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Brokeback on the Down Low

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Amidst all the analysis by the press and self-congratulations of the Hollywood community surrounding the release of the ground-breaking film “Brokeback Mountain,” one thing has been completely missed about the movie’s two male leads—they’re on the down low.

Annie Proulx’s heart-wrenching short story about two ranch hands whose overwhelming passion for each other is at odds with everything they think they know about themselves and their world is not, as has been pointed out ad nauseam regarding the film version, a “gay cowboy” story. In fact, the film’s depiction of ostensibly straight men in a hyper-masculine culture can more easily be understood as a metaphor for the experience of many men who do not identify as gay or even bisexual, but who nevertheless have sex with other men.

Though this dynamic exists among men from every community, ethnic, and racial category, we’ve lately heard a lot about it among men of color largely in urban areas very different from the heartland represented in “Brokeback Mountain”—particularly African-American men categorized by others and themselves and being “on the down low” or “DL.”

These men keep parts of their lives secret from friends, families, girlfriends, wives, and others in large part for fear of something their secrecy ironically does not allow them to escape—the daily threat of violence in their lives.

The two characters in “Brokeback Mountain” are drawn to each other in spite of the powerful cultural taboos against men expressing physical affection for one another and engaging in consensual sex. Many communities including African-American and Latino communities harbor similar taboos. Even among men of color in the urban landscape who self-identify as “gay,” there are many who often need to develop macho personas or “front” as straight men on the subways, in their neighborhoods, and in many of their relationships.

Not cowboy hats and leather boots, but doo rags and Timberlands signify the masculine strength that protects these men from becoming targets for bias-related violence. This effort is not simply shared by men of color—look at the hypermasculine images that the gay “mainstream” has utilized over time from the “Castronaut” to the “Muscle Queen” to the iconic gay-signifying characters portrayed by the Village People.

The film shows the struggle of Ennis and Jack to find their way toward each other while maintaining their identity, status, and safety within their straight world. “Brokeback Mountain” is a chronicle of the emotional strain of living life on the “down low” with a wife and kids while trying to find fulfillment through often highly sexualized and compartmentalized relations with other men.

Lives lived in secret or half in shadow not only put the people living them in jeopardy, but also may put others into harm’s way as well. For instance, men on the down low have been demonized on the daytime talk show circuit as sexual predators whose erotic adventures with other men lead to their becoming HIV-infected and then callously passing that disease on to unwitting wives and girlfriends at home. While personal responsibility cannot be minimized, it must be acknowledged that stigma and homophobia create the environments for all these forms of destruction and abuse to be perpetuated. It is significant that Hollywood has romanticized two down low cowpokes in a way radically different from the strikingly negative stereotype of contemporary down low urban men of color.

The fact that this emotional and relationship strain is intensified by physical danger from a hostile community leads to the film’s tragic denouement. Here in New York City, men of color are still marginalized from the traditionally white power structure of the gay community that might be better able to protect them, but they are also the people most likely to be victims of hate crimes. In 2004, according to statistics from New York City’s Gay & Lesbian Anti-Violence Project, men of color comprised about 32 percent of all victims of anti-gay harassment, assaults, and murder in the City—that’s two times the rate for white men.

Rashawn Brazell, Dwan Prince, and Rodney Velazquez are the real life counterparts to Ennis and Jack. Velazquez was found murdered in his Bronx apartment in the summer of 2002. Parts of Brazell’s dismembered body were found in subways tunnels last February. Dwan Prince was brutally assaulted outside of his Brownsville apartment building this past June. Both homicides remain unsolved and Prince is still recovering from his injuries. Outside of any one incident, anti-LGBT violence continues to be a core concern for our city, jumping 29 percent in 2003 and staying that high in 2004.

“Brokeback Mountain” paints a sympathetic and moving portrait of two men who pay for their love in lives lived in uncertainty, isolation, unhappiness, and, ultimately, violence. We look forward to the day when the tale can be told of men of color who risk all for love without secrecy and in safety.

Clarence Patton is the executive director of the New York City Gay & Lesbian Anti-Violence Project, the nation’s largest service agency for victims of bias crimes against the lesbian, gay, transgender, bisexual, and HIV-affected communities and which recently initiated a year of activities to celebrate its 25th anniversary. The Anti-Violence Project provides counseling and advocacy for thousands of victims of bias-motivated violence as well as for survivors of domestic violence, rape and sexual assault, HIV-related violence, and police misconduct. The Anti-Violence Project documents incidents of violence against and within LGTB communities, educates the public about the effects of violence, against or within our communities, and works to reform public policies impacting all lesbian, gay, transgender, bisexual, and HIV-affected people. For more information, contact the Anti-Violence Project at 212-714-1184 or avp.org. To reach the Anti-Violence Project’s 24-hour, bilingual (English and Spanish) hotline for victims of violence, call 212-714-1141.

Christopher Murray, LMSW, is a counselor at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center.

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Updated 5:17 pm, July 20, 2018
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