The Brokeback Buzz

First published in Between the Lines on December 22, 2005.

It was the kind of film that changes lives. And it changed mine—seeing a true gay love story, playing in major theaters, with a passionate performance by a talented young actor in a role quite different from anything he had tackled before.

I’m talking, of course, about Torch Song Trilogy, which remains my favorite gay film despite my having seen Brokeback Mountain this past weekend. Don’t get me wrong: Brokeback was a fine film, well deserving of the accolades piling up around it. You should see it; you should tell your friends to see it; you should hope that most of America sees it. It’s a great film in terms of both its artistic quality and its political value (although both can be overstated).

But I’ve grown tired of people talking about Brokeback as if it’s the first film ever to broach the subject of men loving men, or as if such love is a recent discovery. The 1988 film Torch Song Trilogy may be less palatable to the masses (the lead character, played by Harvey Fierstein, is a drag queen), but the love between Arnold (Fierstein) and Alan (Matthew Broderick) is palpable and moving. And unlike Brokeback, Torch Song’s lead character insists on being true to himself, despite the consequences. Rent it if you haven’t seen it.

The buzz surrounding Brokeback has reminded me frequently of Torch Song, not because Torch Song generated a similar buzz (it didn’t) but because it did for me what Brokeback is allegedly doing for audiences: send a powerful message that same-sex love is real and worthy of respect. The scenes in Torch Song where Arnold defends himself before his mother (Anne Bancroft) made my heart race.

I recall one of those scenes being replayed on a Donohue show (remember him?) in the late 80’s. The topic of the show was “coming out,” and the studio audience was largely negative. Then Donohue played the clip where Arnold forcefully tells his mother,

There’s one more thing you better understand. I have taught myself to sew, cook, fix plumbing. I can even pat myself on the back when necessary. So I don’t have to ask anyone for anything. There’s nothing I need from anyone except for love and respect. Anyone who can’t give me those two things has no place in my life.

The tone of the audience suddenly changed. It was difficult for them to remain hostile in the face of such sentiment. Art can move people: Torch Song did, and Brokeback will. Indeed, it already has. I was particularly struck by a review of the film by Harry Forbes in the Catholic News Service. While Forbes mentions the Catholic Church’s condemnation of homosexual sex, the mention seems ambivalent, and it is overshadowed by Forbes’s sympathetic reaction to the love story:

Looked at from the point of view of the need for love which everyone feels but few people can articulate, the plight of these guys is easy to understand while their way of dealing with it is likely to surprise and shock an audience.

While the actions taken by Ennis and Jack cannot be endorsed, the universal themes of love and loss ring true.

This is coming from the director of the Office for Film & Broadcasting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops—the same church that recently banned gays from the seminary. A review in the protestant Christianity Today was similarly sympathetic.

There’s no getting around it: romantic love is powerful, and beautiful, and some people experience it with persons of the same sex.

So can we expect a wave of pro-gay-marriage initiatives to sweep the country? Not a chance, for several reasons.

First, because the people who most need to watch this film won’t. The ranch hands in Wyoming that it portrays are far different from the NPR listeners who are likely to go see it.

Second, because people can read different messages into this film. Some will think that the Jack and Ennis’s love should be supported; others, that they should be pitied.

Third, and perhaps most important, because people are lazy, and they have short memories. I bet plenty of the people who voted for anti-gay initiatives in the last year saw Philadelphia in 1993 and wept when Antonio Banderas challenged the hospital officials who wanted him to leave Tom Hanks’s bedside: “Are you telling me I am not family?” Where are these audience members now?

The lesson is that we must keep telling our stories, not just in the occasional movie but in our day-to-day lives.