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A ‘Mountain’ of discovery

Chuck Colbert | Friday, February 17, 2006

Sooner or later, more than a few of us do a mountain stint.

For me, movie scenes from “Brokeback Mountain” flash bigger-than-life reminders of time I spent on that lonely hilltop. My Brokeback occurred 20 years ago in San Francisco. Serving as a naval officer, I was engaged to be married to a woman.

But a severe case of cold feet pushed me to a critical turning point. Unlike Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal), the movie’s protagonists, I broke off that engagement six weeks short of my wedding day.

Believe me, it was not easy telling my fiancée a hurtful truth. I was gay.

Sure enough, it was during an Engaged Encounter weekend, that I, then a Roman Catholic, prayerfully faced up to my own truth.

I was an only son; and pressures of family, church and state weighed heavily on me. So much expectation rested on my shoulders to marry well and carry on the family name. For Ennis and Jack different societal pressures ensnared them.

I look back and find it nothing less than a miracle the courage that I, a then very conflicted 28-year-old naval office, managed to muster. It was doubly risky for me. My fiancée’s father was a retired naval officer. In this good Catholic family, rage and hurt could easily have given way to payback – reporting me to military officials as I broke the silence and came out of the closet.

Instead, my fiancée’s mother phoned a few days after breaking off the engagement; and said to me, “Chuck, I know that what you did for my daughter, telling her, you did out of love for her. And I will never forget that.”

The parish priest, who had mentored and confirmed me into the Catholic faith in my hometown of Johnstown, Pennsylvania, encouraged me to break off the engagement and come clean. He assured me that he would provide sensitive pastoral care for my parents as they dealt with a bitter disappointment.

Fortunately, I lived in California. Gay life and same-sex love had traveled a long way from 1963 to 1983, from the loneliness and heartbreak that E. Annie Proulx’s short story tells in wrenchingly stark prose.

The story’s plot line and mood are only enhanced on film. The motion picture captures all of the pathos and more, with full moons and crystalline blue skies, the alpine beauty of big-sky country Wyoming-style, the wide-open stretches of landscape that Ennis and Jack share with coyotes, bears and herds of sheep.

For me, Gustavo Santaolalla’s haunting music captures perfectly the prevailing melancholy. That music and the dark Wyoming skies pierced only by moonlight enabled me to go back in time, connecting with my own private Brokeback. In the film, it is the mountain’s biting cold that brings Ennis and Jack together, if only for the warmth of human connection in a bedroll. Suddenly, the spark of same-sex male desire ignites and never really dies out.

Many of us have been there. It’s a breaking point – where only the raw male physicality of sexual desire cuts through. Words can’t quite bridge the disconnection and loneliness many of us feel – imprisoned behind walls of stultifying silence and denial.

But you don’t have to be a cowboy to feel the pain of the ill-fated love story of Ennis and Jack. My husband and I saw “Brokeback Mountain” before visiting my family for the holidays. If there is ever a gay-themed story with hometown resonance, this story qualifies.

There I recalled another powerful scene from the movie. It’s the one in which a highly constricted, emotionally disconnected Ennis holds two shirts. One shirt is Jack’s; the other belongs to Ennis. That clothing and the memory are all that remain.

Undoubtedly, during the last 40 years, society’s knowledge and understanding of gay people and same-sex relationships have grown. Yet I fear that that for far too many Brokeback’s chains still shackle and bind. From small towns in rural America and even within close-knit urban communities – I wonder about men too constricted to trust their true feelings, too afraid to come out fully, too burdened to be more honest with themselves, family and friends. I wonder also about the silently painful Brokebacks – past, present and future – within the Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s extended family.

I guess I’m lucky. More than 20 years later and well off my Brokeback hilltop, I celebrate nearly two years of being happily and legally married to another man here in Massachusetts. Still, married or single, there is something about “Brokeback Mountain” in all of us. Personal narratives on the film’s Web site, www.BrokebackMountain.com, testify to the film’s universal appeal.

Despite the movie’s box office success, four Golden Globes, and eight Oscar nominations, a “Brokeback” backlash of misunderstanding has surfaced.

A few weeks ago, the movie was pulled from a theatre in Utah. For some, its showing at Notre Dame seems to threaten the University’s Catholic character and very identity.

But I am not worried. The truth-telling power of this film derives from its ability to break the back of prejudice, intolerance and misunderstanding. For those who leave Brokeback’s pain behind, there’s no turning back – no return to the self-destructiveness of self-denial, to the prison of silence.

A 1978 graduate of Notre Dame, Chuck Colbert is a freelance journalist who lives in Cambridge, Mass. He is a founder of the Gay and Lesbian Alumni of Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s. He can be contacted at [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.