THERE are missile silos tucked throughout the hills around the high plains here, a town 140 miles north of Cheyenne with more sheep than people, with one stop light, no bowling alley or movie theater and a year-round population just above 1,000. Although the silos, with their sinister nuclear payloads, are well concealed, most locals know where to find them. Wyoming's wide-open spaces are like that, with space enough to conceal wide-open secrets, and good reasons to do so.
Among the secrets is the existence of gay cowboys, a term that might have struck some as an oxymoron before Ang Lee's new film, "Brokeback Mountain," which opened earlier this month to sold-out houses in New York and Los Angeles, seven Golden Globe nominations and almost universally rave reviews. By the standards of the rhapsodically spare film and the bleak Annie Proulx story on which it is based, gay cowboys are so anomalous as to be characters out of myth.
Yet there has always lurked a suspicion that the fastidious Eastern dude of Owen Wister's "The Virginian" harbored stronger than proper feelings for his rough Western compadres, and that the Red River crowd may have gotten up to more than yarning by the campfire whenever Joanne Dru was not around. The light Ang Lee allows into the bunkhouse closet may shock those who like their Marlboro Men straight.
But to gay men trying to forge lives in a world where the shape of masculinity is narrow, and where the "liberated" antics of the homosexual minstrels so often depicted on television can seem far off, the emotional privation and brutal violence of "Brokeback Mountain" seems like documentary.
"That could have been my life," Derrick Glover said one bitter cold afternoon last week, referring to the film, which he had seen at a special screening a week before in Jackson, Wyo. A 33-year-old rancher, Mr. Glover comes from a family that has worked the land around Lusk for generations. His father still runs 300 head of cattle.
Seated at a table in the smoky Outpost Cafe alongside Highway 85, Mr. Glover laid out the story of a typical ranch-country boyhood: herding, branding, culling and haying, horses hobbled on picket lines and calves pulled forcibly from their mother's bodies during spring calving. Every summer Mr. Glover sets out with his brother in a panel truck carrying their two quarter horses, to compete in calf and steer roping competitions. "I never had any intention of leaving the cowboy lifestyle," Mr. Glover said. "Ranching is who I am."
Yet next month Mr. Glover will quit Lusk and that part of himself in order to move to the bright lights of Lander, Wyo. (population 6,864). "I don't really want to do it," Mr. Glover said. Yet he has to, he explained, if he ever wants to live his life openly. Like Jack Twist, the rodeo-loving character portrayed by Jake Gyllenhaal in the movie, Derrick Glover is gay.
"They always define it as coming out of the closet, but I don't consider myself to be out of the closet," Mr. Glover explained. There is a reason for that, he said. "Where I live, you can't really go out and be yourself. You couldn't go out together, two guys, as a couple and ever be accepted. It wasn't accepted in the past, it's still not, and I don't think it ever will be." That he and some of the others interviewed for this article were willing to be named and photographed was not without social and even physical risk.
Starkest among the dimensions of "Brokeback Mountain" is not the love story billboarded as revolutionary, or the kisses that are far less erotically charged than the one exchanged by Peter Finch and Murray Head in John Schlesinger's "Sunday Bloody Sunday," back in 1971.
What is most emotionally corrosive about "Brokeback Mountain," some say, is the film's placid portrayal of the violence that has always been a part of gay experience, whether a gay man's brutal murder recalled in flashback from the boyhood of Ennis del Mar, the conflicted cowboy portrayed by Heath Ledger, or the equally grotesque killing that is the film's denouement. Just as chilling, perhaps, is the emotional wreckage left littering the majestic landscape, hulks of lives ruptured by intolerance and misunderstanding left rusting at the end of dirt roads.
If there is an unacknowledged spirit hanging over "Brokeback Mountain" surely it is Matthew Shepard, the 21-year old University of Wyoming student who was attacked on Oct, 6, 1998, outside Laramie, pistol whipped by two young assailants he had met at a bar, tied to a split-rail fence with his own sneaker laces and left to die in the cold.
Mr. Shepard's murderers, as is well known, were quickly arrested. They were tried in an atmosphere of freak show theater, replete with antigay protesters calling down fire and brimstone at Mr. Shepard's funeral, and supporters dressed as angels who formed a palisade to block the hatemongers from view.
The killers, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, were convicted of felony murder, kidnapping and, in Mr. McKinney's case, aggravated robbery and were given double life sentences. And Mr. Shepard's death soon assumed the moral and symbolic dimensions of martyrdom.
His story became a rallying point for a nascent gay rights movement in Wyoming, and the basis for a theatrical epic, "The Laramie Project."
"The Shepard thing goes through my mind all the time," Mr. Glover said flatly, idly tugging on the brim of his farm cap. "People think that could never happen again," he added. "It could happen. It will happen."
Others here insist otherwise, however; they say life for gay men in Wyoming has improved in substantial ways from the era Mr. Ang depicts, the early 60's through the early 80's. They point to the prominence of gay rights groups like Wyoming Equality, to the openly gay mayor of Casper, Wyo., and to the Link, a support group for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered youth.
"It's improved in some ways, but not in others," said Curtis Mork, the coordinator of Wyoming Equality, based in the state capital, Cheyenne. "But the thing about being gay in Wyoming is that you have to know people in order to be out. In San Francisco if you raise your hand and say 'I'm gay,' there'll be a hundred people saying, 'Me too.' Here, unless people know it's safe, you're basically alone. You really can't come out."
When Mr. Ledger's character defiantly asserts, "I ain't queer," following a drunken coupling with Mr. Gyllenhaal's character in their sheepherder's tent, it seems clear that as much as he fears the loss of his cowboy machismo, he is equally scared to relinquish his physical safety once the two come down from Brokeback Mountain.
"I grew up with that same kind of fear and conflict," Ben Clark, a fourth- generation rancher from Jackson said on Tuesday. "Growing up, I never even dreamed that a real cowboy would be gay," Mr. Clark added. It is a belief in which he is not alone.
Last week Janice Crouse, a senior fellow of the conservative group Concerned Women for America, charged Mr. Lee's movie not only with promoting a "homosexual lifestyle" but with subverting a sacred American symbol. "Their major agenda is to make this normal," Ms. Crouse told Reuters after the film's premiere, referring to homosexuality. "They know cowboys have this macho image, cowboys are particularly admired by children. Cowboys are heroes."
Cowboys are indeed heroes admired by children, even by those raised to be cowboys and yet with the uneasy sense that the job will probably not be open to their kind. "I awakened to my same-sex attraction when I was 12," said Mr. Clark, who is now 42. "But I had no idea what to do about it, ever. I was raised in a ranching, rodeo world - wrangling, packing horses, riding bucking stock, working in hunting camps - but always with the sense that I had to conceal who I was because cowboys could never be gay."
The experience was "extremely, extremely lonely," Mr. Clark said, leaving him feeling so isolated that he more than once contemplated suicide. "I could not accept being gay because of the stereotypes that were drilled into me," he explained. "Gay men are emotionally weak. They are not real men. They are like women."
Like Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist in the film, Mr. Clark dated women for a time, bowing to the pressure to be "normal" although, unlike them, he never married and led a double life. There's a joke out here about how one goes about finding a gay man on the frontier. The punch line is deadpan: "Look for the wife and kids."
Fortunately, Mr. Clark said, "I never did get married, because I never wanted to hurt a woman like that." Yet there was much in the film he could relate to, said Mr. Clark, who is among a handful of people in Wyoming to have seen the movie, which has yet to find an exhibitor in the state.
"When I was in my 20's, I worked in a hunting camp for three years as a wrangler," Mr. Clark said. "I heard the jokes, but I kept my feelings inside. One of the hunters asked me, 'Have you been married before?' I told him no. And he gave me a look and said, 'Most of the guys who aren't married by now are getting involved with being hairdressers.' "
Mr. Clark was not be the only person in Wyoming who pointed out the prevalence in local Internet gay chat rooms of men who are not "queers" but who constitute a population of "men who have sex with men but do not identify as gay," a designation arrived at by epidemiologists struggling with ways to track the vectors of sexually transmitted disease.
"There is probably a fair amount of that going on," said Joe Corrigan, a quiet-spoken Cheyenne hairdresser who 15 years ago helped start an annual summer campout for gay men in the Medicine Bow National Forest. The Rendezvous - named for 19th-century gatherings of mountain men, trappers and assorted frontier oddballs - went on to become an institution of Wyoming gay life.
"It's fun for people to have the opportunity to be ourselves and forget about fears," said Mr. Corrigan, quickly adding that there is probably less reason than there used to be for gay men here to be fearful. "Matthew Shepard was an anomaly," he said. "I think that once this film opens here, if it ever does, it will open a lot of people's eyes."
And yet even activists like Mr. Corrigan and his partner, a government employee, concede that tolerance can seem provisional and that gays may be welcome in Wyoming, but typically with the proviso that they are not "Will & Grace" gay.
"I know there are a lot of gay guys in Cheyenne, and it's pretty much accepted, in a way," said Julie Tottingham, the manager of Corral West Ranchwear in Cheyenne, the city's largest purveyor of boot-cut Wranglers, ostrich-skin Tony Lamas and broad-brim buffalo-felt Stetsons. "But at the same time, a lot of our customers would be offended if a gay guy was in here shopping," Ms. Tottingham said. "They'd feel it's an insult to the cowboy way of life."
Among the locals who got an opportunity to see the movie at the screening in Jackson was Jade Beus, an openly gay former cowboy raised on a sheep ranch in Soda Springs, Idaho. "I had more or less that same experience," said Mr. Beus, referring to the characters' struggles. "Trying to find self-acceptance literally took me to a place where I thought I was such a bad person I once put a pistol to the roof of my mouth."
Mr. Beus, who now owns a heating and plumbing contracting company, is not certain what it was that prevented him from taking his own life. "But something clicked over," he said. "I believe greatly in a higher power and I realized He dealt me this particular hand," Mr. Beus said. "I'm a man's man. I'm not feminine at all. Other people might slander me for who I am, but I made a decision a long time ago that I'm not going through life hating myself because I love men."