Homo History 101: LONDON - 1974 - PORTOBELLO MARKET.

You can buy anything there. Everything on earth is on sale: furniture, antiques, clothes, hardware, music, food, masks, jewelry, paintings, prints, shoes and boots, and cheap books in excellent conditions. 

 It is the biggest flea market in the world. My life changed one Saturday morning when I started perusing through stacks of paperbacks inside the Oxfam shop. I was looking for thrillers by my favorite authors when I came upon a paperback that made me stop breathing. The cover depicted a middle aged man, naked with the exceptionof a towel wrapped around his waist, looking at a young man in a tank top putting on a pair of shoes. I froze. I knew instantly that there was something different about that particular book. It was called: "The Front Runner" and above the title a caption that read: “The controversial coast to coast bestseller - an unusual love story, as moving as any ever written.”

I picked it up with trembling hands, making sure nobody was looking at me and turned to the back cover. It said: “The first honest popular novel about homosexual love.”

I couldn't believe my eyes. I had never seen anything like that anywhere before.

I randomly picked up a couple of paperbacks, stacked “The Front Runner” in the middle and handed them to the cashier.  My heart was pumping with fear that the man at the cash register would say something or make fun of me. He didn't care. I paid and ran for the subway. On the train I was too scared to take out the book in case someone would notice what it was. As soon as I arrived homeI sat on the couch and started reading. I read it through the night. The main character is Billy Sive, the most exciting thing that's happened to U.S. sports in years. He is a champion long distance runner idol of American youth and the nation's best Olympic hope. Billy is young, proud and gay - and he doesn't care who knows it. It is a love story as moving as any ever written with a candid look into the psychological and physical experience of the new gay world.  I remember that when the sun came out the next morning I knew for sure that my life would be different.  I was no longer alone, I was not a freak of nature, if the character of the novel could fall in love and be loved then I could certainly be next. I was empowered.

Forty-five years later I still have the paperback. It has moved with me from continent to continent, from house to house, from city to city, from state to state. Just like a bible for some people.

In 1974, not many would have expected a novel about  same-sex romance between a college track coach and his star runner to attract much of an audience. 

Patricia Nell Warren’s “The Front Runner” became a crossover sensation, drawing rave reviews and becoming the first “gay-themed” book to land on the New York Times’ prestigious Top Ten Bestsellers list.  It eventually sold over 10 million copies. It has never been out of print since.

The impact of Warren’s book, aside from its historic place as a breakthrough of gay culture into the straight mainstream, lies in the resonance it found with so many of its LGBT readers.  Its characters were not just gay, they were gay athletes, like millions of other men and women out there.  Forced to hide who they were in order to participate in the deeply homophobic culture of sports, they found Harlan and Billy not only imminently relatable, but inspirational.

Patricia Nell Warren passed away on Feb. 9, 2019, at the age of 82.

RIP, Patricia and thank you for your body of work, and for paving the way. You provided hope over the years to many who were struggling with coming out, including me. I will be forever grateful.


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