Author Examines Gay Athletes

Patricia Nell Warren, author of the upcoming book The Lavender Locker Room, talks about gay athletes in pro sports. From footbal to skating, she discusses gay athletes throughout history.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

Patricia Nell Warren wrote a novel in 1974 that's important to millions. "The Front Runner" tells the story of Billy Sive, the young track star who is fast, gifted and gay. Proudly, unabashedly gay. He wants to represent his country in the 1976 Olympics. The book was considered daring and controversial when it was published. In many ways, it still is. It contains frank accounts of gay life in the early '70s.

And yet, "The Front Runner" long ago leapt from the shelves of so-called "gay fiction" to become one of the best-selling novels of recent times, selling 10 million copies in eight languages. As the Olympic games open in Beijing, Patricia Nell Warren has a new book of out. "The Lavender Locker Room," a collection of essays about sports figures from a 13th-century jouster named Jeanne la Pucelle - you may know her as Joan of Arc - to big Bill Tildon, the tennis star, David Kopay, the football player and the great Martina Navratilova.

Patricia Nell Warren joins us from the studios of NPR West. Thanks so much for being with us.

Ms. PATRICIA NELL WARREN (Author, "The Front Runner" and "The Lavender Locker Room"): Thank you for having me.

SIMON: I think it's fair to say that you are a touchstone for many young gays in sports. Are there still closeted gays in sports?

Ms. WARREN: Oh, absolutely. Certainly, there have been significant changes since the 1970s, but it isn't all that easy, especially in team sports.

SIMON: And review for us some of the hesitation they have.

Ms. WARREN: Well, in team sports, you not only can run into unpleasantness and attitudes from your teammates, but your coach, the team owners, the sponsors. It can get very complicated in team sports. It's a little bit easier in the sports where you compete as an individual, and so that's why we've had more people out - lesbians and gay men, bisexuals and transgender people, as well - in equestrian sports and tennis and golf and so forth.

SIMON: So someone like Martina Navratilova can be as outspoken, and for that matter, is admired as she is.

Ms. WARREN: Yes. But it wasn't easy for her. It was very scary during those early years when she was thinking of not just coming out but also defecting from her native country and coming to the United States.

SIMON: Let me ask about some of the people that you talk about in this book. You do write about figure skaters, especially John Curry.

Ms. WARREN: Yes. He sold his style to the judges and not only that. He came out before he went to the Olympics, which was quite amazing. And I got to...

SIMON: What year were these Olympics?

Ms. WARREN: John Curry was in the 1960s. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: John Curry won the gold medal in men's figure skating in 1976.]

SIMON: Yeah.

Ms. WARREN: Here was somebody who dared to take figure skating in a very artistic direction, and that's still a battle that they're duking out in figure skating today, especially in men's skating. Are you going to be athletic or you're going to be artistic?

SIMON: I have to ask what Joan of Arc is doing in the book.

Ms. WARREN: Being that I grew up on a ranch and I grew up in equestrian sports and competed in equestrian sports when I was younger, I have never bought the idea that Joan of Arc was somehow this ignorant farm girl who somehow magically was able to get up on a horse, a schooled warhorse, and distinguish herself with feats of arms, with swords and lances. She had to have had some background in this. I just don't buy the conventional story.

SIMON: You might be familiar with the news this week that the government in Beijing is not permitting Joey Cheek, the Olympic medalist, who I think many people have a very warm memory of establishing a foundation to aid Darfur. He's been an activist. I wonder if that gives you any reflections on the Chinese government's policies towards gays.

Ms. WARREN: In the Athens Olympics, there were 11 athletes from different countries who were publicly out and competed in Athens. And it's interesting to know that this year there are only six out athletes. And I imagine that probably, some of the people who went to the Athens game have felt just a little bit deterred by the fact that they're still harassing gay activists in China and they harass people with HIV. And I think that they would have a concern about being there.

SIMON: Can I direct a couple of "Front Runner" questions to you?

Ms. WARREN: Yeah. Yes, absolutely.

SIMON: I gather that the novel has been optioned for a film many times.

Ms. WARREN: Yes.

SIMON: And never made, obviously. In a day when a film like "Brokeback Mountain" can become so popular, what's the hesitation been about "The Front Runner" for some people?

Ms. WARREN: Well, there was the time when the hesitation was more about Hollywood being afraid of dealing with the subject. I think today the big issue is the budget. This is going to have to be a big-budget film. You don't make a film about the Olympic Games for two million dollars.

SIMON: It must have happened that a lot of people come up to you and say, "The Front Runner" opened my eyes, changed my life. At this point, has it been more gay or straight people? Or do you keep score?

Ms. WARREN: A lot of people think that my books - I have appeal only to men. And actually, I would say that the readership of "The Front Runner" is probably 40 or 45 percent female. The fact that the book has been on the New York Times bestseller list, I get a lot of feedback from straight people, from parents who tell me that the book opened their eyes about the needs and aspirations of their gay children. I heard wonderful stories about smuggling my book into South Africa back when it was dictatorship.

SIMON: What do you hear from gay athletes these days?

Ms. WARREN: You know, there are so many different areas now. We have our own World Cups in rugby and soccer and we're creating our own international basketball leagues and our own golf leagues and, you know, very much making certain sports our own so that we don't have to be quite so dependent on getting our foot in the door at the Olympics or the mainstream world-class competitions.

SIMON: Billy Sive would be almost 60 now, wouldn't he?

Ms. WARREN: Yes. Shocking.

SIMON: I wonder if you sometimes use that character to measure evident visible change in the world today.

Ms. WARREN: Well, I think today, it's interesting to look back on that time and on all of the real-life Billy Sive's that were out there in sports in the '60s and '70s because that was a huge watershed in our history, that period. And all of the big changes that took place in civil rights for the black community, the women's community, were reflected in changes in the sports world, as well. So it's interesting to look at Billy through that lens and see how far the sports world has come and where it still needs to go.

SIMON: Patricia Nell Warren, author of the classic novel, "The Front Runner." Her new book, available from her own publishing company, Wildcat Press, is called "The Lavender Locker Room." Miss Warren, thanks so much.

Ms. WARREN: Thank you for having me on the show.

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Correction Aug. 11, 2008

In this interview, we say that John Curry competed in the Olympics "in the 1960s." Curry won the gold medal in men's figure skating in 1976.

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