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The Western  
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The first concerns the travels and gradual sexual self-discovery of John Chapman, the man who became "Johnny Appleseed." The second is a story of a young white man's exploration of his sexual and emotional needs in a relationship with a Delaware brave, combined with an account of his simultaneous adventures in confronting what the settlers believe to be the "wendigo," a supernatural monster dwelling in the forest.

Ronald Donaghe's Common Sons (2000), though not really a Western, is set in a small, homophobic town in rural New Mexico after World War II. It presents the touching and optimistic coming-of-age, coming out story of two ordinary young men who fall in love.

Since the mid-1990s, in part due to the development of new forms of Internet communication, there has been rapid development of the genre of male-male (M/M) romantic and erotic popular fiction. A number of M/M novels and story collections are set in the West, both in the past and the present. Interestingly, many of these M/M "cowboy romances" are written by and for women who identify as heterosexual. This field is growing at such a rate that the writers are too many to list, but some significant ones are Dave Brown, Chris Owen, Sarah Black, J.L. Langley, S. Bryan Gonzales, and Tory Temple.

Brokeback Mountain

And then there is the extraordinary achievement of Brokeback Mountain. First published in 1997 in The New Yorker, Annie Proulx's short story reached a wide audience, challenging stereotypes about homosexuality and making straight readers aware of the struggles of the many man-loving men throughout the United States who pass for straight, and in 2005 the film version made by Larry McMurtry, Diana Ossana, Ang Lee, and their associates brought Proulx's narrative to a huge national and international audience.

In both its forms, Brokeback Mountain in a sense "outs" the Western, obliging readers and audiences to recognize the centrality of masculine beauty and masculine love to the most important of American national narratives.

There are important differences between the two versions of the narrative, of course, but both raise related issues that are fundamental to the tradition of the Western. They both present masculine Westerners whom readers and audiences tend to perceive as "cowboys" (though they're actually sheepherders), and both evoke the lonely, heroic splendor of the Rockies, familiar to everyone from Western fiction, films, and art.

The relationship of Ennis del Mar and Jack Twist starts off like the friendships of many working men in the West and elsewhere in America, with shared effort in work and shared enjoyment of drinking, storytelling, singing, and joking. But, as happens for far more American men than ever will admit it, friendship extends to physical play and physical attraction, and culminates in intense sexual passion. Rather than retreating in fear, the men share a mutual sexual bond during their summer together.

The story and the film thus indicate how deeply connected friendship and sexual and emotional attraction can be for many men, despite the artificial boundary that the dominant culture seeks to impose between the homosocial and the homoerotic. And both show that the intense bonds between men, so important in the Western tradition, are centered on a kind of attraction between men that most creators and consumers of the tradition almost never have been able to acknowledge.

Whereas the traditional Western presents the landscape as the object of conquest, penetrated, explored, and finally "civilized" through the efforts of white men led by heroic frontiersmen and cowboys, the spectacular landscape of Brokeback Mountain is a refuge from the constraint, repression, frustration, and hostility Ennis and Jack encounter as men who love men in what is supposedly "civilization." For both of them, heterosexual marriage is a mistake and a trap into which they're forced by fear and shame, and it not only hurts them and but their wives and children as well.

The story and the film are uncompromising in their presentation of the violence directed at men who love men and internalized by them. Indeed, they show that one fundamental source of the male violence that marks the Western may be the distrust and rage many American men are taught to feel toward attraction between men.

The story and the film not only locate male love in relation to the American tradition of the Western, but also place it in the originally European and now global tradition of the tragic romantic love story. Narratives of a love between a man and a woman so strong that it can challenge and overcome any prejudice between families, classes, or cultures, and indeed can overcome death itself, are familiar to everyone, and range from Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet (1594) to James Cameron's Titanic (1997). Proulx and Lee and his associates have had the daring and brilliance to put love between two men on the same level, constructing it as a passion so powerful that, even after Jack is gone, the memory of him helps Ennis to "stoke the day," to stand what he cannot fix.

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