TV & Radio
January 31, 2006
The author of Covering: The Hidden Assault on our Civil Rights sees the gay rights movement as a history of weakening demands for assimilation. So where does Brokeback fit in?
By Kenji Yoshino
Brokeback Mountain continues to bring gay life out of the closet as never before, as suggested by its commercial success (over $42 million at the box office) and critical plaudits (four Golden Globes and eight Oscar nominations). On the other hand, the movie continues to accede to various demands to conform to straight norms. In walking that tightrope, the movie reflects where we are in the unfolding saga of gay rights.
The history of gay rights can be retold as a history of increasingly weakening demands for assimilation: the demand to convert, the demand to pass, and the demand to cover. Through the middle decades of the 20th century, gays were routinely pressured to convert to heterosexuality—whether through lobotomies, electroshock therapy, or psychoanalysis.
As the gay rights movement gained traction, the demand to convert gradually shifted in emphasis toward the demand to pass. Gays would be left alone as long as they remained in the closet. This shift is exemplified by the military’s 1993 movement from categorically excluding gays to its current “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, under which gays can serve as long as they remain in the closet.
Today, we are seeing another shift. Gays are increasingly allowed to be open about their homosexuality as long as they “cover”—sociologist Erving Goffman’s word for how individuals “tone down” known stigmatized traits. In some sectors of American society, it’s all right to be openly gay as long as you don’t “flaunt” your sexuality, by, for instance, holding hands with a same-sex partner, engaging in gay activism, or behaving in gender-atypical ways.
Brokeback Mountain, which spans two decades beginning in 1963, depicts cowboys trapped in the first two generations of gay history. The emotionally frozen Ennis can never fully embrace his love for Jack because he has been subjected to a particularly terrifying form of conversion therapy. When he was 9, his father took him to see a man who had been beaten to death for having “ranched up” with another man. The heterosexual imperative reflected in that murder drives both Ennis and Jack to marry women. But Jack believes a different life is possible—he tries to persuade Ennis that they can inhabit a closet built for two. The tragedy of the film is that Jack is too far ahead of his time—it is the less courageous Ennis who survives.
From a gay perspective, the film is bearable to watch only from the vantage of the present day. Of course, gay hate crimes continue—Wyoming, where Brokeback is set, is also where 21-year-old Matthew Shepherd was murdered in 1998. But if Jack and Ennis were alive today, they would have had a shot at living a different story, as the warm reception accorded the film suggests.
At the same time, the significant opposition to the film shows the distance gays have yet to travel. Conservative critics have denounced the film as “homosexual propaganda,” a “commercial for gay marriage,” or the “rape of the Marlboro man.” A theater in Utah went so far as to pull the film from distribution.
Like many openly gay individuals today, the film has responded to this opposition by covering. Even the film’s most ardent advocates have “de-gayed” it to make it more palatable to the mainstream. Focus Features, which released Brokeback, published ads that feature Ennis and Jack with their on-screen wives rather than with each other. Adulatory commentators have insisted that the film is a love story that transcends its gay particulars with such ferocity that they implicitly concede those particulars are deeply shameful. And of course, much of the film’s appeal is that Jack and Ennis are real cowboys—so straight-acting they evade the gay stereotype.
Gays will not achieve full equality until a film does not need to cover in these ways to have mainstream appeal. But perhaps the concessions made by the film only make Brokeback more poignant. They testify to the difficulty of moving beyond the covering demand toward full liberation. We should not expect love that was for so long unspeakable to break its silence without a quaver.
Kenji Yoshino is professor of law and deputy dean for intellectual life at Yale Law School. He specializes in antidiscrimination law and constitutional law. His book, Covering: The Hidden Assault on Our Civil Rights, was published by Random House on January 17.