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February 10th, 2019

The Love That Dared To Speak Its Name

Sad news crosses my Facebook news stream just now…

Patricia Nell Warren, The Front Runner Author, Dies at 82

The novelist, activist, and longtime editor at Reader’s Digest is best known for her 1974 book, The Front Runner, which centered on the relationship between a closeted coach, Harlan Brown, and an out gay track star, Billy Sive.

The love story became the first gay novel in modern times to achieve commercial success and rank in The New York Times bestseller list. To date, it has sold over 10 million copies and has been translated into multiple languages…

I still have my copy of that first 1974 book, The Front Runner, which has within it one of the best scenes of any novel to take same-sex love and romance seriously: the scene where one of the main characters, coach Harlan Brown, lover of athlete Billy Sive, learns from a couple of straight friends in the newspaper business about the rumors being spread about him and Billy, and sees clearly for the first time the cesspool of the bigot mind. As I wrote in a previous blog post

…Harlan Brown, the coach and lover of out gay Olympian Billy Sive, is having a chat with some old friends who work as sports reporters. They confront him on the rumors about his having a sexual relationship with Sive, and while Brown tries to stand up for the honor and the dignity of their love, the reporters, old friends, try to make Brown understand that in the mass media, honor and dignity won’t even buy you a cup of coffee. Which only makes Brown angrier…

“Did it ever occur to them that maybe Billy and I don’t merely go to bed together? That we love each other?” I was really getting mad now. “That neither of us wants anybody else? Do they know so little about human nature?”

“You’re the one’s a dummy about human nature,” said Aldo. “They want to think the worse…”

Finally one of the reporters, Bruce, suggests that they do an interview with the two of them which would hopefully allow the readers to see them as human beings apart from the ugly stereotypes of homosexuals common in those days.

Brown agrees, thinking it a great idea. Aldo pointedly asks if they can dispel the other rumors too…

“What other rumors?” I said.

“You really want to know?” Aldo asked. He was furiously tearing up a piece of bread.

He started to tell me. When he’d finished I’d had one more sociological revelation. Society had tried to teach me that the gay mind was an open sewer. Now I knew, beyond any doubt, that it was the straight mind that was the sewer…

But no, it’s the mind of the bigot that is the open sewer. It was something I’d intuited well before I’d read The Front Runner, just listening to all the gross rhetoric about homosexual sex, always told in such exquisite, breathless even, detail by bigots like Anita Bryant and Jerry Falwell had been throwing at us.  The fact is sexual corruption is something they throw at all the hated Others, be they gays or Jews or Blacks or Mexicans. Think Donald Trump and Mexicans and duct tape. It’s their own ids they’re telling us about. Warren was the first novelist I’d ever read to finally bat that one out into the open.

Her later novels didn’t really catch on with me, though I still bought copies out of loyalty. I still haven’t read Billy’s Boy yet. But that first novel was gold, even allowing (spoiler) its Kill Your Gays ending.

After her success, for a period of time there came a torrent of Great American Gay novels, hoping to cash in on this new gay market thing. One Christopher Street cartoon from the period is of the inside of a gay bar where all the patrons are busy with paper and pen, a few have typewriters, and the caption is This bar used to be fun, until everyone decided to write a gay novel. Most of them were gawd awful books I could not get through more than a few pages reading. But that’s just Sturgeon’s Law at work, and the ten percent that wasn’t crap was very good indeed. I could finally see myself and the possibility of love and a life lived openly and proudly in books, if not yet on the silver screen or the tube. Isn’t it always the written word that strikes deepest into your soul.

Mary Renault will always be the gold standard for me, but Patricia Nell Warren’s first book gets a place on my top shelf along with her. She, and others who dared to name the love that dare not speak its name, and then celebrate it without any taint whatever of shame or sadness, gave me a vision of life and love and joy and decency when I needed it most.

Rest in peace Mrs. Warren. Well done.

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