Meet A Real Life ’Brokeback Mountain’ Couple
It was a real-life "Brokeback Mountain" couple that Courier-Post staff writer Robert Baxter met--though this was when Baxter was a young boy, long before Annie Proulx wrote the story that filmmaker Ang Lee would eventually turn into an affecting story of love between two shepherds in the wilds of Wyoming and the life-long romance that followed.
In his Aug. 27 Courier-Post article, Baxter described meeting the two cowboys, Bud and Manuel, at age "5, maybe 6," while at a county fair with his grandmother. Baxter wrote of how the cowboys "looked like real men. Lean, muscular, with big, calloused hands and strong faces, tanned by the sun." Bud was a ranch owner; Manuel was his foreman; and the two men shared a life, Baxter wrote. Indeed, although nobody in the small California community where the men lived made an issue of it, "everyone sensed Bud belonged to Manuel," and the pairing, Baxter recalls, went over "as comfortably as Charlie and Mary or Harry and Alice."
Baxter draws parallels between Bud and Manuel and the movie’s fictitious pair of lovers, Jack and Ennis, noting that the year when the movie begins, 1963, was also, coincidentally, the year Baxter came out as gay. "It was rough then," writes Baxter. "There were no support groups and no resources available to provide a helping hand as we struggled to accept our sexuality and overcome the self-loathing society heaped on us."
Adds the writer, "Three visual metaphors from Brokeback Mountain echo in the memories of every gay man who came out when Ennis and Jack were struggling to accept their love--the closet, the bloodied shirts and the tire iron." The shirts belong to Ennis and Jack. One of them is stained with Ennis’ blood from a bloody nose after Jack, fooling with a lasso, accidentally trips him. Jack later steals the bloodied shirt and tucks it together with one of his own; he keeps them both secreted away, on a single hangar, tucked into a closet in his parents’ home. Ennis discovers them there while visiting Jack’s family after Jack’s death--ostensibly the result of an accident, but Ennis imagines an alternative, suppressed version of events in which a gang of homophobic men beat Jack to death with a tire iron.
In 1963--and even now--such brutal violence aimed at a gay man was all too possible, and all too commonplace. Indeed, Baxter himself describes being suddenly set upon one evening and left bloodied by an attacker--only for passers-by to keep walking. Baxter writes that his only helpers were two gay men who saw him staggering by their home. Things were even tougher for others: three gay college friends committed suicide.
But somehow, Bud and Manuel made it work, and Baxter writes about how Bud presented Baxter’s mother with a pair of antique earrings that had belonged to Bud’s own deceased mother.
Baxter writes that the film delivered catharsis for him, and no doubt it did the same for many others who lived through that period--and for many who continue to suffer social stigma and legal inequality today. But in 2005, the year the film came out, an article in UK newspaper The Sunday Times noted something that many in America--especially in rural "red states"--have forgotten: life-long ties of love and devotion between men were nothing unusual on the American frontier.
The Sunday Times references an 1882 edition of the Texas Livestock Journal that notes, "if the inner history of friendship among the rough and perhaps untutored cowboys could be written, it would be quite as unselfish and romantic as that of Damon and Pythias," a story from antiquity in which one man--Damon--staked his life on the honor of his friend, Pythias, who had been condemned to die. Damon took Pythias’ place while the condemned man made a final journey home; rather than flee and save himself, Damon returned as agreed. The tyrant who had condemned Pythias set Damon free, but also pardoned his friend.
Life on the range was an all-male prospect, according to historians, and the Sunday Times noted that it was accepted for young cowboys--who had no other recourse for sexual intimacy--to turn to one another. Such same-sex affection extended to larger social occasions, as when cowboys would waltz and polka with one another at dances.
The article also quoted from Kinsey’s 1948 research into human sexuality: "[T]here is a fair amount of sexual contact among the older males in Western rural areas," Kinsey noted. "It is a type of homosexuality that was probably common among pioneers and outdoor men. Today it is found among ranchmen, cattlemen, prospectors, lumbermen and farming groups in general. These are men who... live on realities and on a minimum of theory," Kinsey added. "Such a background breeds the attitude that sex is sex, irrespective of the nature of the partner."
An erotic charge has always been part and parcel of the Western romantic mythos, according to a February, 2006 Film Experience roundup of entertainments taking the Wild West as a setting. And it may be more than a case of life imitating art now that a gay couple in Wyoming has challenged that state’s ban on marriage equality.
Of course, modern-day Wyoming, despite its epic landscapes and its residual signs of the Western mythos--cowboy hats, cowboy boots, and even real, live cowboys working ranches and riding in rodeos--is part of the contemporary world, and the men in the federal suit there are acting as part of a contemporary culture. As an Aug. 25 Salon.com article notes, "Gay couples are tired of waiting for professional legal organizations to decide that it’s time to demand equality: We pay more for health care, struggle to protect our relationships to our children and our spouses, and carry the psychological burden of having been legally declared unequal by our governments and our neighbors.
"You will see more of these pro-se lawsuits by ordinary gay couples, and you will see them in red states from Idaho to Tennessee to Florida," the article predicts.
Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor, writing about film, theater, food and drink, and travel, as well as contributing a column. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.