How fitting that Patricia Nell Warren was born in Montana’s Big Sky country because everything in and about her life reflected her beloved birthplace. Like that big sky, her pioneering spirit was just as unlimited by the conventions and expectations of her day! Sadly, she succumbed from a three-year battle with lung cancer on February 9, 2019.
The many heartfelt comments by her friends and colleagues reveal her sincere interest in people, the deep, lasting friendships she formed and how she positively influenced their lives, her abiding love for her Montana life on the Grant-Kohrs Ranch and of course, her great intellect and writing skills. Many of us who didn’t have the privilege of knowing her personally are realizing what an exceptional person she was and how we, either directly or indirectly have been touched by her life and legacy to the LGBTQ+ community, particularly the gay sports community.
She married Ukrainian writer Yuriy Tarnawsky, taught herself Ukrainian and published four poetry books in that language. A great advocate for women’s rights, in an act of civil disobedience she ran with a group of women in the Boston Marathon at a time when women weren’t permitted to compete in races over 2.5 miles. Their actions caused the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) governing amateur sports at the time to change its discriminatory rules.
She was all this and so much more. An exceptional writer, Warren was also an editor for the Reader’s Digest, a publisher and long-distance runner. It was thanks to her running she finally came to grips with her sexuality, divorced her husband and came out as lesbian. I never had the opportunity to meet Warren personally even though she had been an original writer for Compete Magazine when it began in 2006 as Sports Out Loud. I was, however, one of her Facebook friends over the last several years and enjoyed her memories of her pioneering roots at the historic Grant-Kohrs Ranch and her work with its Foundation.
I’ve worked with some of her close friends and admirers who well know her importance. But there are many ally and younger gay readers who know little about Warren and her impact on so many in the LGBTQ+ community. In fact, her most famous novel, “The Front Runner,” which has sold over 11 million of copies in more than 10 languages, was the inspiration for the formation and name of the International Front Runners Organization of LGBTQ+ runners and their allies.
When Warren wrote “The Front Runner” in 1974 there were other gay novels already in publication but none that touched a collective nerve in the gay community like this one. It wasn’t a coming out story; it was a romantic love story between 39-year-old closeted track coach Harlan Brown and 22-year-old out student Billy Sive, one of his athletes. But at its core was Brown’s desperate fear of societal rejection that kept him and many bright and talented people like him closeted, giving up their life dreams to keep people from discovering they were gay.
Published a short five years after the 1969 Stonewall Riots, this was a bellwether novel that made the New York Times bestseller list. It hit a generational shift in attitudes. Many comments I’ve both heard and read by those who read the book reveal that it shattered their overwhelming sense of isolation. It made them aware that they weren’t the only gay person out there, that there were others like them also struggling to accept their sexuality. It gave them hope they could be themselves and lead an open life.
There are many who credit Warren with saving their lives as a result of “The Front Runner.” Thanks to friend Shamey Cramer who provided this picture of Warren, his post is typical of so many: “If you had told the 19-year-old me in 1979 when I was first coming out, and read the groundbreaking novel “The Frontrunner [sic],” which played a critical role in my own acceptance, that I would have a decades-long friendship with its author Patricia Nell Warren (… pictured here in 2001), even being next door neighbours for 2 years, I would have been dumb-founded and probably cried. #ItGotBetter thanks to you Patricia.”
Warren also hoped that for the straight community her book would erase or at least soften the stereotypes of gay men as “limp-wristed liberals.” In a synopsis of the book for www.thefrontrunnermovie.com she wrote, “Harlan is a crusty gay ex-Marine, a drill-sergeant kind of guy. I wanted to confront readers with the inner reality of such a man because I know they exist.”
There are many of today’s younger generation who have no idea how dangerous it could be for a gay man to be outed 50 years ago; he could lose his job, his family, any respect he might ever have had, his place in the community, even his life. To prevent that, he would have to live a lie; he might never know what it was like to love and be loved. It can and still does happen today!
Describing his decision to come out during his keynote address at the recent Human Rights Campaign’s gala, 2020 presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg said, “By the time I stepped away from the mayor’s office, on leave to serve in Afghanistan, I was seized with the awareness that I could be killed in action at the age of 33, a grown man and an elected official, with no idea what it was like to be in love. I knew that I had to be who I am.”
Gay stereotypes and prejudices still exist but thanks to Patricia Nell Warren, it has gotten better … we have all been positively touched by her prodigious gifts and pioneering spirit.
By Connie Wardman