Pride at the Games

Written By

“You changed my life” – this is the gist of the fan mail Patricia Nell Warren received for her 1974 novel The Front Runner. It is the story of Billy, the 22-year-old front runner, who falls in love with his coach and participates in the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal. Billy wins the 10,000-meter race; one week later, at the 5,000-meter race, as Billy pulls away in his finishing sprint to win the gold medal and set a new world record, tragedy strikes… but read for yourself! A meaningful emotional relationship between two men that culminates in a “gay wedding” ceremony, an Olympian that has no issues with his sexuality and who is supported by fellow athletes, a welcoming campus atmosphere, the question of queer surrogacy – all this in 1974, just one year after the American Psychiatric Association finally struck homosexuality from its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

June is Pride month, and next month Paris, France hosts the thirty-third Olympic Games. A record number of queer athletes is expected to compete, more than in Tokyo in 2021 and in Rio in 2016. Warren can be credited with paving the way for them. In 2006, when the Outgames (nicknamed the Gay Olympics) were held in Montreal, the site of Billy’s greatest triumph and tragedy, Warren was honored with running the last lap of the men’s 5,000-meter race, a tribute to her trailblazing role in combating homophobia in athletics. In 2012, The Front Runner was recognized as instrumental in inspiring the launch of the Gay Games, and Warren was awarded a special “Personal Best” and gold medal by the International Federation of Gay Games.

However, there are still barriers to coming out. In the United States, in football, baseball, and basketball, very few openly gay athletes play (and often athletes come out upon retirement). British diver Tom Daley, one of the proudest athletes of our time, gave an emotional statement about his sexual orientation after he won gold with his partner Matty Lee: “I hope that any young LGBT person out there can see that no matter how alone you feel right now, you are not alone and that you can achieve anything. There is a whole lot of your chosen family out here ready to support you.” He was indirectly addressing LGBTQ youth in countries like Hungary, China, and Japan, where queer people continue to face discrimination. He concluded: “I am incredibly proud to say that I am a gay man and also an Olympic champion. I feel very empowered by that”. (1)

Half a century before Tom, Warren gave us such an incredibly proud gay Olympic champion.

Later this year, my book Patricia Nell Warren: A Front Runner’s Life and Works is coming out from Peter Lang. As the first book on Patricia, it begins with a long biographical chapter, followed by accessible discussions of all her works, including the voluminous reader responses. While The Front Runner is of course her blockbuster, she published a lot more. Two sequels, Harlan’s Race (named after the coach and set in the 1980s, the decade of AIDS and the Moral Majority) and Billy’s Boy (a science fiction adventure set in the 1990s), have appeared, while a third one, Virgin Kisses, was finished by Patricia weeks before her passing but remains unpublished. Some of her other novels focus on gay pride in the Catholic church (The Fancy Dancer), homophobic politics (The Beauty Queen), and a queer bullfighter in fascist Spain (The Wild Man).

Patricia Nell Warren (Photo: John Selig)

The Lavender Locker Room: 3000 Years of Great Athletes Whose Sexual Orientation Was Different collects pieces originally written for Jim Buzinski and Cyd Ziegler’s online magazine and chronicles proud pioneers in athletics. The volume is exhaustively researched, and many living sports figures granted interviews to Warren: Achilles and Patroclus; Joan of Arc; Roman gladiators; George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham (now acted by Nicholas Galitzine of Red, White, and Royal Blue fame in Mary & George, where he plays the real-life lover of King James I of England); tennis player Bill Tilden; aviatrix Amelia Earhart; boxer Wilhelm von Homburg; open-water marathon swimmer Diana Nyad (now subject of the 2023 biopic NYAD with Anette Benning and Jodie Foster); tennis star Martina Navratilova; and David Kopay, the first professional athlete to come out.

While Patricia participated in Gay and Lesbian Pride marches (she was the grand marshal at parades in Boise, Los Angeles, Helena, New Orleans, Palm Springs, Reno, San Diego, St. Louis, Albuquerque, and other cities), memorials for gay and lesbian veterans, sports broadcasts (such as the Beijing Summer Games of 2008, which she covered for gay and lesbian networks), Democratic fundraisers, literary and cinematic events, college conferences, bookstore readings, and more, maybe what she was most proud of is her own press, Wildcat, which published all her books (and still does). Now there is a book about Patricia, another addition to Peter Lang’s exciting queer series. We could call it a win-win situation.


Back to feed