Saturday, February 1, 2014

I Reread "The Front Runner" Just in Time for The Olympics

I spent most of this week rereading Patricia Nell Warren's The Front Runner, because I had a minor argument with a friend about it. When I was in junior high school, one of my fantasies was that someday, when I was a grown up, I would have friends who read as much as I did and we would talk about books and be smart. At the beginning of this week I was thinking that I should have just stuck with my dream of being an international assassin or an FBI agent instead, because I didn't want to reread this book, which I read for the first and only time in 1997. Anyway, my friend and I argued over whether or not this book was still relevant, with my friend arguing that we can still learn from this and that the feelings still resonate deeply when you read it and me arguing that this book is part of an outdated canon of gay literature that we've moved on from and really only has value as a kind of charmingly quaint antique.

Before we continue, let me say one thing, as I promised I would when I finished reading:

My friend was right about this book, and I was wrong.

I admit it.

I was wrong.

Now, let me lay this out for you. If you ever plan to read this book and you care about spoilers, you should stop reading now.

"The Front Runner", originally published in 1974, is a love story between two men. Harlan is almost 40, coaching track at a tiny private school in upstate New York after being fired from Penn State for suspicion of being gay. He is gay, which he discovered after a failed marriage to a woman, but has a personal rule never to date a student or athlete, and lives a mostly celibate life marked by occasional trips to the city to have one night stands. One night, Billy Sive and two other students show up at his door, having been kicked off of the track team at Oregon State for being gay. They've lost their scholarships, are less than a year from graduating, and two of them, Billy and Vince, are nationally ranked and have a chance at making the 1976 Montreal Olympic team. They need a coach, and they need shelter, and Harlan and the college president agree to take them in. After a rocky period of resistance, Harlan and Billy eventually admit that they've falled in love, and Harlan continues coaching Billy toward the Olympics. Along the way, they are outed, have a commitement ceremony, and Billy eventually makes the Olympic team despite furious protests and bigotry. He wins a gold medal, and then is shot and killed in the stadium by a sniper during his second race.

As I mentioned above, I read "The Front Runner" in 1997, the back half of my senior year in college. My senior year was the year that I had my first boyfriend and really struggled through whether or not I was gay, a brooding and depressed time when I took a lot of walks by myself, took a lot of black and white photos, and tried to figure out why I loved someone who didn't love me and if there was maybe a way to change that while also trying to figure out what I was going to do with my life when I graduated in less than a semester.

This was also the semester that the student union had a room all semester where they gave away books for free. The books were donated by Penguin, and all had slashed or missing covers and were marked "Not For Resale" on a couple of sides. I don't know what the response among regular students was, but among the English majors it was like Halloween and Christmas every day. Someone would whisper right before class started that the free book room got a new shipment, or they'd seen someone unpacking more boxes in the hallway, and as fast as we could we'd get down there to look over the tables, which were divided by subject, and take as many free books as we wanted. Looking over my bookshelves now, I see that I still have a surprising amount of these, somewhere between twenty and thirty. While I picked up books from a number of tables (from where I'm sitting right now I can see a book about vampire folklore, a dictionary of Catholic saints, and a copy of The Odyssey on my shelves, and I know they're all from the free book room), the vast majority of them came from the "Gay and Lesbian" table. My copy of "The Front Runner", which I've been carrying around since 1997 even though I never planned to read it again, did.

I'd never really been exposed to gay literature before this. I'd read books that had a gay character here and there, but never books about gay people being gay. I don't think I even realized that there was a such thing, or that it was published, and I was less than a semester away from graduating college with a double major in education and English. In 1997, we didn't have Amazon. We didn't really have much internet compared to what we have today, and pretty much the only place on television that we saw gay people was MTV and sometimes on Fox. I took these books back to my room and devoured them, but I realize in looking at them now that many of them were written in a very specific context: the immediate aftermath of the AIDS epidemic, when we lost most of a generation of gay men. Because of that, most of these books deal with loss. They're full of survivors and tragedy, and in my mind that connection was made for a long time, that most of gay literature is depressing because "gay" = "tragic", and the people always ended up alone and mourning. Even though "The Front Runner" was written well before many of these other books, it's also a gay tragedy, and I lumped it in with the other books from the early 1990's that I read at the same time.

This is why, when my friend argued last week that the book is still relevant, I immediately disagreed.

"No it's not. It's part of that whole 'being gay is tragic and terrible' school of thought, where it's ok to be gay for a little while but you can't be happy and you have to eventually be punished for deviating from the social norm."

"That's not true. The themes and ideas are still relevant."

"That book is old. I mean, yeah, the coming out theme and the idea of living honestly as who you are is still relevant, but all of that stuff about horrible bigotry and oppression and stuff doesn't really fit. We've come a really long way as a society."

"Really? When did you last read that book, anyway?"


"You should read it again if we're going to have this discussion."

I was so convinced of the validity of my stance that I went straight for my copy as soon as I finished my last book.

And, like I said at the beginning, it turns out that my friend was right, but I was, too.

We've come a long way as a society, but there are still a lot of relevant themes and ideas in this book. People still get fired for being gay; it happened to the women's soccer coach at Bellmont in 2010, long after it happened to Harlan in the book in the 1970's. Athletes still struggle with coming out, and still face bigotry and physical threats. If you're going to argue that point, you haven't been reading the coverage of the upcoming Winter Olympics in Sochi quite closely enough. Or you missed the story in 2012 when a legislator from Maryland asked a professional football player from the Baltimore Ravens to stop publically supporting marriage equality. Or you didn't read any of the online comments that accompanied articles about Tom Daley coming out as bisexual this year. And before you argue against the idea that homophobia is not only acceptable but also celebrated by a vast segment of our society, stop by and count the line of cars at the next Chick-Fil-A Appreciation Day or the number of signatures on the petitions to keep Phil on "Duck Dynasty".

Sure, we've come a long way. Gay and lesbian people openly serve in the armed forces. Several states have marriage equality. There are employment protections and hate crime laws. I live in a world for LGBT people that is markedly different from the one in which I first read "The Front Runner".

I'm just saddened to realize that you could change the dates in the story and still publish this book today.

A lot has changed, but some things haven't changed at all.


Liz said...

It's part of that whole 'being gay is tragic and terrible' school of thought, where it's ok to be gay for a little while but you can't be happy and you have to eventually be punished for deviating from the social norm."

This trope is still very strong in film and lit. It's why I've never been able to sit through "Brokeback Mountain."

Justin Bower said...

well written. Sometimes I think that the answer to whether society has come along way or not, is simultaneously yes and no. In general, the momentum is in the rigth direction. But like any other time things are getting better, there's some portion of society that has to rail harder in the opposite direction; progress being their alarm bell for action that rouses them from their comfortable low level bigotry.

Marcheline said...

Yes, it's awful... but in addition to that, we also haven't figured out that it's okay for everyone to have their own spiritual path, that it's okay to be apolitical, that it's okay to have any color/cut/style hair that you feel like... et cetera.

Basically, people just want to control people. However, whomever, whenever... it's a control issue, and if we can lick that, we can do anything.

Marcheline said...

Also - are you as sad about Philip Seymour Hoffman as I am?