Tribute: Patricia Nell Warren

Photos by John Selig

In high school, I read Patricia Nell Warren’s The Front Runner, in fits and starts, standing in Economy Bookstore in downtown Syracuse, one eye on who might be monitoring my queer self in its flutter of awakenings and two hands ready to slam the book shut at any sound. Emboldened by its characters, elite collegiate runners and their coach, I joined the track team. Not long distance like Billy Sive in the novel—sprints and, because my times quickly plateaued, relay races, where otherwise benchwarmers like me could be useful. My skills as a runner never improved, but, thanks to Patricia Nell Warren, my self-esteem did.

Every morning when I boarded the school bus, I was greeted with a disembodied voice: Faggot! I never blinked; I simply walked to my seat and talked about the literary journal with my coeditor, Tuyet. Many others like me found a reserve of empowerment in her words that kept us going. I counted myself lucky to have read The Front Runner when I did. I counted myself luckier when I got a chance to work with her during her tenure as a columnist for A&U.

When we at the magazine heard that Patricia lost her battle with cancer and had died on February 9, we spent days in silence and in reflection. We mourned our colleague from afar. As did many others. Her words and her commitment to justice traveled around the world, finding homes in many hearts. She was the guest whom you never wanted to leave.

Sharing about their bond, writer, photographer and activist John Selig told A&U: “What inspired our friendship, however, was not Patricia’s literary notoriety. I was enamored by Patricia’s insatiable thirst for knowledge on a vast spectrum of topics and her expertise in so many areas, along with her great wit, commitment to garnering equal rights for LGBT people and all other oppressed people. I was also captivated by her delight in sharing her expertise and amazing life story about growing up on the Grant-Kohrs Ranch in Deer Lodge, Montana (which is now a National Historic Site run by the U.S. National Park Service), along with her years with the Reader’s Digest and years in Spain with the Digest while Spanish dictator Francisco Franco was in power and her experiences after writing The Front Runner as a writer, activist and member within the LGBT community.”

Her accomplishments are too numerous to list here, but stand-outs among them include penning novels; writing nonfiction books and articles on a variety of topics, from sports to the American West to LGBTQ advocacy; started her own publishing platform, Wildcat Press; taught and mentored youth; and led the pack in long-distance running and inspired running clubs to name themselves after her work, among others.

Writing for A&U, in a 2013 Left Field column where she wondered why we haven’t made an HIV vaccine a top priority, Patricia Nell Warren applied her incisive analytical skills to yet another facet of HIV/AIDS: “I’ve been writing this column for fourteen years, and now and then I have to scratch my head at things that don’t make sense. Sense often vanishes with AIDS because of the colossal push-me, pull-you impact it has on politics. There is the colossal political chasm it has opened, between those who see AIDS as a humanitarian cause and those who see it as the devil’s work. There is the colossal money involved—the colossal amounts needed for domestic and global treatment and, let’s face it, colossal profits for the pharmaceutical industry.” As with this and other well-researched critiques, Patricia was ruthless, relentless, and, more often than not, right on target. Her credibility impeccable, her logic sound—her activism on the page resembled a street protest, as if all the words on all the signs were strung together into one voice. Yet, she championed out-of-the-box critical thinking, willing to be the lone wolf if needed.

Her legacy as a writer and activist will endure. However, her work is not completely done. Weeks before she died, Patricia was able to finish the fourth and final book in The Front Runner series. “Warren expended tremendous energy while fighting cancer to make sure this book was completed. It was her last labor of love and a gift to all of us,” reads a statement released by her estate’s executor. However, funds are needed to get it into print, as well as keep her other titles in print and realize other projects, such as film/television versions of her novels, via Wildcat Press and her estate. Patricia Nell Warren’s estate has set up a GoFundMe page to help make sure her writing continues to inspire. If you would like to help, log on to: https://www.gofundme.com/patricia-nell-warren-estate.

—Chael Needle