Brokeback Syndrome: More Than One Way Off the Mountain

By now, the plot line of Brokeback Mountain  is well known. For those just returning from another planet, here it is: in the early 1960s, two young, male sheep herders, Jack Twist and Ennis Del Mar become sexually involved for a summer on Brokeback Mountain in Wyoming. Then, with no strings attached, they move on to marry heterosexually. After a few years they reunite and go on periodic fishing trips together where their fishing lines never get wet. Eventually Ennis’ marriage falls apart and Jack dies via suspicious circumstances.

Brokeback Mountain has been billed by some as a universal love story. For instance, the Los Angeles Times said the movie depicts a love story that “deals with the uncharted, mysterious ways of the human heart just as so many mainstream films have before it. The two lovers here just happen to be men.”

Others disagree. Daniel Mendelsohn, in a New York Times column, declared, “Both narratively and visually, Brokeback Mountain is a tragedy about the specifically gay phenomenon of the “closet”—about the disastrous emotional and moral consequences of erotic self-repression and of the social intolerance that first causes and then exacerbates it.” In other words, Brokeback Mountain is not a universal love story, but rather a tragic gay story portraying the social oppression and “erotic self-repression” of homosexuals who hide or suppress their feelings.

On the heels of Mr. Mendelsohn’s essay is another New York Times op-ed by Dan Savage generalizing the fictional Brokeback plotline to all men who experience attractions to other men but desire a heterosexual marriage. Call it the Brokeback Syndrome.

Throwing down a challenge, Mr. Savage writes: “…if anyone reading this believes that gay men can actually become ex-gay men, I have just one question for you: Would you want your daughter to marry one?”

Is Mr. Savage correct? Is it impossible for some men who experience attractions to other men to buck the Brokeback Syndrome? If even possible, should they? Should societal norms encourage men in such situations to leave their marriages and come out as gay if they experience persistent attractions to the same sex? According to writers for the official newspaper of the Brokeback Buzz, “erotic self-repression” is so destabilizing that being an ex-gay cowboy is not only impossible but the attempt invariably produces “disastrous emotional and moral consequences.”

Don’t tell that to Rob and Lois Winslow of Lafayette, CO. For approximately 25 years, Rob was one of those closeted people pitied so by the Times’ writers. Prior to marrying, Rob had disclosed his same-sex attractions to his fiancé’s Lois, but they went ahead with marriage. About 10 years ago, Rob confessed to Lois that his struggle had not ceased. Their world was turned upset down. Although Lois was supportive and loving, the road they traveled together to save their marriage was painful.

Rob is not a cowboy nor does he play one on TV. Rather, he is a businessman who had come to the decision that he was indeed a gay man who was about to declare it. Concerning the Brokeback Syndrome, Rob said, “I really felt that way. I wanted to leave my family and find Mr. Right.”

In December 1995, after 2 children and 15 years of marriage, Rob set off on a business trip he hoped would turn into a weekend of sex with a male co-worker. What he found instead was an encounter with a man who described what he called “sexual healing.” Not the Marvin Gaye kind, but rather the co-worker described how he had experienced healing from compulsive sexuality and a renewed commitment to his marriage. Rob was intrigued. “When I learned that there was another way, I wanted to know more. I always felt a need for men in my life and had settled for a sexual closeness. My friend offered me a different option.”

His pursuit of that option came through various counselors, religious commitment and eventually involved an Exodus International ministry. He told me recently in an interview that he has not had a homosexual experience in 10 years and says, “I am no longer attracted to men at all.”

Concerning men experiencing the Brokeback Syndrome, Rob says he can empathize with their situation. “I think I can relate to them. These (same-sex) feelings seemed like they had always been a part of my life.” Now however, Rob sees this issue from a different perspective. “Although I think I understand what men who relate to Jack and Ennis are feeling, I think it is an unnecessary choice to give up on their marriage commitment. What I have now is so much better.

Even though Rob doesn’t experience attractions to men now, the point of his story is not to generalize claims about sexual orientation change to others. Rather, the Winslows see Rob’s experience as demonstrating that love is more than eroticism. Their choice to preserve family for each other and their children was a loving thing to do, even when faced with a season of “erotic self-repression.”

As far as married men struggling with the Brokeback Mountain Syndrome, Rob does not recommend it. He just wants people to know there is more than one way off the mountain.