where the writers are
What I Learned
bibliomaniac
Amazon.com Amazon.com
Powell's Books Powell's Books

So please try to imagine this:  there I am, about thirteen or fourteen, the year 1974 or 75.  I've been living most of my life in a very small, slightly conversative suburban town.  Despite its proximity to Berkeley, we've nothing to show for the 60's but some ugly fashion statements that are now behind the times.  I, myself, have donned at approropiate times a suede fringe vest and matching choker necklace.  To my mind, I rock.  So put me in that outfit if it makes the story better.  Better yet, also put me in my black patent leather boots. 

But I'm probably not wearing this at all.  I'm in jeans and a t-shirt, and I walk up the long curvy path to the Orinda library, where my mother is working for the day.  I'm meeting her here so she can give me a ride home.

What have I been doing all day?  I don't know, but as is my wont each weekend, I'm ready to check out a dozen or so books to take home and read.  As I walk in the library, I wave to my mother and head to the paperback rack, flipping through, around, around, around, and what's this?

I pull a new paperback off the shelf.   The Front Runner.  A cute guy is on the cover in running clothes.  Recently, I started running, so not only is this going to be about a cute guy, but he'll be running, too.

I gather a few more books and then head to a table to read for awhile until closing time.   I order the books in a pile and take The Front Runner off the top of the stack.  Patricia Nell Warren, I read.  Don't know her.  I know almost everyone in the library by now, having moved through the fiction stacks for years.

I open the book and proceed to have my head blown off.

Holy cow.  Holy cow.  This is the story of Harlan Brown, mostly, and his slow move toward accepting and understanding his sexuality.  He's had a hard row to hoe, Harlan, not accepting who he is and falling in love with other college-aged athletes he's coached.  Off he goes in a slight banishment to a small college, where he falls in love with Billy.  

Okay, so there I was, just pubescent, with absolutely no clue about sex or homosexuality in general, really.  No one was out at my high school.  We had thoughts about people who were "different," but no one who was later gay was "gay" then.  Now those people we had thoughts about are so gay and have their families and partners and wives and husbands in various photos posted on Facebook.  But back then?  This was not a chapter taught in "Human Sexuality" or "Family Living."

I kept reading.  Harlan was doing mighty unusual (to me) sexual things to other men, leather--not like my happy suede vest--involved.  Harlan was unhappy--and then he meets Billy.  God!  I was in love.

I looked up at my mother behind the library desk.  She waved at me, and then I kept reading.  And reading.

I think I had that book checked out for most of the year.  I had that book on speed dial (not tht speed dial was invented yet).

Anyway, after I got over being in love with Billy Sive and Harlan, too, sort of, I realized that this book had tuaght me something about human nature and life that I'd never really thought about before.  I knew no gay people--at least on record.  No one told me about falling in love with people of the same sex.  Yes, all sorts of gay activism was going on in San Francisco and Harvey Milk was still alive, but none of that was alive in Orinda or in my family.

But somehow, The Front Runner got into the Contra Costa library system, and I got it. I got it, really, and never stopped getting it.  When I finally met gay people when in college, my meeting of them came with my empathy and understanding of how love works, is all encompassing, involves everyone, no matter whom you love.

People say that books about gay lifestyle shouldn't be available to children, and my point would be that without that book in my life, my understanding of gay people would have been slower to evolve.  I wasn't adversely effected--I didn't suddenly become a gay man sleeping with my students (of course, that's another topic altogether).  What I did become was  more understanding and compassionate.  I learned, and that's the final point about reading, right?  I was entertained and taught, a wonderful combination.

Thank you Patricia Nell Warren for that.

Jessica