TV & Radio
The New York Times
Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Ex-Gay Cowboys
By DAN SAVAGE
Published: February 10, 2006
FIRST, a little of that full disclosure stuff: I have not actually seen "Brokeback Mountain" or "End of the Spear," both of which I'm going to discuss here.
But since when did not seeing a film prevent anyone from sharing his or her strong opinions about it? Before the posters for "Brokeback Mountain" were even printed, everyone from the blogger Mickey Kaus to the Concerned Women for America to gay men all over the country had already said a lot about the film. (Their opinions were, respectively, con, con and pro.)
So, let's get to it: Remember when straight actors who played gay were the ones taking a professional risk? Those days are over. Shortly after Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal, both straight, received Oscar nominations for playing gay cowboys in "Brokeback Mountain," conservative Christians were upset when they learned that a gay actor, Chad Allen, was playing a straight missionary in "End of the Spear."
"End of the Spear" tells what happened after five American missionaries were murdered in 1956 by a tribe in Ecuador. Instead of seeking retribution, the missionaries' families reached out to the tribe, forgave the killers and eventually converted them to Christianity. An evangelical film company, Every Tribe Entertainment, brought the story to the screen. In a glowing review, Marcus Yoars, a film critic for Focus on the Family, noted that the "martyrdom" of the slain missionaries has "inspired thousands if not millions of Christians." But after conservatives took a closer look at the cast list, the protests began. Many felt Chad Allen's presence in the film negated any positive message.
The pastors claim they're worried about what will happen when their children rush home from the movies, Google Chad Allen's name, and discover that he's a "gay activist." ("Gay activist" is a term evangelicals apply to any homosexual who isn't a gay doormat.) They needn't be too concerned. Straight boys who have unsupervised access to the Internet aren't Googling the names of middle-aged male actors gay or straight — not when Paris Hilton's sex tapes are still out there.
Frankly, I can't help but be perplexed by the criticisms of Mr. Allen from the Christian right. After all, isn't playing straight what evangelicals have been urging gay men to do?
That's precisely what Jack and Ennis attempt to do in "Brokeback Mountain" — at least, according to people I know who have actually seen the film. These gay cowboys try, as best they can, to quit one another. They marry women, start families. But their wives are crushed when they realize their husbands don't, and can't, ever really love them. "Brokeback Mountain" makes clear that it would have been better for all concerned if Jack and Ennis had lived in a world where they could simply be together.
That world didn't exist when Jack and Ennis were pitching tents together, but it does now — even in the American West. Today, the tiny and stable percentage of men who are gay are free to live openly, and those who want to settle down and start families can do so without having to deceive some poor, unsuspecting woman.
Straight audiences are watching and loving "Brokeback Mountain" — that's troubling to evangelical Christians who have invested a decade and millions of dollars promoting the notion that gay men can be converted to heterosexuality, or become "ex-gay." It is, they insist, an ex-gay movement, although I've never met a gay man who was moved to join it.
This "movement" demands more from gay men than simply playing straight. Once a man can really pass as ex-gay — once he's got some Dockers, an expired gym membership and a bad haircut — he's supposed to become, in effect, an ex-gay missionary, reaching out to the hostile gay tribes in such inhospitable places as Chelsea and West Hollywood.
What should really trouble evangelicals, however, is this: even if every gay man became ex-gay tomorrow, there still wouldn't be an ex-lesbian tomboy out there for every ex-gay cowboy. Instead, millions of straight women would wake up one morning to discover that they had married a Jack or an Ennis. Restaurant hostesses and receptionists at hair salons would be especially vulnerable.
Sometimes I wonder if evangelicals really believe that gay men can go straight. If they don't think Chad Allen can play straight convincingly for 108 minutes, do they honestly imagine that gay men who aren't actors can play straight for a lifetime? And if anyone reading this believes that gay men can actually become ex-gay men, I have just one question for you: Would you want your daughter to marry one?
Evangelical Christians seem sincere in their desire to help build healthy, lasting marriages. Well, if that's their goal, encouraging gay men to enter into straight marriages is a peculiar strategy. Every straight marriage that includes a gay husband is one Web-browser-history check away from an ugly divorce.
If anything, supporters of traditional marriage should want gay men out of the heterosexual marriage market entirely. And the best way to do that is to see that we're safely married off — to each other, not to your daughters. Let gay actors like Chad Allen only play it straight in the movies.
Dan Savage is the editor of The Stranger, a Seattle newsweekly.