NEW YORK (AP) _ Jim Gilbert gets goosebumps just thinking about Oscar night.

``It'll be such an important night,'' says the 61-year-old amateur cowboy and rodeo competitor, who feels that ``Brokeback Mountain'' tells the story of his own gay life and struggles in a strikingly personal way.

Gay activist groups are anticipating the March 5 Academy Awards, where ``Brokeback Mountain'' is favored to win as many as eight Oscars, as a rallying point and a crucial moment for their cause.

One group likens it to the April 1997 moment when Ellen DeGeneres came out as a lesbian on her sitcom. Susanne Salkind of the Human Rights Campaign, the largest national gay rights group, said Oscar night will be an opportunity to raise gay issues ``to another level in American culture.''

Last Friday, the group sent e-mails to 120,000 members, encouraging them to hold house parties on Oscar night _ just as it did the night DeGeneres came out. It's also sending out ``Oscar party kits'' to help in recruiting, and is offering prizes of T-shirts, bags and watches, depending on how many new members get signed up.

``We want to transform this social occasion into something much more important,'' Salkind said.

When Ang Lee's soulful film about two cowboys in love premiered in December, the gay community was delighted _ but, in some corners, skeptical that it would play beyond New York and California.

Now, though, the film is a clear hit. It has performed strongly across America, appealing to audiences both gay and straight, male and female. Because of its subject matter, it's one of the most talked-about films in recent memory _ and a constant reference for late-night comics and Internet spoofs.

``I wish I knew how to quit you,'' spoken by the character Jack Twist, is becoming a virtual catch phrase. And the word ``brokeback'' (used as an adjective, to describe something with gay overtones _ sort of), is creeping into the lexicon, too.

It isn't only ``Brokeback Mountain'' that's making gay rights groups anticipate Oscar night. Two other highly feted movies have gay or transsexual themes: ``Transamerica,'' with best-actress nominee Felicity Huffman as a man preparing for a sex change, and ``Capote,'' with best-actor favorite Philip Seymour Hoffman as the gay author of ``In Cold Blood.''

``This has been a landmark year,'' says Neil G. Giuliano, president of GLAAD, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation. ``By telling our stories, this year's Oscar nominees have helped raise the visibility of our issues and have given millions of Americans a greater understanding of who we are.''

Matt Foreman, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, agrees, but sounds a cautionary note. Just because ``Brokeback'' is being embraced by Hollywood and popular culture, he says, doesn't mean the real world is catching up.

``'Brokeback Mountain' is incredibly important for our day-day work because it clearly touches people at a visceral level,'' Foreman said. ``But the tragedy is, that breakthrough is not being replicated at the legislative and political level'' _ on issues such as gay marriage and hate crimes legislation.

``So people see this gay acceptance at the Oscars, and think, 'Oh, everything's good for gays in America.' It's this huge chasm between popular culture and the reality of our lives.''

For Gilbert, though, the emotional impact of ``Brokeback'' is so great that he cannot imagine it won't have a long-lasting effect.

The grandson of a rodeo rider, Gilbert, who works in hospital administration and still competes with his quarterhorse in rodeos, grew up in Michigan. As a teenager he had an early gay relationship _ the two young men competed at horse fairs together _ but moved away to escape the turmoil and confusion it evoked in him.

His first marriage failed after several years, and he found himself turning to drinking and drugs. A second marriage failed as well. Then came the love of his life _ another man. ``We both left our wives for each other,'' he says. That troubled eight-year relationship ended with his partner's death in 1997.

A few weeks ago, before ``Brokeback'' came to his hometown of Battle Creek, Mich., Gilbert drove more than 80 miles to Ann Arbor to see the film. He missed the first show by 15 minutes, waited in his truck for the next one, and drove back at midnight, emotionally drained.

``I really felt like I had lived through the experiences they were showing onscreen,'' he said. The similarities to his own life were striking: his early efforts to deny his gay orientation, his failed marriages to women, the desolation he felt when his male lover died.

Gilbert hopes that any Oscars ``Brokeback'' wins will bring home to straight Americans _ for instance, his fellow church members _ that gay people ``can share the same love that a heterosexual couple can.''

``I know that many people in my church will never see this movie,'' he says. ``But they can't help but be affected by all the people who have seen it, and loved it.''

Some of those who do love the movie will be gathering at Woody's, a gay bar in Philadelphia, on Oscar night for one of the fundraising parties for the Human Rights Campaign.

The party's organizer, Norman Baker, says he realized just how deep an impact ``Brokeback'' was having when his 84-year-old mother, who has failing eyesight and doesn't go to movies often, asked him to take her, noting: ``Everyone is talking about this film.'' He had come out to his mother in 1988, but the two hadn't spoken about his gay life since.

This year's Oscar party, the second annual such gathering, will have a theme, Baker said. Participants will be asked to dress as their favorite movie characters.

``Yes,'' he said, ``we do expect a fair number of gay cowboys.''