Patricia Nell Warren returns home
"Nobody would believe that a gay, cigar-smoking Buddhist lives in Deer Lodge," a man named Jan said to the celebrated lesbian author Patricia Nell Warren. Warren was recalling Jan, a gay male friend she knew in her Montana hometown. She, Jan and Vivian, a woman in her 90s, would meet for tea in Vivian’s old Victorian house in a shabby but historic part of town. Through Vivian, the author learned a great deal about the town as it existed in the 1860s. Wrote Warren: "Since Vivian was the mega-matriarch of Deer Lodge society, not a single homophobe in town dared to say a word against Jan."
But Jan wasn’t worried. "If they shoot me," he said, "they’ll be sorry when they meet me in my next life."
This profoundly moving essay, titled "A Coming Out Tale of Old Montana," was first published on the Bilerico Project website in 2008. It’s one of many unforgettable stories in My West, Warren’s just-published collection of short pieces that focus primarily on the state where she spent her youth.
Patricia Nell Warren remains best-known as the author of the classic 1974 novel The Front Runner, the first gay novel to make both The New York Times and Time magazine bestseller lists. A masterful tale of coming out and falling in love, Runner remains essential reading to this day. In an e-mail to the B.A.R., Warren revealed that Runner’s lead characters may not have been as fictional as they had seemed.
"The character of Billy Sive was inspired in part by distance runner Steve Prefontaine, as well as a few closeted runners that I got to know while being involved in open distance running myself in the late 1960s," Warren wrote to us. "The same for the character of Coach Brown: my growing knowledge of the sports world told me there were closeted coaches out there."
Two more novels followed. The Beauty Queen (1978) was a novelization of the notorious Anita Bryant debacle. But it might be The Fancy Dancer (1976) that’s closest to Warren’s heart. This story of closeted priest Tom Meeker, led into a world of "forbidden love" by half-breed Vidal Stump, was set in fictional Cottonwood, Montana, which the author says is a stand-in for Deer Lodge.
"The character of Father Tom, and his Jesuit confessor, as well as a number of the town and rural characters in the story, were inspired by real-life people that I knew."
These novels were published less than a decade after Stonewall, yet there was little backlash. "There were some nasty letters from individuals, but nothing major from an institutional level," reported Warren. "By then, the Catholic Church couldn’t deny there were gay priests, and Dignity was already active nationally. As for athletes, David Kopay’s coming out in 1975 started answering the question about whether there was a real-life closet in sports."
Over the years, Warren published more novels, and she was also an editor at Reader’s Digest. She traveled the world, but her Montana roots remained near and dear to her. As she studied the history of her beloved home state, she found a long, strong line of LGBT people. As we all eventually find out, she was not alone.
My West features 47 previously published nonfiction pieces that came from deep within Warren’s soul. Rooted in the Montana of her childhood, the essays are grouped together according to theme: agriculture, animals, arts, gender, sexuality, politics, spirituality, and others. Her homespun, fluid style makes for heartwarming, uplifting, and often thought-provoking reading.
In "MLK Day in Choteau, MT," Warren opines that Dr. King might have been concerned with the now very real threat of global warming. "Little black kids and brown kids and white kids need more than schools where they can learn in equality. They need food to eat and a world to grow up in that isn’t devastated by war and natural disaster."
Warren’s sense of history is extraordinary, as when she writes about Quarra Grant, the first woman who lived in the ranch house where she grew up, some 75 years before she was born. She also shows a strong sense of family. In "What My Mother Did," she eloquently shares her churchgoing Mom’s reaction to her gay novels. "’Well,’ Mom said, after the publication of The Beauty Queen, during which time the religious right was first making itself known. ’They do hate homosexuals, don’t they?’"
But Mom’s most amusing reaction was to The Fancy Dancer. "I suppose everyone in town is running around to find a copy of your darn book, to see if they’re in it!"
My West: Personal Writings on the American West: Past, Present and Future is now available in stores and at Amazon.com.
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