With the death of Patricia Nell Warren, our community has lost a hero, a trailblazer and a friend.
For generations of gay men Patricia’s seminal work, The Front Runner, was the seminal work in their own lives. It may be difficult for many young gay men to understand today, but when she began penning the book in the early 1970s, sex between men was illegal even in New York City. Gay bars were raided by police. Gay relationships remained in the shadows.
Patricia herself kept her own sexuality hidden from view. Married to her poet-husband, her attraction to other women was a growing force in her life as her editing career at Readers Digest was blossoming.
When The Front Runner was published in 1974, it was a revelation. For many gay men, it was the first time they read a depiction of gay love that was based on love. To be sure, Patricia didn’t shy away from graphically describing sex between men in the book, but that wasn’t the basis for the story. Gay men were finally reading about two men falling in love — true love — and sharing that love openly with the entire world.
It’s been heartening today to see so many of them leaving messages of love and appreciation on her Facebook page, which she regularly updated with her observations of life.
The book was a revelation for Patricia personally as well. Around the same time she began dating women, showing up at the discos of the Ice Palace, letting her true self blossom.
When I first read the book I couldn’t put it down, flying through it in a day, tears streaming down my cheeks throughout the final chapters. Having recently moved to New York City — the book is based in and around the Hudson Valley, the City and Fire Island — and recently finding love myself, when I found her novel it was as though someone had reached into my mind and spilled what I was feeling onto the pages. Even a decade after coming out completely in my life, working in gay media, being a gay athlete and being in love, the book was a revelation.
Patricia might be best-known for her series about Harlan Brown, yet her prolific novels went well beyond the world of gay athletes into ancient Mayan culture in One Is The Sun, 1960s Spanish bullfighting in The Wild Man, and the sacred vows of priesthood in The Fancy Dancer.
I was fortunate to spend many hours with Patricia, sitting with her at her home in Los Angeles, often in the middle of the garden she had designed specifically to attract butterflies (and it did). She was a woman of the farm, having grown up on a ranch in Montana, and she was in her element in nature.
Those visits would stretch for hours as we discussed current events and politics, her memories of the ranch in Montana, New York City in the 1970s, horse racing (one of her true passions) and her efforts to push for more inclusion of women in sports in the 1950s and 1960s. She grew up and came of age at a time when women were banned from competitions like marathons because it was decided it would make them infertile. Basketball was off-limits for her as a child. Yet Patricia, ever the front runner, wasn’t having it. She protested by participating, jumping into marathons after they started and running alongside the men anyway.
Patricia was, and remained until her death, a rebel.
Later in life, she and I also bonded over our love of Fire Island. We at Outsports were lucky to have her contribute many articles to the site, and her last piece for us, published about 20 months ago, brought us back to her Fire Island visits, running on the beach, visiting the women of Cherry Grove and writing, amongst the dunes, her novel that would inspire so many.
She contributed dozens of articles to Outsports, at one point compiling a number of them into a book, The Lavender Locker Room. Her articles for us spanned the breadth of sports, mostly focusing on horse racing and the Olympics.
To be sure, she had been in poor health for quite some time, dealing with various physical ailments over the last decade that made it often difficult for her to get around. In 2006, when the Outgames honored her at their initial world event, she made the trek to Montreal and “finished” one of the distance races with the competitors, walking as fast as she could across those final hundred meters.
Yet while her body gave way to age, her mind kept churning, observing the world and sharing her vision of it as she always so eloquently did. One of her last messages to me, just a couple months ago, was about the deer in and around Southern California that both she and I shared a love for, even if they do take a liking to our plantings.
Deer have the ability to eat and digest almost anything, including some very poisonous plants. But they love good fruit too. I can imagine them standing on their hind legs to munch on your pears.
When I lived in Malibu, we had quite a herd of blacktails in our area. They would come around to feast on the roses in the rose garden outside my window. I was minus my roses, but never had the heart to shoo them off.
My husband and I will both miss Patricia, as I know will countless people in our community around the world. It’s heartening to know that her legacy will live on forever with her written words that have inspired inspired so much strength in so many people.