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Wednesday, Oct 28, 2020
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What I mean to say is....
That Gay cowboy
by Beau Burriola - SGN Foreign Correspondent

"Did you hear?" Sean asked, officially the zillionth person in a row to call me with the news. Of course I'd heard. Every Gay person in America had already heard and picked up the phone or sent an e-mail to tell someone else that Heath Ledger was dead. As a rule, I don't much get caught up in the goings-on of celebrities, so I left my phone in my car when I parked and went to class. Another idol dies young. Life goes on. At least mine does.

"Moin + adjectif ou adverb + que&" my instructor, Anne, went on with the lesson, probably no more affected by any of the Gay cowboy stuff than I was determined not to be. She has five months before Belgium to get all of this into my head, but the gentle hum of the heater in the classroom mixed with the soft, white light made my mind drift.

I thought of the rural life that half of Gay folks in America still live and how that life is always so overshadowed by the flashy glamour of the ultra-urban Gay communities. I thought of how that rural Gay life was always so much a story never told, and how all that changed with Brokeback Mountain. If only for a few weeks, that "other," un-sparkled Gay life was bigger than the rest of the visible Gay world, more visible even than the painted nun drag queens and Speedo-clad muscle boys in sailor hats that end up in every news article about Gay Pride every single year. For the first time, it seemed like Montana and Wyoming could be just as Gay as California or New York. For a flash in the history of Gay America, the pride and struggle of all those other Gays was bigger.

Of course, I was being sentimental. The struggle of rural Gay Americans isn't validated and changed by a movie. I had to get all this rubbish out of my head and just focus on my lessons. Celebrities, yeesh.

"Adjectif, adverb," I forced the words through, pausing a few seconds later to imagine how it must have been for someone like Heath to make it big playing a "Gay" character, how although it seems so much more common today, the weight a little adjective like "Gay" can bring to a life or story. It wasn't playing a cowboy that made Heath Ledger big; it was playing a Gay cowboy. The story was in the Gay. The story of so many of us trying to live normal lives in spite of it all is in the Gay. He told our story, and arguably did it better than we could.

By the time I got back to my car with half of a lesson in my head, I gave up trying to put it all out of my head. Heath's death is big news to Gay folks because it reminds us of what he did, of the role he played. For the Gay folks out in the spaces that lie in between the Gayer places in America, it's a reminder that our story is worth telling. It's a reminder of who we are. It's a reminder of how things are changing.

Sometimes, those who do the most for advancing Gay rights aren't Gay people. They are people who play Gay people in movies, politicians who support equal protection, people who make one bold stand against injustice against a Gay person, or who inspire us with a look at our own humanity and realize how alike we are. Heath Ledger was one of those people.

His death is a reminder that although life is short, it's still long enough for us all to do something worthwhile with the time we have got.

Beau Burriola is a writer in the hilly, tree-filled, beautiful nothingness of North Carolina.
visit Beau at

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