Heath Ledger, most famous for his role in Brokeback Mountain, was found dead Jan. 22 but authorities only recently confirmed that the 28-year-old died from an accidental overdose of prescription anti-anxiety, pain and sleeping medications. Although doctors and pharmacists say that accidental overdoses are not uncommon, each of the six drugs found near his body also are abused by people in distress.
Because I did not know Ledger personally, almost everything I think or feel about his death is based on news reports. For example, I do not know whether he had a drinking problem, but I suppose so because family and friends said he lately swore off alcohol. What is known is that he in recent years he chose to abandon his pretty-boy profile for such edgy and disenfranchised characters as a drug addict in Candy, a suicidal son in Monster's Ball, and the criminally insane Joker in the upcoming Batman movie The Dark Knight.
When Ledger's seemingly troubled personal life is juxtaposed against his role as a tormented bisexual cowboy in Brokeback Mountain, I can't help but see a reflection of my own story.
I did not know the actor's work before his appearance in Ang Lee's 2005 Brokeback Mountain, a film I have now seen seven times, in addition to reading the book by Annie Proulx. By portraying the suffering of two men in love in the midst of a hostile world, the film touches a nerve deep in my soul. From that shadowy place inside me resides an elusive hope for love in a nonjudgmental world. Unfortunately, all manner of self-loathing and hostility toward the world at large also radiate from that same tender heart.
In Brokeback Mountain, Ledger's character, Ennis del Mar, was tortured by what he viewed as the social inappropriateness of his love for fellow cowboy Jack Twist, a heavy drinker who eventually paid a very high cost for his sexual orientation. Perhaps a similar feeling of nonconformity fueled Ledger's self-immolation. Even if his death was purely accidental, the careless disregard for his own well-being speaks volumes to people like me.
The plethora of negative messages from an often-intolerant society, combined with the ravages of the HIV pandemic, has left many of us in the gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and questioning communities traumatized and broken. Although today I consider myself well-balanced, I know my psyche carries scars from a lifetime of disparaging remarks about my worth as a gay man. Sadly, I see that same anxiety in the eyes of all too many LGBTQ peers.
Although most studies date back several years, they show that lesbians and gays are at significantly greater risk for problematic drinking and drug use, especially in areas hit by HIV/AIDS. I believe my own fears and early negative attitudes about being gay led me over the years to all kinds of risky behavior. The consequences of my actions are many and some will haunt me for the rest of my life.
Fortunately, today's youth, at least in the industrialized world, is increasingly free from the crushing burden of traditional sexual role-playing. Straight kids are more willing to have LGBTQ friends, while acting and dressing without regard to what earlier generations demanded of 'proper' boys and girls. And young LGBTQ kids are ever more likely to honestly explore their orientations without fear of reprisals. These are good trends and bode well for the happiness of our descendants.
Ledger's death, especially when examined in light of his role in Brokeback Mountain, reminds me that I must be kinder to myself and my sexual-minority brothers and sisters. Our lives are made hard enough by external pressures, such as those depicted in the film. We do not deserve the additional pain that comes from hurting ourselves with drugs, alcohol, careless sex, and other self-loathing and self-destructive acts.
I have been struggling to draft a 2008 New Year's resolution, but I now have one: To earnestly support my LGBTQ community and help my peers overcome the physical and mental obstacles that obscure the grand lives we all deserve.
To some, Ledger's demise is simply the ruinous story of yet another self-centered and ultimately pathetic Hollywood superstar. Because I see so much of my own struggles in his life and the characters he portrayed, Ledger's death is a clarion call for far greater compassion.
P.S.: I like Brokeback Mountain so much that, shortly after the film's debut, I paid an exorbitant price for a promotional poster signed by Ledger and fellow lead actor Jake Gyllenhaal. The framed poster now adorns my home office, persistently reminding me I must recognize, but not be ruined by, the pain that loving differently can cause. See Brokeback Mountain. It may change your life.