THE TONY CROSS COLUMN
Article No. 107
( please go to tonycrosscolumn.org.uk for archived material)
I have just got in from seeing the film that has been nominated for the Awards - Brokeback Mountain, and I want to record my impressions before I have had time to either forget them or think about them too deeply. By the way - if you don’t want to know the story, stop reading now!
All my readers are probably aware by now that this is known as the film about ‘the two gay cowboys’. These two young men are thrown together in beautiful Wyoming country - it is 1963, and they are tending about a thousand sheep. They are more sheep drovers than cowboys and theirs is a lonely life, without other people - only themselves for company. Taciturn initially, but before many weeks they are getting along famously as friends - and eventually lovers, although, as both say the morning after their first time together in that way, ‘I’m not queer’.
The story then unfolds as to how their lives develop subsequently when, as you might expect - it is 1963 - they part without deciding to make a life together as two gay men. Both fall into marriage, and we are given glimpses of their unsatisfactory and unfulfilled lives as they progress. They meet periodically but eventually, despite one of them getting divorced, they don’t break away and live together permanently. Eventually one of them dies (from a homophobic attack) and the other lives out the rest of his life with his memories and regrets.
That, in essence, is the story. But of course this brief resume is totally inadequate to express the complex beauty of the mountains, the realism of the emotional engagement between the two men, and the pathos of the situation as they try to live out what they believe in. It is a very well made film and has scenery that is breathtaking. It is also very moving and many people will get out their hanky and have a good blow of the nose before the end.
I don’t think this is a film about a gay partnership as much as about homophobia. It is also fascinating to see the gradually rising affluence of all the people portrayed, as the century wears on. But the homophobia is rampant at the beginning, and is still strongly in evidence at the end. The positive note is that, by the end, there are signs that folk are beginning to understand that gay people should be accepted as just that - people, with the same feelings, vulnerabilities and needs as everyone else.
Although I see the theme of homophobia as paramount, the love story is also a very strong parallel theme. It shows that two men can fall in love with each other - and that there are ways that such a love can be expressed through their bodies - that is, sexually. Their relationship is played out by them both extremely well. It is very convincing. You feel the pain.
Particularly sad is the effect of their love for each other on their marriage relationships. There is much that could be said about the two marriages. Would they have worked out if there had not been the gay element? What was the effect on the wives of their discovery of the gay relationship? How did the traumatic manner of that discovery by one of the wives affect the situation? When the divorced wife asked her ex husband whether he wanted them to get together again - indicating perhaps that she still loved him - he replies, simply, ‘Burned, once’. He wasn’t going to go back into something he could no longer do and was not prepared to give up his understanding of who he really was. Could he have decided to shut down his homosexuality without severe self-destruction? I will hope to return to these aspects at another time.
The other wife was a carbon copy of her father who was portrayed as an overpowering bully who happened to have been very successful in business. Money and success seemed to be her reason for living too - did her husband’s failure to be the complete heterosexual male she needed send her down that route?
The reasons for the homophobia are also interesting. One of the two young men clearly had a huge struggle with internalised homophobia. The cause seems to have been that homophobia was deeply present in his own family relationships. When he was a young lad of eight years old he was taken with his brother, who was three years older, by their father to see the body of a dead rancher lying in a gully - the man had been discovered to be gay and as a consequence had suffered a vicious and fatal homophobic attack. Presumably taking his young sons to see this dead body of a gay man was intended as an object lesson by the father to guard against either of them ever contemplating going down the same route. Remembering the occasion (which we see in flashback), the now grown son says that it was even possible that his own father helped kill the rancher. One sees him struggling with the father’s terrible lesson all those years before. Hatred of gays such as the father had is like a great fire of suppressed anger in the centre of the lives of some people.
Such hatred is quite different from the natural aversion some heterosexual people have when thinking about the physicality of two men or two women having sex. I don’t think it strange that heterosexual and homosexual people feel an element of repulsion from the idea of sex of the ‘other’ sort. A homosexual person may well feel as put off by thinking of heterosexual acts with the opposite sex as a heterosexual person may feel put off by any sort of sexual contact between two members of the same sex. Our natural bent takes most people down one path or the other. There are, of course, some people who find neither sort of sex unattractive - we call those people bi-sexual.
Quite apart from the more normal distaste for the ‘other’ sort of sex, we find the abhorrence of homosexuality, of a sort as shown in the film, in some Christians (and non Christians!). This abhorrence consists of a deep revulsion at the idea of two people of the same sex touching each other sexually. We shall never really help people deal this sense of revulsion while we simply condemn it. We have to understand it - only then can we, as Christians, lovingly and sympathetically cope with people suffering homophobia at this level. Perhaps the best way of viewing it is to see this sort of homophobia as a sickness rather than a fully rational choice.
We need to be able to distinguish whether a person’s homophobia stems from the natural heterosexual disinclination towards gay sex (and vice versa), or whether it is the sort of homophobia that is more deep seated, and thus probably beyond their conscious control.
While me must cultivate understanding in this way, I do not wish to imply that militancy - I am thinking for example of the Gay Pride marches - is not effective. Sometimes people need to be confronted with what they object to before they can recognise that perhaps their attitude is prejudiced.
I think we need to learn to understand the different forms of homophobia. I think we have to understand that many people do not choose to become homophobic - the only choice available to them is whether they are going to do anything about it. The homophobia can arise from a number of causes - but most probably from events in their early childhood or youth, when they are told with great feeling by some authoritative adult that such activity is deeply wrong, offends God, is condemned by God and that people who indulge in such wickedness will go to hell. Some people move into homophobia when they or someone close to them has been abused or interfered with by a paedophile. Anger and fear are all wrapped up in their attitude. I would suggest that in many of these cases homophobia is not a conscious choice but more a programming or conditioning of a young person by some adult. If that adult operates in a religious setting then the teaching will probably gain the force of religious conviction.
When we, as gay people, understand that most homophobia is started in childhood and is quite beyond the volition of the child - then we can begin to view homophobic adults more lovingly. These people may well have decided (probably subconsciously) to stay with their homophobic feelings because they don’t know how to change the way they feel. They know how to change their ideas - but how do you change a deeply felt aversion or hatred that wells up from inside?
We will only be able to cope with such homophobia when we both understand the possible causes and have the Christian love that God alone can give us - a love that absorbs the hatred, the vilification, the alienation and even the violence. We will never deal with it by arguing. We will never help anyone lose their homophobia by just disagreeing with them. We have to find a way to demonstrate the love that Christ modelled for us, so that their anger becomes lost in the ether and they see before them only someone who actually loves them with a pure Christian caring love.
That may sound like pie in the sky to you. And I have to admit that when one is under attack verbally (or of course physically!) one can lose the plot completely and the end result is often a parting in anger, or with cold disagreement.
In the film the daughter of one of the men grows up and gets engaged and comes to ask her father to be there at the wedding. Why is this important? It is important because the mother parted from her husband with anger after the divorce - maybe unable to come to terms with her husband’s duplicity. But the next generation - the daughter - though obviously she knows all about the father and his gay love - accepts him as he is and wants him at her wedding.
So the film hints at how homophobia is going to be worked out eventually. It may take a few generations, but eventually the upcoming young people will accept homosexuality as natural. Indeed, although the film does not get around to it, we may hope that the majority of Christians also will come to see that the old teaching about homosexuality, while it was right and proper in it’s timeframe, is no longer appropriate. By then most Christians (there are always some who don’t want to change) will agree that the message of Jesus is that all, yes, all are welcomed by him just as they are. The Lord then starts to change them as he deems best through his Holy Spirit, not by the rigid moralities and doctrines of man.
So I saw the film as expressing hope. In time, society - and even the churches - will treat homosexuals as normal people and not try to make them victims. But it is always down to us to refuse to be victims. Gay Christians must reject victim status - I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.
The film is scenically impressive. You see hundreds of sheep streaming over the mountain passes. The interplay of feelings, the reality of deep love between two people, and the difficulty one of the men has to break out of his internalised homophobic prison - all these are very moving.
It is a film worth seeing. Following it you may decide - like me - to be even more real with yourself and everyone else. Even though that may mean staying in the closet to some people, it will mean coming fully out of the closet to yourself. We need to accept our homosexuality as a gift from God, just as valid as another person’s heterosexuality. Refuse to be a victim - live in the free grace of an all loving God - whose first demand is that we love others as we are loved by Him. That we forgive others as we are forgiven by Him. That we accept others as we are accepted by Him.