The real gay cowboys

The hard punches of 'Brokeback Mountain' aren't just a Hollywood creation. Just ask the real cowboys who've lived to tell.

By John Polly

As "Brokeback Mountain," director Ang Lee's heartbreaking film tracking the ill-fated relationship of two ranch-roaming cowboys in rural Wyoming, continues to stack up awards and nominations for its powerful love story and its talented cast (most notably leading men Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal), it's also drawn a bit of attention from a few nay-sayers who feel that the movie somehow misrepresents the long-iconic figure of the traditional Old West cowboy.

One Wyoming native, playwright Sandy Dixon, was quoted in an article in the Casper, Wyoming Star-Tribune newspaper, which was then widely reported in national media, claiming she had certainly never met a gay cowboy, and that "real cowboys" would dismiss the film as "hogwash." Dixon stated: "There is nothing better than plain old cowboys and the plain old history without embellishing it to suit everyone."

Real gay ranchers, who do in fact exist, whether Dixon knowingly met them or not, may beg to differ that the film doesn't embellish at all. One of them is Tracy Lehman. Lehman, who is now 38, was raised on a 6,000-acre cattle ranch in eastern Washington in a town of 90 people. Growing up he filled his days fixing fences and baling hay, and he still returns home twice a year to help his family during cattle drives (Lehman now works as a truck driver and lives outside of Portland, Oregon). For him, the hardscrabble world of "Brokeback Mountain" was no Hollywood creation, but one that is alarmingly authentic.

"The movie shows that world very much the way it is," affirms Lehman, who is gay, and who also spent many years living in the closet. "I'm from a ranching family and I thought the movie was awesome. It's very true to life, showing how it is trying to hide and denying who you are. I know, I was married and I had four kids. I grew up not wanting people to know who I was, and not really understanding it. The film did a good job of telling emotionally what these characters are going through. You're longing for that person that you really want to be with, but you can't because you're afraid of everything you might lose."

Mike Hartman, a 47-year gay rancher who raises horses in Estacada, Oregon agrees. "For me the movie certainly woke up things and brought to mind incidents in my life which really rang true," says Hartman, 47, who grew up in a small ranching community in central Canada. "It was remarkable. Some of the scenes were such an accurate depiction of the fear and longing that you go through it was eerie."

Both Lehman and Hartman particularly applaud this film's authentic representation of the pain of maintaining a relationship that must be kept hidden because, like Ennis and Jack, who meet in secret over a 20-year span, they've both been there.

"Back home, I had a friend who went to a rival high school and we would meet up in secret," explains Lehman, who now competes on both the straight and gay rodeo circuits. "From the time we were 14 well into our twenties, when we'd see each other it was very similar to the movie, and it was very hard. You try not to let anyone find out about you, and you live with this huge fear. You worry you'll be disowned, or bashed, or that you might even be killed, so you try to be careful all the time. The guys in the movie meet in 1963, but when I was growing up in the 1980s it was still the same thing. Not much had changed."

Similarly, Hartman has also been involved in a relationship that echoes the dynamic of Annie Proulx's "Brokeback" protagonists. For the past 11 years, he's been involved with a man who's not quite ready to publicly acknowledge their mutual bond.

"That part of the story really hit home," admits Hartman. "I saw the film with my friend in whom I very clearly see the Ennis character. This is a man - a big, strong, honest, hard-working man - who was raised in a very homophobic society. We fell in love and have shared that for a long time. After we saw the film, he was kind of a mess the next day, to be honest. He has all of these issues that he's not ready to deal with, much like the Ennis character in the movie."

Both Lehman and Hartman are out and unashamed of their sexuality, which makes their appreciation of the film all the more acute. And they're also pleased that "Brokeback Mountain" puts forth an image of gay characters that has been seen too infrequently in the mainstream media, that of the rugged everyman who just happens to be gay.

"This movie does show something that people probably don't know about," offers Hartman, who, with an admitted penchant for chewing tobacco and his love of ranching defies any "Queer Eye" notions of what a gay man may be. "It's 2006 and shows like 'Will & Grace' have put positive gay characters out there, but this film tells another valid story. Just because people may not have seen this kind of story unfold doesn't mean it's not true."

And both real-life ranching veterans believe strongly in the film's message, as they each define it. "True love is very strong and powerful," says Lehman. "It doesn't matter if it's between two men, or between a man and a woman. The movie shows the pain that results when you have to deny that love and carry it inside you."

Hartman has his own take on the film's power. "The strongest message of the film is like the slogan says: love doesn't really have any boundaries. These two characters are soul mates. So it doesn't matter that they're two guys. That's just who they are."

Not surprisingly, when asked how he'd answer those folks who claim that Brokeback's notion of gays on the range is "hogwash," the normally staid horseman Hartman just chuckles. "I'd respond like Cher did in that one movie: 'Snap out of it!' Because this world absolutely is true. I know. I'm living it."

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