I grew up in a small town in Canada in the late 60s and early 70s. Homosexual sex was illegal in Canada until 1969, and homosexuality was considered a psychiatric disorder (listed by the American Psychiatric Association under Sexual Deviancy) until 1972. Every Hallowe'en in the early 70s, hostile crowds descended on the infamous St. Charles Tavern on Toronto's Yonge St. to taunt & harrass the "faggots". There were absolutely no sympathetic treatments of gays in the media or in popular culture, and gays were regularly beaten in horrendous gay-bashing incidents. Needless to say, I grew up with the message that homosexuals were perverts and that being gay was a ticket to a life of shame, humiliation, loneliness and even danger.
When I first discovered my own homosexual feelings in the early 70s, I fought hard to suppress them. I dated girls & was outwardly straight. In my twenties & thirties, I wanted the middle-class dream of a wife & kids and a house with a white picket fence, and I felt that being gay was incompatible with that dream. I convinced myself that I was bisexual, and that if I worked hard enough at it, I could suppress my gay side and live a heterosexual life. In my forties, when I couldn't make it work, I stopped dating altogether, moved out to the country & bought a house, & resolved to stay single - I just couldn't bring myself to admit that I was gay and take that final step across the threshold to a different life.
Then, in January of 2006, I went to see Brokeback Mountain. I wasn't sure what to expect. I had heard all the gay cowboy jokes on late-night TV, but nothing prepared me for the impact that movie had on me. Heath Ledger's portrayal of Ennis Del Mar, the self-loathing closeted cowboy living in rural Wyoming who passes up a chance at true love for a life of misery & loneliness, hit me like a physical blow. After watching the final scene where Ennis caresses a shirt that once belonged to his now-dead lover and struggles to keep his grief under control, I could hardly breathe. I didn't sleep for two days, and after a brutal period of intense self-examination, I resolved to make a change. I came out to my family & close friends.
It wasn't easy. Coming out in your late forties is like finding yourself in a foreign country where you don't speak the language or understand the rules. I made a few attempts to meet other gay people, which isn't easy in a rural area. Eventually I met a great guy & we are starting a new relationship together. For the first time I feel like a well-adjusted, whole, happy person.
I don't usually write about my personal life in this blog, but the death of Heath Ledger deserves some comment by people like me who were deeply affected by his performance in Brokeback Mountain. He appeared in a lot of forgettable roles in many mediocre movies, but that one performance was a masterpiece, and it was a watershed in my own life. The ancient Greeks had a term to describe a type of response by audiences to moments of great tension or emotion in a drama - catharsis. It refers to an emotional crisis or breakdown accompanied by a feeling of renewal and purification. I experienced catharsis that night when I watched Heath Ledger on the screen as Ennis Del Mar.
It is sad when celebrities whom you admire turn out to have feet of clay, and it is troubling that his death apparently involved something as sordid as a drug overdose. He deserved better than that.