Groundbreaking Author Patricia Nell Warren (1936-2019)

February 11, 2019

ONE Archives is saddened to learn of the passing of groundbreaking author and activist Patricia Nell Warren, who passed away on February 9 at the age of 82.

Patricia Nell Warren was born in 1936 and grew up on the Grant Kohrs cattle ranch near Deer Lodge, Montana. She began writing professionally when she was a teenager in the 1950s, and later landed a job at Reader's Digest where she worked as a copy editor, 1959-1964, and book editor, 1964-1980. For a few years in the 1960s, Reader's Digest stationed her in Spain. While there, she wrote her first gay novel, a chronicle of the illicit relationship between a Spanish bullfighter and a peasant during the fascist regime of Spain (she would publish the book in 2001 under the title The Wild Man). In Spain, she also took up jogging. She became proficient enough that she was the fourth woman to finish the 1970 Boston Marathon. In 1971, she published her first book The Last Centennial, a set of three short novels that take place in a Montana town during the 1970s. 

In 1974, Warren published her most acclaimed work The Front Runner, her first published gay-themed book. This love story about an ex-Marine track coach and his Olympic athlete was the first work of gay fiction to reach the New York Times Best Seller list and has sold an estimated 10 million copies worldwide. The work inspired Front Runners running and walking clubs across the world.

In 1976, Warren published The Fancy Dancer, the first bestseller to portray a gay priest and to explore gay life in a small town. In 1978, Warren published The Beauty Queen, a story inspired by the rise of the homophobic Anita Bryant. In 1991, Warren published her second mainstream title, One Is the Sun, a historical epic about a woman chief of the Montana Territory during the 1800s.

In 1994, Warren completed Harlan's Race, the long-awaited sequel to The Front Runner. This was the premiere title offered by Wildcat Press, an independent press co-founded by Warren and her business partner, Tyler St. Mark. In 1997, Wildcat Press published the third book in the series, Billy's Boy, which won the Lambda Literary Editor's Choice Award. Wildcat Press would go on to publish the following Warren-authored books: The Wild Man (2001), The Lavender Locker Room: 3000 Years of Great Athletes Whose Sexual Orientation Was Different (2006), and My West: Personal Writings on the American West (2011).

Warren is also known for her hundreds of nonfiction articles and essays on subjects such as youth, mythology, environmentalism, human rights, gay and lesbian life, AIDS, mixed-race prejudice, American history, sports, wild animals, agriculture, and current events. Her short works have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Reader's Digest, San Francisco Chronicle, Chicago Tribune, L.A. Woman, Mythosphere, Foreword and Persimmon Hill, as well as in LGBT publications such as the Advocate, Out, Gay & Lesbian Review, Genre, Philadelphia Gay News, and Lodestar Quarterly. As a columnist, Warren wrote a series about gay pioneers in sports history for and the "Left Field" series on the politics of AIDS and public health in A & U Magazine.

In addition to her literary work, Warren has been a committed human rights activist. Her personal activism started during the 1960s, with her efforts to have the American media recognize the individuality of Ukrainians and other ethnic groups in the USSR. In the 1970s, she became active in women's rights and was the plaintiffs' spokesperson for Susan Smith v. Reader's Digest, a landmark lawsuit that resulted in a class-action victory for women. As a former amateur athlete, she helped lead a group of female distance runners who forced the Amateur Athletics Union to change the discriminatory rules under which women were permitted to run in the mid-1970s.

Later, Warren's activism focused on free speech and issues confronting LGBT youth. In the late 1990s, she taught a GED program for LGBT youth, served on the Gay and Lesbian Education Commission of the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), and served on the LAUSD's Human Relations Education Commission. She is one of several dozen plaintiffs in ACLU v. Reno and ACLU v. Reno II, a case-setting lawsuit seeking to stem unwarranted censorship of the Internet. She was also one of the founders of Just Dissent, a California activist group seeking to protect the rights of peaceful protesters.

Warren's passionate activism has drawn her to diverse causes. She has volunteered for SOS Care, a wildcat rescue center. In 2007, Warren campaigned for a seat on the West Hollywood City Council. Warren's literary and political work has been honored by the Arizona Human Rights Fund's Barry Goldwater Award, the National Cowboy Hall of Fame's Western Heritage Award, the Lambda Literary Award, the Saints & Sinners Hall of Fame, and the Gay and Lesbian Literary Hall of Fame.

We at ONE Archives would like to express our deepest condolences to Patricia's family and friends. Patricia donated her papers to ONE Archives in 2011 and they are available for research. To learn more about Patricia's prolific career and legacy of activism, read on for more information about her collection at ONE Archives at the USC Libraries.  Selected images from her collection are also available through the USC Digital Library.