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Brokeback Mountain | Study Guide

Annie Proulx

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Brokeback Mountain | Context


Human Sexuality: Tolerance and Intolerance

In 1960s America—particularly in rural areas—homosexuals were generally not accepted by society. For their safety, many gay people felt forced to live false, heterosexual lives and would drop their "straight" façades only behind closed doors. Articles published in large newsweekly magazines at that time describe homosexuals as "abominable, degenerate, disgusting, evil ... immoral, sex criminal[s] and wicked." The American Psychiatric Association labeled homosexuality a "sociopathic personality disturbance," a diagnosis that would remain in medical books until 1973.

The term homophobia is defined by Merriam-Webster's dictionary as an "irrational fear of, aversion to, or discrimination against homosexuality or homosexuals." Between the 1960s and 1980s men and women who were suspected of being homosexuals or lesbians were often shunned, derided, discriminated against, and in extreme cases, physically attacked. In 2003 former United States Senator Alan Simpson cautioned that Wyoming was not known for "tolerance of homosexuality."

One of the most shocking homophobic crimes in modern times occurred in Wyoming in 1998, a year after "Brokeback Mountain" was published. Matthew Shepard, a 21-year-old college student, was kidnapped, tied to a fence, and tortured. After Shepard died of his injuries, the two men who confessed to the crime said they had attacked him because he was openly gay. The Matthew Shepard Foundation was established by Matthew's mother in 1999 to help fight homophobia, raise awareness, and "replace hate with understanding." In 2009 the Matthew Shepard Act was passed, providing funds to help protect members of the Lesbian-Gay-Bisexual-Transgender (LGBT) community from hate crimes.

An article published by the Matthew Shepard Foundation said there were no homophobic hate crimes reported in Wyoming in 2014 and two reported in 2015—a low number as contrasted with earlier years. However, there is no way to determine if there were any unreported hate crimes.

Gay Rights and HIV/AIDS

In rural Wyoming between 1963 and 1983, the gay rights movement had not taken hold. Gay rights and changing attitudes would gradually arrive in the United States during the 1970s and later decades, but their influence in rural areas would lag behind cosmopolitan urban areas. The human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and the resulting acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) became a devastating health problem beginning in the early 1980s. However, during the narrative's timeframe, it would not have been widely known in rural regions.

Gay rights came into prominence in New York City on June 28, 1969, when patrons at a gay bar—the Stonewall Inn—rioted against police raiding the tavern. The riot lasted for three days, and the event inspired the LGBT movement as well as yearly gay pride parades. During the 1970s a cultural transformation began in America's view of homosexuals and lesbians. Several positive television programs and the gay-themed play Cabaret brought into the mainstream nonthreatening portrayals of gay individuals who were largely introduced for comic relief or portrayed with flamboyant stereotypical traits.

By 1980 more than 100 of America's largest corporations banned discrimination against homosexuals and lesbians, and at the Democratic National Convention, the Democratic Party introduced support for gay rights into their presidential election platform.

Just a year later, doctors encountered increasing cases of a rare and lethal skin cancer in gay men. This syndrome, a result of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), was named AIDS, and a medical crisis developed as AIDS devastated the gay community and moved into the general population. AIDS awareness dominated the 1980s as the epidemic spread. In 1983 approximately 2,000 deaths were attributed to AIDS in the United States. To promote awareness and fight HIV/AIDS, the World Health Organization established World AIDS Day in 1988. By then the AIDS cumulative death toll had climbed to nearly 62,000 in the United States.

Reaction to "Brokeback Mountain"

Critics praised Close Range: Wyoming Stories, where "Brokeback Mountain" first appeared, with its tales of imperfect characters navigating difficult situations. One reviewer describes "Brokeback Mountain," the closing story, as a narrative of loyalty and love that "is epic in its scale."

The 2005 film adaption of "Brokeback Mountain" drew large audiences and won three Academy Awards. Many viewers, unhappy with Jack's fate, have written to Annie Proulx voicing their displeasure and suggesting alternate endings. This response caused Proulx to regret writing "Brokeback Mountain," which she explains is more of a cautionary tale about homophobia than a story about Ennis and Jack.

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