I saw Brokeback Mountain at the historic Wilma Theatre, just a short walk from my home in downtown Missoula. Built in 1921 by producers of a Wild West show, it’s a place where cowboy humorist Will Rogers once performed. Between the old sound system and my bad ears (courtesy of my time in the Marine Corps), I had a hard time hearing what sparse dialogue there was. But I could pretty much guess what the two sheepherders were mumbling about, having read Annie Proulx’s short story twice.
The first time I read it, I was still closeted and married — fighting, denying and suppressing my attraction to men, often leading a secret, shameful double life. The story hit me hard; I, like the two main characters, felt doomed to a life of deceit.
Then, last year, I read it again, when word of the upcoming movie first hit the press.
By then I was out, best friends with my former wife of 14 years, and living a life much truer to myself. The story, and the movie, made me grateful that I had found the courage to change my story to one with a happier ending.
What surprised me most about the movie, however, 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. 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 with strips of meat drying on a makeshift rack behind them. It might be the best elk-hunting scene in a movie since Jeremiah Johnson.
I’ve had a long struggle coming to terms with my homosexuality. But I’ve also had to struggle with my identity as a hunter. I am sort of an anti-hunter who hunts. Many of the hunters I know seem 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, and routinely take shots at distances that show no respect for either themselves or their quarry. They curse the wolves for eating all "their" elk and deer.
I love wild meat, bloody rare, and I have also come to cherish wildlife, and the wild places the animals need to roam. For most of my life, I have worked or volunteered for nonprofits that strive to protect the little wildness that still remains. I spend a lot of time alone in elk country, hunting, fishing, backpacking, snowshoeing and backcountry skiing. There is always the rare chance a mountain lion or grizzly might see me as a decent feast. But no wild animal has ever seemed to care whom I choose to sleep with.
I occasionally surf a chat room where fellow bowhunters often post rants against liberals, wolves, grizzlies and tree-huggers. For fun, I posted a new thread: "Brokeback Mountain: Best elk-hunting movie?" Since folks on this site often — and justly — complain about poor Hollywood depictions of hunting, I mentioned that here was a good, positive portrayal.
The response didn’t really surprise me. People with screen names like Terminator, Sewer Rat, Bearman and ElkSlayer wrote that "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 made them look fat." Bible-thumpers chimed in, quoting all the anti-gay gospel they could muster; one proclaimed that "No good, God-fearing Wyoming cowboy would engage in homosexual behavior."
I finally asked if anybody had seen the movie. Most said they would never watch it. Because I had seen it, one guy said he "sure did wonder about me." Another called the movie Hollywood propaganda to promote a liberal, homosexual lifestyle.
If that’s the case, someone in Hollywood failed. The movie, like the book, is a heartbreaking depiction of being gay. It goes to the core of the fear and prejudice that result in so many desperate, unfulfilling lives. Brokeback may change some minds, but I hold no illusions that my fellow bowhunters, or most other rural Westerners, will ever accept me — a gay, wolf-loving, tree-hugging former Marine — even if I do like to hunt elk.
Then again, who knows? Perhaps when the DVD is released, a few might sneak it home and secretly watch it when no one else is around. One or two might finally face their own internal turmoil. In the meantime, fortunately, there are still a few remote, wild places, where a man like me can roam and hunt and sit around a fire, eating wild elk.
David Stalling is the former conservation editor of Bugle magazine, published by the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation.