Of Berdaches, Genetics and Marriage: Three Essays by Patricia Nell Warren

A year ago today, God called home a beautiful soul named Patricia Nell Warren, an early Whosoever contributor and the author of the groundbreaking gay novel The Front Runner.

Published in 1974, The Front Runner was the first contemporary gay novel to achieve mainstream commercial and critical success and to make the New York Times Best Seller list. For its time it was a powerful and unapologetic gay love story of a college coach and his protégé/lover, a runner who goes on to compete in the Olympics. Translated into at least nine languages, it was the best-selling gay novel published in Spain and the first gay novel ever published in Latvia.  To this day there are hundreds of “FrontRunner” LGBTQI running clubs and a global network of International Front Runners.

Warren herself was a lesbian but wrote The Front Runner while coming to terms with a life lived in the closet and the end of her heterosexual marriage.

One of Whosoever’s earliest authors, Warren contributed expansive and provocative essays on topics as diverse as the Native American berdache tradition, the notion of choice in sexual orientation, and the history of civil marriage as “the ultimate perk” in Western society.  In each of these writings she paid close attention to historical, religious, and cultural contexts while also freely sharing from her own experience having lived both in and out of the closet.

Berdaches… and Assumptions About Berdaches” is a masterfully expansive deep dive into Native American tradition that explains the cultural and religious context for the Native berdache identity and the true meaning of the concept of Two Spirit.

Being part Native herself and the author of a historical novel about 19th-century Medicine women, One is the Sun, Warren showcased the mix of scholarship and personal investigation that formed the foundation for her exposition on a concept that is only lightly understood by the average non-Native person.

“In Deity, two are mysteriously also one,” she wrote. “Thus the forked tree — key symbol of the Sun Dance — expresses that way in which all beingness is one. A woman may have her hidden male side, and a man may have his female side, and a Two Spirit person may express both genders openly, but each of them are a single Person.”

Along the way, the essay draws a thread from the tradition of the berdache all the way to that of the modern rodeo clown, explaining how berdaches would adopt the role of “sacred clown”, a balancing figure in Native society who brought levity to sad situations and gravity to light-hearted ones – a role called “Contrary.”  As part of this exposition, Warren shed light on how the famous war chief Crazy Horse got his name: “Crazy” being a reference not to insanity, but rather to his Contrary decision to cast himself in opposition to the pacifist Native tradition that was evaporating in the face of violence and loss at the hands of white settlers.

In “Choice in Sexual Orientation: The Sword That Cuts Both Ways”, Warren waded directly into the center of the late-90’s furor over “ex-gay” conversion therapy – which she fiercely opposed – to nonetheless caution against abandoning a nuanced understanding of personal identity in favor of a strictly “genetic” approach to LGBTQI identity. Referring to “community rhetoric… based on a concept of bronze-like homosexualness”, she related how her personal coming-out journey informed this perspective.

“Two decades of living as an adult heterosexual did powerfully ‘bend’ me and give me the sensibilities of a bisexual,” she wrote. “I am not the same kind of person as a young dyke of today, age 13, who discovers her love of females and boldly comes out in junior high and states that she likes only women.”

And in warning against tying LGBTQI identity and equality strictly to a notion of genetics, she wrote: “Some minority groups are not based on unchanging lifetime characteristics. Rather, they are built on changeable characteristics — like age. Civil rights protect minors and elders, yet we don’t stay in these groups forever. People who are ‘physically challenged’ may not stay that way for a lifetime either, but their rights are protected meantime. Even gender is not immutable, as some transgender people can tell us.”

She revisited the topic in a shorter piece titled “The Difference Between Conformity and Change“, where she wrote again of her years of personal conformity as a closeted lesbian in a heterosexual marriage.

Warren then hit the marriage debate head-on in “Marriage: The Ultimate Perk” (featured in Whosoever’s inaugural online issue in July 1996), which points out the hypocrisy of the “sanctity of marriage” argument by thoroughly exposing the needs for power and control that formed the basis for feudal-style civil marriage and questioning the conflation of civil and holy marriage.  It argues that in their honest yearning for marriage equality, same-gender couples were infusing love back into an institution that had very often been about anything but love – a particularly powerful statement from an out lesbian who had spent 16 years locked in an “Oscar-winning act” as a heterosexual wife.

“Can today’s American marriage overcome its sorry history as a list of perks?” she wrote. “Can a person today make it sacred and wonderful? Yes, I believe so. Real sacredness is infused into any relationship only by the two people themselves, be they straight or gay. They build a balance between their own self-respect and their respect for each other — and for their children, if they have them. If this sacredness is not deeply felt on the personal level, no law or sermon or tax break can put it there! Not even God and Goddess!”

Warren reinforced her point with a Native understanding of marriage:

“Some of my native American forebears had more sensible views,” she wrote. “A couple stood before Creation and married each other on their own authority as human beings. They had no concept of being married by the power of some other person’s religion or authority. ‘Nobody tells a Cheyenne what to do,’ my cousins used to say. If things went bad, all the aggrieved person had to do was put the partner’s moccasins outside the teepee door… with the toes pointing away.”

And what could be more Warren than that?  A witty vignette drawn from Native tradition, injected into the center of a hot-button American sociopolitical issue, infused by both a gay and straight sensibility.  Going beyond the strict bipolarities of homo/heterosexual, male/female or Christian/pagan, she brought a powerfully novel perspective to Whosoever and the LGBTQI experience, and we are all the richer for it.