In the cultural environment in which Jack and Ennis have their relationship, there is a great deal of homophobia. This is the period from 1963 to 1983, and also going back before that. Fear of the consequences if he was to live with Jack is one of the main factors that holds Ennis back in their relationship. The cultural homophobia is revealed at several points in the story. Ennis tells Jack about an incident that happened in his childhood. There were two gay men named Earl and Rich who lived together on a ranch in Ennis’s home town in Sage, Wyoming. His father used to comment adversely about them, and Ennis tells Jack, “They was a joke even though they were pretty tough old birds.” The men faced hostility in their community, and Earl was found dead in an irrigation ditch after having been beaten with a tire iron. Ennis’s father took the nine-year-old Ennis to see the corpse. For all Ennis knows, his father might have done the crime himself, since he was strongly homophobic. It is because of this hostility to same-sex couples that Ennis rules out the notion that he and Jack could ever live together. “Two guys livin together. No.” Such things just do not happen in Wyoming, or if they do they have tragic and violent consequences.
The situation is no better in Texas, where Jack lives. Unlike Ennis, Jack likes to form presumably sexual relationships with men in addition to Ennis, since he sees Ennis so infrequently. When Ennis learns of Jack’s death, supposedly due to an accident when a tire blew up as he was repairing a flat, Ennis suspects that Jack was in fact murdered. “They got him with a tire iron,” he thinks. Although the circumstances of Jack’s death are never established beyond doubt, Ennis’s belief that Jack was murdered gets even stronger when Jack’s father tells him that Jack had been talking about bringing a rancher friend of his to the family ranch and building a log cabin there while they helped Jack’s dad fix his own place up.
There are other undercurrents of homophobia in the story. Ennis’s wife Alma happens to see the two men kissing, and later, after their divorce, she lets on to Ennis that she knows about his relationship with Jack: “Jack Twist? Jack Nasty. You and him—” Although as Ennis’s wife she might well have reason to be displeased with his sexual affair with Jack, there is an undercurrent of disgust in her comment.
Also, to an extent Jack and Ennis have internalized the cultural hostility toward homosexuality because they both claim after one of their earliest sexual encounters with each other that they are not homosexual. “I’m not no queer,” says Ennis, and Jack says that he is not, either. Neither can bring themselves to admit, at least at this stage, that although they are both also attracted to women, it is the same-sex experience that arouses and fulfills them most deeply.
Although neither Jack nor Ennis—both rough-spoken men—ever uses the word, love is the main theme of the story. It is a troubled, complicated love between two men, neither of whom acknowledge that they are gay, in a cultural environment that presents many dangers for same-sex relationships. The word love is appropriate because, first, it is clear that Jack and Ennis first discover how well they get along with each other before they ever have sex. They talk for hours by the campfire about all the topics under the sun. Such companionship surprises them since neither had expected it. So the seeds of love are sown first, before the sexual relationship begins, andtheir story as it unfolds over the years is fueled by far more than sexual desire. Ennis and Jack genuinely love each other; there is a deep connection between them, which survives for two decades in difficult circumstances, including the fact that both men are married and have children, and Jack lives in far-away Texas. The love between them is far greater, more binding, than any love they might have for their wives.
Like all couples in love, Ennis and Jack have their arguments and their difficult issues to deal with. Jack wants to go ahead and live with Ennis and is frustrated by Ennis’s refusal to do so, which arises mostly from his fear of what might happen were he to offend cultural norms. In the end theirs is an unhappy love affair because it cannot be shaped according to the desires of both men. They are too enmeshed in the other aspects of the lives they have created for themselves to be fully true to their own vision—Jack’s mostly—of how they might be together permanently. Nonetheless, it could be said that their love transcends death, because after Jack’s death, Ennis dreams sometimes of him, and when he does so, according to the prologue, he is “suffused with a sense of pleasure.” He also keeps a postcard of Brokeback Mountain, and his and Jack’s shirt on a hanger, in his trailer—reminders of a love he once knew.