentally, the next article after Freeman's is about the installation of the two shirts at the Autry International Center, and it mentions the International Gay Rodeo Association, another relevant part of American and GLBT history. (I first heard about it in Armistead Maupin's Further Tales of the City, published in 1982.) Annie Proulx preferred to see gay men in the West as pitiful, helpless isolates; the reality is often different, and the IGRA is one useful corrective.