In honor of the 10th anniversary of the movie Brokeback Mountain, I share this story of how the film changed my life as a young gay man.
The room was stifling. Even with every fan going, the air just crawled from one humid pocket of the house's atmosphere to the other, losing none of its oppressive, southern Mississippi moisture. My father and my stepmother sat together on a love seat, their cigarette smoke -- Marlboro Reds, ironically enough -- a steady stream until it hit the hurricane brewing above us.
I watched from the couch as the smoke trailed steadily in the glow of a table side lamp before breaking off in a gust from a fan blade.
"Let's watch a movie," my stepmother said.
My father and I lazily agreed, too tired from the day's work of clearing ground around his new house -- pushing over trees with a front-end loader, stacking lumber, exploring an old concrete foundation as a possible workshop. Freshly married, my father was all set to build a new Southern playground for himself, complete with a small catfish pond, a pasture for horses and a winding dirt road back to the highway that was our main artery to civilization.
Now, despite the lingering evening heat, the two of us lounged in the satisfaction that hard work often brings to men young and old in the South. It had been like any other day together -- tearing down, building up, shaping and reshaping land according to some master design locked away inside his head. This was our "quality" time, and despite the blisters and my clumsiness at operating heavy machinery, I cherished it.
"I like this," said my stepmother again. "Have you seen it?"
The remote highlighted a movie title -- Brokeback Mountain.
My father said nothing. I merely nodded.
"Let's watch it," she said and pressed play.
So began the most paralyzing two hours of my life.
I had come out to my father a short time before. He was the only person I came out to over the phone -- I was too afraid to do it in person. He listened to me -- he told me he didn't agree with that "lifestyle," but he told me he loved me and would always love me. I assured him that I would never talk about my life as a gay man with him, unless he asked -- perhaps a little cowardly on my part at the time. But I said I was a son who had been raised never to lie to those I loved -- no matter the consequences. And he agreed.
Fast forward to that smoky, lazy evening, and my father was about to watch his first gay movie with his very gay son. My stepmother had been pushing him to talk to me more about my social life, dating, my campus activism. We had circled the issue like branches floating by on creek water. Now, apparently, was our time to dive in.
The beginning was harmless enough as my eyes fixed the TV screen, not daring to look over at them. The tent sex scene passed with a frightening lack of comment. I felt the color rise in my cheeks as "I wish I knew how to quit you" boomed out of the surround sound speakers and hung like an accusation in that tepid Southern air. And Enis's journey to Jack's parents' house against that jaundiced Western sky -- a last chance to say goodbye to a lover violently ripped from this life as much by hate as the painful, prolonged hesitation that hung like a specter over the lives of the two men.
It was the same specter that haunted many gay men and women 10 years ago when the movie was made, and it was the same specter that haunted me four years ago on that coach in lower Mississippi as my father wordlessly reached for his ashtray and the movie faded to black.
"Well that was sad," said my stepmother.
"Yes it was," my father said.
I made some half-voiced comment and excused myself to bed.
The next day, my father and I continued our work. We were building a fence and took turns digging holes for the posts. During his break, he talked to me about the movie. When I was young, he had bred and raised horses with my mother in Alabama and described to me the different breeds he had seen in the film last night. I nodded patiently, pushing post hole diggers into hard clay, wondering with instinctual terror where this was going.
He told me of Bama, a horse that had been born on our small farm. He said Bama was the most beautiful foal he had ever seen, with a supple red mane tipped with white in some places. He had been bred from an actual registered horse, and my father knew one day he would grow into an amazing rider.
Apparently, that enthusiasm got the best of him. Despite what my mother told him, despite all he knew, he started to try and break Bama before he was old enough. He began slowly to his credit, but even after Bama was a yearling he started to ride the young horse. Another year or two passed, the horse's bones set, and it was evident -- the foal was knock-kneed. The beautiful red-manned horse, rushed too early into life at the excitement of its potential, had matured stunted and deformed.
Soon after, Bama was sold to breed. My father never saw him again.
I finished the hole and handed the diggers back to my father.
"You know, son," he said. "You will always have me. No matter what, you will always have me."
We worked into the dusk, taking turns along the fence that would one day guard his new home.
Many months passed before I made the connection between Bama and Brokeback Mountain. As scared as I was of sharing my gay life with my father, my father was just as scared. Not because he held any particular prejudice -- although I suspect some lurked there -- but because, like Bama, he was afraid to do anything that might stop me from growing. He had chosen distance not out of hate or ignorance, but out of the sincere terror that if he dared to question or to understand, he might push me away.
He did not fear my queerness. He feared losing me -- that awful pit of loss that comes when you must let go of something beautiful with the knowledge that you could have saved it. Perhaps the Southerner, the horse farmer, the husband and father saw in that last scene of regret -- of Enis looking at that blue jean jacket and mountain photo -- a possible future for the loved ones in his own life. And it frightened him. Whatever he was, whatever he believed, he did not want to raise another Bama.
So the silence between us that my stepmother carefully cracked by playing Brokeback Mountain has slowly collapsed between us ever since. Sometimes we talk about gay politics. Sometimes we talk about the stories I have written in publications like this one. But now, so distant am I now in the deep rumblings of Brooklyn -- away from the smoggy tranquility of hot summers in Mississippi -- he has finally begun to ask me about my "social" life. Who I have met, who I have come to know, who -- if anyone -- makes me happy.
He has begun to lose his fear and start to know my life. Out of his patience, we have grown stronger together. A journey we began after an innocent movie night has started to reveal the men we have both become -- and would still like to be.