Homosexuality, Sheep, and Homosexual Sheep
“Sheep Be Damned” : The symbolism of sheep in “Brokeback Mountain”
Besides humans, sheep are the only other mammal species capable of having exclusively homosexual desires. That is, given a choice between a ram and an ewe, nearly ten percent of rams will choose to mate with another ram over mating with an ewe (Poiani). The reasoning behind this biological phenomenon is still in question, though a study by Dr. Charles Roselli found that homosexuality in male sheep is neurological. Dr. Roselli believes it is likely due to the reduced size of the “ovine Sexually Dimorphic Nucleus,” a region in the brain of sheep responsible for expressing aromatase, a substance that helps to facilitate male sexual behaviors.
Interestingly, this is the livestock that Ennis and Jack are put in charge of in “Brokeback Mountain,” the short story by Annie Proulx. Ennis and Jack would likely have been among the few gay men who chose to express their sexuality in Wyoming during the 1960s, considering the rural region in which the story takes place. In an article on gay and lesbian lives in Wyoming, Gail Leedy and Cathy Connolly cite work from researchers who conclude that gay life in these rural areas, specifically during this time, was “difficult and unsatisfying.” They also note that these areas, characterized by conservatism, traditionalism, and religious fundamentalism, were, as one might suspect, hostile towards gay people. Many opportunities and communities were “closed off” to gay people, leaving them to attempt to either mask their sexuality or to retreat into social isolation. In Wyoming specifically, only four years after the publication of “Brokeback Mountain,” researcher W. T. Boulden found that gay communities in the rural regions of the state were “loose” and “hard to find.” The sheep on Brokeback Mountain are the only community in which Ennis and Jack can live out their sexuality comfortably. It is interesting then, that sheep too can be gay. Ennis and Jack find solace in their time on the mountain, with the sheep. They are isolated from all other human communities so much so that “they believe[d] themselves invisible” to anyone, or anything, beyond their herd and the community they find in each other. Only Joe Aguirre’s binoculars break their isolation. It is his subsequent disgust that displays the truth to this research — that expressing one’s homosexuality at this time drew scorn from the community.
As grazing animals, sheep rely on humans to herd them. In societies in the past, the work of shepherds included guarding the sheep and guiding them as they moved the sheep from pasture to pasture. These shepherds were important to society, yet they lived nomadic lives, independent of the general public. Though not deemed “shepherds,” Ennis and Jack are two cowboys fulfilling the role of shepherds on Brokeback Mountain. They engage in a similar lifestyle, independent from society not only physically, but psychologically. Their time spent herding on Brokeback Mountain, living independent from society, is the first time they fully recognize their sexuality. On the mountain, they are not confined by society’s views on homosexuality — and the men find psychological freedom in that.
Undoubtedly, the sheep are essential to the plot of “Brokeback Mountain” — without the need to herd them, the premise of this story would not exist. However, the fact that Ennis and Jack are responsible for herding sheep, as opposed to some other livestock, is interesting. Sheep are often associated with pastoral imagery, a depiction of an idealized country lifestyle. For Ennis and Jack, their lifestyle on Brokeback Mountain is an ideal lifestyle; on the mountain, they are free from the confines of society’s heterosexual expectations. They are “suspended above ordinary affairs” and “distant” from the world, and their sexual obligations, below. Truly, their relationship on the mountain is anything but an “ordinary affair;” it is quite extraordinary. The life of a cowboy is about maximizing yield and survival. Contrastingly, homosexual relations yield no offspring, and therefore cannot contribute to the survival of a species. Because of this, it appears that Ennis and Jack are living paradoxes — caught in the conflicting lifestyle of a gay cowboy. These men encompass the title “cowboy” from their dirt-stained, sweaty flannels down to the soles of their broken-in boots — they live for the wilderness, campfires, and work from atop the saddle of a horse. Combining the work of herding livestock on the mountains with the ability to freely express homosexual behavior creates an idyllic way of life for Ennis and Jack. It is their own “pastoral” lifestyle.
The role of herder becomes steadily less important as the intimacy between Jack and Ennis grows. Not only do the sheep lose priority in the men’s lives, but they also become collateral damage for their budding relationship. Under Ennis and Jack’s care — or lack thereof — the sheep become “mixed” with another herd after a night shared under the canvas at main camp. At this point, not only have the sheep become mixed, but so have Ennis and Jack’s sexuality — “everything seemed mixed,” Proulx writes. Their lives have become intertwined — like a chemical mixture, in which two separate substances merge to create a new solution. Yet each substance retains its physical properties and the individual substances can later be separated. The lives of Ennis and Jack are similar — they become “mixed” or combined, in consummation, and though they separate following their descent from Brokeback Mountain, each carries himself differently because of the matter. Similarly, the herd of sheep that returns from Brokeback Mountain with the men is not the same homogenous herd that the men started with. This mixed herd draws Joe Aguirre’s scorn, as he comments on the differences in the herd that returns with a “sour expression.” His disdain is not only for the sheep, however. He also clearly expresses contempt for the two men’s homosexuality when he declines rehiring Jack — likely sneering, he comments, “You boys sure found a way to make the time pass up there, didn’t you?”
The symbolism of sheep is seen also in the death of the relationship — Jack’s death and burial. As Ennis passes the country cemetery where Jack’s ashes are destined to remain — by his father’s stubbornness, not by Jack’s desires — he notices that it is enclosed in sheep wire. The “sagging” wire circles the tiny plot of prairie land containing the grave where the last remains of Jack will soon lie, buried in the ground and marked with a grave. The wire is old and dilapidated, much like the rural society’s unchanging view on homosexuality. Jack was confined by the stigma of homosexuality during his life and it continues to haunt his gravesite. Jack is forever confined to the expectations of society when he is off of Brokeback Mountain — that is the expectation to be heterosexual.
The sheep in Brokeback Mountain represent a homosexual community both welcoming to and representative of Ennis and Jack’s relationship. Just as some rams prefer rams, some cowboys prefer cowboys.
Leedy, Gail, and Cathy Connolly. “Out in the Cowboy State: A Look at Gay and Lesbian Lives in Wyoming.” Journal of Gay & Lesbian Social Services 19.1 (2008): 17–34. Web. 8 Sept. 2016.
Poiani, Aldo, and Alan Dixson F. Animal Homosexuality: A Biosocial Perspective. New York: Cambridge UP, 2010. Web. 8 Sept. 2016.
Proulx, Annie. “Brokeback Mountain.” The New Yorker. The New Yorker, 13 October 1997. Web. 5 Sept. 2016.
Roselli, C.E., and F. Stormshak. “Prenatal Programming of Sexual Partner Preference: The Ram Model.” Journal of neuroendocrinology 21.4 (2009): 359–364. PMC. Web. 8 Sept. 2016.