'Brokeback Mountain' and Ford's Gay Problem

In the early user phase of their virtual lives, a lot of men take feminine screen names and dive into lesbian chat rooms, the better to score some of that torrid girl-on-girl sex. I was one of those men. And the joke was surely on me --- looking back, I'd bet most of the wild women who tumbled into private chat rooms with me were male.

Which makes the gay sex I had a whole different thing from the gay sex I thought I was having.

I wrote a piece about that experience: You Make Me Feel Like a Virtual Woman. A magazine wanted to run it. With a photograph. I'd be wearing a silk Victoria's Secret robe, fake nails, mules. And, of course, sitting in a "come hither" pose.

When I told her my 14-year-old stepdaughter what I was going to do, she wept. "My friends might see the magazine," she said. "Please. Don't."

My stepson, then 10, was calmer: "Everyone will think you're gay --- but what do you care?"

I thought of those reactions --- and, in the 1990s, my ability to be, or pretend to be, any damn thing I wanted --- as I watched "Brokeback Mountain," the story of two cowboys who fall in love in 1963 and dare not tell a soul. The frisson of seeing Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal go at it fades fast; the tragedy of love hidden, love denied, sticks with you long after the movie ends.

My wife and I left the theater in silence, thinking the same thing: the unfairness --- the criminal stupidity, really --- of one set of people presuming to pass judgment on another. Those who are all riled up about homosexuality --- to say nothing of those who turned gay marriage into the big issue of the '04 election --- seem to think that homosexuality is only about sex. But for Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist in "Brokeback Mountain," their sexuality is a curse, a jail sentence: life in solitary, with infrequent, secret conjugal visits.

This is the movie's power --- the ability to make you feel the weight of two decades of desire and guilt, loneliness and recrimination. Ennis and Jack want the sex, but even more, they want the relationship, the dailiness of romantic partnership. Jack dreams of how it could be. Ennis won't let himself go there; he knows how two ranchers, living together, would play out in the West. "If you can’t fix it, you got to stand it,” Ennis says, and you have to admire the rugged cowboy wisdom that makes him affirm a miserable reality instead of embracing a deadly dream.

Watching the movie in New York, I couldn't help but be glad I live in a big city in a blue state, where my neighbor's sexuality is none of my business.

So it was astonishing last week --- the same week that "Brokeback Mountain" opened --- to see how tentative "progress" is: Ford Motor Company made the news for pulling its Jaguar and Land Rover ads from gay magazines and announcing that it won't sponsor any future gay and lesbian events. In exchange, American Family Association --- the Christian group whose members are not the likeliest readers of gay magazines --- ended its six-month boycott of Ford vehicles. [John Aravosis, at AMERICAblog, has the full story --- and the e-mail addresses of key Ford executives for those who feel like weighing in.]

Ford's was a dumb decision on the only two metrics that matter --- public relations and business. Even minimal research shows that AFA boycotts are hot air; they've made scarcely a dent in the earnings of major corporations. I'm going to guess that AFA members are likely to buy Fords and Ford trucks, and that the AFA boycott cost Ford a few thousand sales. On the other side, Ford's decision to bow to the Christian right will mean that tens of thousands of gays --- and who knows how many Americans who hate this kind of discrimination --- will decide not to buy Jags and Land Rovers and Lincolns. The profit margin on a Ford is modest; the profit on a fully-equipped luxury car is significant. So what was the gain for Ford here?

On Tuesday, Ford executives will meet with representatives of nineteen gay organizations. I can't imagine what Ford can do to appease them. The company has put itself in a box, wedded to an indefensible position; it can't appease the gays without agitating Rev. Wildmon and the AFA all over again.

And yet that is exactly what Ford ought to do. It ought to take out full-page ads in every newspaper in America and put Bill Ford on TV. The headline: WE MADE A MISTAKE. The message: "Recently, under pressure from a crusade to protect the 'family,' we agreed to stop advertising in gay publications. That was the wrong decision. Ford makes cars and trucks for Americans --- for every man and woman in the American family. If anyone has a problem with that, that's their problem."

The effect? I'd like to think that Americans would cheer. Decency is in such short supply in government and business these days that the bar is low --- a modest effort at doing "the right thing" might look heroic. But even to think in those terms is to give the auto executives credit for being real men --- for being "Ford tough." Which is to say, about half as tough as Ennis Del Mar.