I saw Brokeback Mountain at the historic Wilma Theatre, a short walk from my home in downtown Missoula, Mont. Built in 1921 by producers of a Wild West show meant to bring 'entertainment and culture' to Montana, it is a place where Will Rogers once performed his cowboy satire. Between the old sound system and bad ears from my time in the Marine Corps, I had difficulty hearing what sparse dialogue there was. But the landscape was spectacular, and I could pretty much guess what Jack and Ennis were mumbling after having read Annie Proulx's story twice.
The first time I read it, I was still closeted and married—fighting, denying, and suppressing my attraction to men—and I was leading a secret, shameful double life. The story hit deep and hard, and I felt doomed to a life of deceit. I read it again last year, when hype about the upcoming movie first hit the press. By then I was out, best friends with my former wife of 14 years, and living more honestly to myself. My second reading of Brokeback Mountain struck a radically different note, of course, making me grateful I'd found the courage to change my own story to a happier ending.
What surprised and moved me most about the movie was the elk hunt. Jack and Ennis lose their supplies when a black bear (played by a sadly tame, fat Hollywood bear) spooks their horses. Hungry and out of food, they sneak up on a bull elk and shoot it. We see the bull stumble and begin to drop, followed instantly by a scene where Jack and Ennis are sitting around a fire, cheerfully gorging on wild elk while strips of meat dry a makeshift rack behind them. It might be the best elk-hunting scene since Jeremiah Johnson or The Last of the Mohicans.
As was the case with my long struggle to come to terms with my homosexuality, I also struggle with my identity as a hunter. I'm sort of an antihunter who hunts. The majority of my fellow hunters leave me saddened. Seemingly caught up in an endless quest to kill the biggest possible bull or buck with the least possible effort, they tear up the land with off-road vehicles, spend fortunes on gadgets meant to replace woodcraft, routinely take shots at distances that show no respect for either themselves or their quarry, and curse the 'damn wolves' they claim are eating all 'their' elk and deer. I love wild meat—bloody and rare—yet I almost see myself as an atavistic vegetarian, eating native sedges, pine grass, and fescues wild elk have converted to protein. In much of the West, hunting is still a sustainable way to live. Through countless hours of hiking and stalking, crawling and slipping through remote, rugged wild country in pursuit of wild elk—seeing and smelling, hearing and feeling not just elk but wolves and grizzlies, pine martens and wolverines, mountain lions and bull trout—I have come to deeply cherish wildlife and the wild places they roam. I have spent most of my life working and volunteering for nonprofits that strive to protect what little wilderness remains. I can't recount how many times hunting has restored me through these primeval connections between predator and prey, between humans and wild things, between heart and soul that unfortunately too few people still experience. Instead, we are in denial and delude ourselves, pretending we are somehow separate and distinct from nature.
I spend a lot of time in elk country, alone in remote places, hunting, fishing, backpacking, snowshoeing and backcountry skiing. I am happiest and most myself—truest to my own nature—in wild places among wild animals. There is always the rare chance a mountain lion or grizzly might judge me a decent feast, but they certainly don't seem to care whom I sleep with. Jack and Ennis falling in love in the wilds, killing and eating wild elk—I didn't need to hear dialogue to relate to that! The movie's tagline sums it up: 'Love is a force of nature.'
I occasionally surf The Bowsite, a chat room where fellow bow-hunters often post rants against liberals, antihunters, wolves, grizzlies, and tree huggers. For fun, on the Big Game Forum, I posted a new thread: 'Brokeback Mountain: Best Elk-Hunting Movie?' Since folks on this site often and justly complain of poor Hollywood depictions of hunting, I mentioned that here was a good positive portrayal. The response didn't surprise me. People with screen names like Terminator, Sewer Rat, Bearman, and ElkSlayer wrote things like 'No queers could really hunt elk'; 'Elk are too majestic an animal to be killed by faggots'; 'Imagine a gay elk camp: guys would worry that camouflage makes them look fat.' The Bible thumpers chimed in, quoting all the antigay gospel they could muster; one claiming that 'no good, God-fearing Wyoming cowboy would engage in homosexual behavior.' I finally asked if any of them had actually seen the movie. Most said they would never watch a movie about 'two faggots.' Since I had actually seen it, one guy said he 'sure did wonder' about me. Another guy called the movie 'Hollywood propaganda to promote a liberal homosexual lifestyle.'
If that's the case, someone in Hollywood screwed up. The movie, like the book, is a heartbreaking depiction of being gay. It goes to the heart of the fear and prejudice that lead to so many sad, desperate, unfulfilling lives. Brokeback may change some minds, but I hold no illusions that my fellow bow-hunters or most rural Westerners will ever accept me into their fold—a gay, wolf-loving, tree-hugging Force Reconnaissance marine who kills elk. Then again, who knows? Perhaps when the DVD is released, a few might sneak it home, secretly watch when no one is around, and face their own internal turmoil.