Jock Talk: The novel that sparked a generation

  • by Roger Brigham, BAR Contributor
  • Wednesday February 13, 2019
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Patricia Nell Warren, right, celebrated the 30th anniversary of the Gay Games in 2012 in West Hollywood with David Kopay, left, and Bay Area Reporter columnist Roger Brigham. Photo: Courtesy Federation of Gay Games
Patricia Nell Warren, right, celebrated the 30th anniversary of the Gay Games in 2012 in West Hollywood with David Kopay, left, and Bay Area Reporter columnist Roger Brigham. Photo: Courtesy Federation of Gay Games

The sad news came last weekend that lesbian author Patricia Nell Warren had died at the age of 82.

Her landmark novel, "The Front Runner," decades ago had provided a spark of hope for a youthful generation of gays and lesbians desperate to know they were not alone. To paraphrase songwriter Bernie Taupin, Warren "had put down in words how wonderful life is, now we're in the world."

To understand the impact Warren's novel had when it was first published back in the 1970s — and the profoundly moving effect it still had on the lives of so many young gay men and women, especially athletes, when they were belatedly discovering it for the first time more than a decade later — you must insert yourself into that time and place in American culture, when instantaneous communications technology was still a dream, non-discrimination laws were almost nonexistent, and the world seemed to be one enormous inhospitable closet. Her story of a growing love between a closeted track coach and a gay runner headed for the Olympics warned us of the perils we would all face going forward — but also showed us the promise of love and beauty we might find if we held strong and true to ourselves.

"I was a track athlete and a distance runner in high school," said Mark Chambers, founder of the National Gay Basketball Association. "I was that track athlete. I met her at a house party years later and told her it was the first book I ever read that I connected with. I did have crushes on my track coach and my basketball coaches."

I was in my early 20s, living in Kodiak, Alaska, when I started to question my sexuality. I had no gay friends, I knew no gay leaders, I knew of only a couple of gay individuals in sports, and I had limited access to any answers to my never ending supply of questions and doubts.

But there was a bookstore on Santa Monica Boulevard in West Hollywood I would encounter on my occasional trips to California, a bookstore that held the promise of answers. If you entered the front and went to the right, you could find copies of mainstream newspapers and magazines. Enter the swinging door to the left and, well, you would enter a world of Colt Studios porn magazines, raunchy little paperback sex novels, and a trove of contemporary gay fiction and nonfiction.

Literary pay dirt.

It was in that grubby but well lit setting that I discovered Warren and John Rechy and Larry Kramer and Andrew Holleran and Rita Mae Brown and Andrew Tobias and countless others. It was by reading their books late at night back in my darkened apartment in Alaska that I realized being gay did not mean having to be isolated in a tiny village in Manhattan but could lead me on ventures and an open, productive life in the world at large.

In the context of my life, "The Front Runner" held a special significance. I was at the time an active recreational athlete and, more importantly, a volunteer coach. Most of my friends connected with the work through the eyes of the young gay athlete, but I saw it through the prism of the closeted coach.

At about the same time, local wrestler Gene Dermody was a wrestling coach in New Jersey when he first read Warren's book. I asked him what he thought of it then and now.

"There was not much in the way of good LGBT coach mentoring, and we struggled to find beacons of encouragement and wisdom," Dermody said. "The most influential LGBT books for me were 'Gay Olympian: The Life and Death of Dr. Tom Waddell,' 'The David Kopay Story,' and 'The Front Runner.' They were real, they were positive, and I could relate to so much of what was in them."

As a coach, Dermody said he was aware of the perils involved in coach-athlete relations. It was an era when gays and lesbians were fighting for the right to be allowed to teach and homophobes endlessly droned on that gays were out to recruit young children to perverse lifestyles.

"As a young gay coach in high school wrestling, I was scrupulously careful about protecting not only my own reputation, but that of my school, my program, and my wrestlers," Dermody said. "I overreacted in terms of my behaviors and interactions to ensure integrity, probably too much by today's standards, and it impacted my overall effectiveness. I never allowed myself to go that extra step to develop that level of trust so needed for young fatherless boys craving for a male mentor in their coach. I made the decision to sometimes avoid my responsibilities to help a possible struggling gay youth because I feared it would limit my effectiveness with a greater number of boys. It was technically wrong, but I would make the decision again given the hysteria around gay coaches at the time."

For years, Dermody said, the dynamic of the coach-athlete relationship in "The Front Runner" disturbed him.

"It still does," Dermody said. "However, as I have aged another 30 years, coaching mores have evolved as this sex taboo becomes more irrelevant. I now realize that the power of 'The Front Runner' that initially captivated me was the effective mentoring of LGBT youth through whatever vehicle. Having effective visible gay coaches encouraged to do their job without fear was a major step in high school athletic policy. Thank you, Patricia Nell Warren, for taking the bold step when it was so needed."

And thank you for letting us know how wonderful life is when we are actually in the world rather than hiding from it.