I saw Brokeback Mountain a short walk from my home in downtown Missoula, at the historic Wilma Theatre. Built in 1921 by producers of a Wild West show, it’s a place where Will Rogers once performed his cowboy satire. Between the old sound system and my bad ears (courtesy of the Marine Corps}, I had difficulty hearing what sparse dialog there was. But I could pretty much guess what the two sheepherders were mumbling, 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 hard, and I felt doomed to a life of deceit. I read it again last year, when hype about the upcoming movie first hit the press.
By then I was out, best friends with my former wife of 14 years, and living truer to myself. It made me grateful I had found the courage to change my story to a happier ending.
But what surprised me most about the movie 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 since Jeremiah Johnson.
Like my long struggle to come to terms with my homosexuality, I also 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, routinely take shots at distances that show no respect for either themselves or their quarry, and 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 it needs to roam. I have worked or volunteered most of my life for nonprofits that strive to protect what little wildness 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 judge me a decent feast, but no wild animal seems to care who 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 of 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 claiming 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. Since 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 heart of the fear and prejudice that lead to so many desperate, unfulfilling lives. Brokeback may change some minds, but I hold no illusions that my fellow bowhunters or most 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, secretly watch it when no one is around, and face their own internal turmoil. For now, fortunately, there still exist remote, wild places where a man like me can still roam and sit around a fire, eating wild elk.
David Stalling is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org). He is the former conservation editor of Bugle magazine, published by the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, and lives in Missoula, Montana.
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