The Front Runner (1974) is an emotionally evocative sports drama that manages to elevate its content with a deeply felt romantic core. Patricia Nell Warren‘s groundbreaking novel changed the course of LGBTQ rights around the world and inspired a global out-of-the-closet sports movement.
In 1974, not many people in publishing expected a novel about the same-sex romance between a conservative college track coach and his star runner to attract much of an audience. Nobody thought a book like The Front Runner would be embraced by readers outside the niche market of the gay community. Yet, it became a crossover sensation, drawing rave reviews and becoming the first gay-themed book to make the New York Times Top Ten Bestsellers list. It eventually sold over 15 million copies, and it has never been out of print since. It was a major reading event for me.
The Front Runner is the tale of Harlan, a former marine who coaches track at a small New England college, and Billy a young runner who joins his program after being kicked out of a larger school for being gay. Harlan is deep in the closet; Billy is open about his gayness. The book details their love story over the course of several years, culminating in Billy’s triumphant, and tragic, journey to the Beijing Olympics.
Its characters were not just gay, they were gay athletes, like millions of other men and women forced to hide who they were in order to participate in the deeply homophobic world of sports. They found inspiration in Harlan and Billy and their story.
The FrontRunners club is a worldwide organization for LGBTQ runners that started in San Francisco. This group has helped bring about a movement of support and acceptance for out and proud athletes, and led to the creation of the Gay Games, which awarded Warren its Medal of Honor for writing the book that started it all. A runner herself, Warren was one of the first women to run in the Boston Marathon, in 1968. She participated in a group of female runners who got women’s marathoning recognized in the USA.
Warren, a gay woman, chose to write a love story about gay men, which, at the time, brought plenty of controversy. Warren:
There might be a tendency to look at it and think that it’s a men’s story, but one of the things about the book that I always appreciated is that it was read by as many women as men. I know that in the book business there’s a lot of talk about targeting to demographics, but I think it’s important to appeal on a broader plane than that, so that we understand these are human things. Those kinds of stories can inspire and bind us together as a human race instead of dividing us into different demographics. This story has done that, and I think it still does that.
Longtime fans of the book, still hold out hope for that long-awaited film version of The Front Runner. Soon after the book was published, the film rights were purchased by Paul Newman, but of course Hollywood studios found it too big a risk to make a movie about gay men. For decades, the project went through development hell. After years in court, Warren regained the rights in 2002, waiting for the right offer to come along.
Unfortunately for all of us, Patricia Nell Warren made her exit from this world a few days ago, gone at 82-years-old.
The Front Runner has two sequels Harlan’s Race (1994), followed by Billy’s Boy (1997). A fourth and final Front Runner book was in the works when Warren died. In all, she published a total of eight novels, a memoir, and four books of poetry.
There is also Warren’s The Fancy Dancer (1976), a story set in her native Montana about the struggle with sexual orientation issues of a young Catholic parish priest in a small town. Her fourth novel, The Beauty Queen (1978) is set in the New York City publishing world where she’d spent many years. The story focuses on a socially prominent Manhattan businessman, a closeted gay father trying to get up the courage to come out to his daughter, who had become a fiercely anti-gay born-again Christian politician.
The Front Runner is an underdog sports story, a moving romance, and a socially relevant commentary on love and equality. It’s a unique angle on both romance and sports, exploring the masculine ideal. Warren will be missed. She made this world a better place.