I am haunted by this coincidence, and by the parallels between the death of Matthew Shepard and the events of Brokeback Mountain (i.e. the death of Earl, the paranoia of Ennis Del Mar, and the supposed murder of Jack Twist).
Annie Proulx didn't invent gay-bashing, of course. I doubt that her story had any influence on Matthew Shepard's murderers because they don't strike me as the type of people who would read short fiction in the New Yorker. Matthew Shepard wasn't the first victim of gay-bashing, nor was he the last. However, he was and probably still is the most well-publicized victim. Sometimes I wonder why that should be; not why his death should have captured the attention of the entire nation, but why only a few of the many hate-crimes committed against gays should garner so much attention. How many have died secret deaths; how many have been left to die alone and forgotten, lying in an irrigation ditch or tied to a fence?
No, Annie Proulx didn't invent gay-bashing, but in a way I wish she had; I wish it was something that you could close the book on and say, "That's just a story; things like that don't happen in real life." This leads me to wonder about the people in Wyoming, Montana, North and South Dakota who did read the story when it was first published. Did they scoff and think, "That would never happen here" ... did they pause and wonder, "Could it happen here?" ... or were they confident that it could, that it had, and that it probably would again?
Apart from living in Wyoming (and being gay), Jack and Ennis don't have a lot in common with Matthew Shepard, but of the two, I would say Jack has more in common with him than Ennis. Jack is the one who seems to be truer to himself, more comfortable with who he is and less concerned with what others think of him.2 I have said, or at least implied, that Jack strikes me as a person who is driven, more than anything else, by a need for companionship. Matthew Shepard was like that too; he was social, he liked to be around people and make new friends.
I've said before that I think Jack Twist is a character often misunderstood. Gene Shalit went so far as to call him a "sexual predator," and while he did apologize for that remark, the apology can't unsay the words, any more than an apology for hitting another car can remove the dent from the car body. Matthew Shepard was also made out to be a sexual predator at the trials of his attackers, which, when you know the facts, is positively ridiculous. Matthew Shepard was 5 foot 2 inches tall, weighed somewhere between 90 and 110 pounds; there was one of him and there were two assailants, at least one of whom was armed. What words were exchanged between Matthew Shepard and his assailants has been lost to history, but eyewitnesses attest to the fact that they approached him rather than the other way around. And yet, there was (and probably still is) a persistent belief, even among those who deplore the attack as brutal and reprehensible, that Matthew Shepard in some way brought the attack on himself, that he was "asking for it" and was partially to blame.
It's gratifying and inspiring to see how successful Brokeback Mountain has been, how many awards and nominations it has garnered, how many hearts it has touched. In adapting it to a film, the story has not only reached a wider audience, but has become a part of the popular culture. Not that this hasn't been a struggle; as Stephen King says, "A check of Brokeback parodies on Google should convince anyone with half a brain that the American pop culture is intent on passing this passionate, well-meant, and well-made movie like a kidney stone." Now, I don't object to parody; I've seen a few Brokeback parodies and some are actually quite funny. I object to insensitivity. I object to prejudice. I object to mean-spiritedness. As Father Roger Schmitt says in the Laramie Project, those are the "seeds of violence." I object to anything that tries to trivialize Brokeback Mountain. I object to anyone who makes fun of it without trying to understand it. And I object to it's being used as shorthand for those who persecute others based on sexuality. Those are the seeds of violence, and Brokeback Mountain ought not to bear such bitter fruit.
Thus ends Brokeback Mountain Week. I dedicate it to the memory of Matthew Shepard, and to all who have been the victims of hate.
1 Technically, the beating didn't take place until the early hours of October 7, but the events were set into motion on the evening of October 6. Strangely enough, I began Brokeback Mountain Week on October 6, but for some reason LiveJournal insisted on marking my entry as October 7.
2 The thought just occurred to me; in naming Jack Twist, did Proulx purposefully give him a surname that literally means "not straight"?