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Patricia Nell Warren, author of ‘The Front Runner,’ dies at 82

The landmark novel was the first to print the word “gay” on the cover



Patricia Nell Warren.

Patricia Nell Warren was noticeable anywhere.

That shock of curly white hair crowning the famous Montana-born lesbian was a beacon for nervously thrilled gay men to find the writer holding court at whatever event she attended. “You saved my life,” they told “The Front Runner” author over and over until the day before her death, according to her close friend Gregory Zanfardino. He and his best friend Darryl Davis were with Warren when she died on Saturday, Feb. 9 at UCLA Medical Center in Santa Monica after an almost three year struggle with lung cancer.

Warren was 82.

“She was an amazing friend. There’s nothing we wouldn’t do for her,” Zanfardino told the Los Angeles Blade by phone. “Up until her last moments, she was very clear. And she was constantly getting emails all the time from young people and older people who literally told her ‘The Front Runner’ saved their lives. That book still, to this day, inspires people.”

“The Front Runner” was a landmark gay novel published in 1974, five years after the Stonewall riots, one year before California officially decriminalized homosexuality; the first to print the word “gay” on the cover and the first to make the New York Times bestseller list.

But while it is often tagged as a “gay love story of Coach Harlan Brown and his Olympic runner Billy Sive” in the 1970s, as publisher William Morrow first framed it, Warren intended it to be broader in scope.

The Front Runner is really about how closeted, masculine, conservative Vietnam Marine veteran Harlan Brown, 39, gave up his own dream of running in the Olympics, of coaching prospective Olympic athletes at a prestigious college, of quelling his own humanity out of fear of being exposed as gay. When he and gay distance runner Billy Sive, 22, fall in love at a small New England college, the world of sports rears up against Sive representing the US in the Olympic, where he meets with a horrific end.

“[T]he book’s prose had to be the voice of a conservative ex-Marine veteran who is at war with himself.  He knows he’s gay and attracted to men, but he refuses to let himself feel, to let himself be that person he knows he is, because of his repressive Bible-taught family upbringing and military background,” Warren wrote for “When Harlan finds himself falling secretly in love with Billy Sive, the conflict only intensifies and almost drives him mad, until he is finally “human” enough to give in and let himself be in love.”

After Billy is murdered in a hate crime on live TV, how can Harlan Brown go on? What becomes of him?

“One big reason why I wanted to paint the story so broadly, yet so personally, was that I hoped non-gay people would read the book as well as gay people,” Warren wrote.  “When the book was written, as well as today, stereotypes of gay males as limp-wristed liberals is embedded in people’s minds. Harlan is a crusty gay ex-Marine, a drill-sergeant kind of guy.  I wanted to confront readers with the inner reality of such a man because I know they exist.”

In fact, Zanfardino tells the Los Angeles Blade, Warren’s wish came true. Shortly before her death, Warren received an email from a straight woman who told her homophobic husband to read the book from beginning to end. Afterwards, he confessed that he never realized how people like him can hurt people. The book was a glimpse into the lives of two men who only wanted to love each other and do sports.

“The book touched hearts,” says Zanfardino.

In 2011, Warren told The Bay Area Reporter that Sive was “inspired in part by distance runner Steve Prefontaine, as well as a few closeted runners that I got to know while being involved in open distance running myself.”

Prefontaine, who was straight, helped inspire the “running boom” of the 1970s. He died tragically in a car accident when he was 24. A movie about his life starred Jared Leto, who one critic suggested  is “almost too pretty an actor to play the masculine, cocky runner.”

“I loved “The Front Runner,” Proteus Spann told the Los Angeles Blade during a discussion about his effort to get E. Lynn Harris’ “Invisible Life” made into a movie, noting that E. Lynn’s most famous character, Basil, was a professional football player.

“We’re all humans until society or we put up our flags and put a name on it. I knew of a former NFL player who frequented the Dupont Circle bars in DC. He was outed by a journalist in the early 90’s. He was cut from the team and this guy was massively masculine, great football player, star running back,” Spann said. “Was he still not a man even though he was gay? I think we get confused on the issue of masculinity and sexual identity.”

While Warren’s legacy is “The Front Runner” and the power of presenting gay men as masculine athletes and former fighting Marines, Warren’s life was more than just that book. In fact, she was her own version of an activist.

Patricia Nell Warren was born in 1936 and grew up on the Grant Kohrs cattle ranch near Deer Lodge, Montana. She started writing professionally in her teens in the 1950s, moving to New York in 1955 to attend Manhattanville College. She worked first as a copy editor, then a book editor at Reader’s Digest from 1959-1980. She married a Ukrainian emigre writer in 1960 and wrote four books of Ukranian poetry while stationed in Spain. She also wrote her first gay novel about a Spanish bullfighter’s relationship with a peasant under Franco’s fascism. “The Wild Man” would be published in in 2001 with an opening set in the gay West Hollywood bar, Numbers. Warren divorced her husband in 1973, according to a summary accompanying her papers at ONE National Gay & Lesbian Archives.

Warren started jogging while in Spain. “For me, at age 32 in 1968, distance running started out as a personal female challenge. Indeed, the runner’s need to reach deep inside and ‘find more’ spurred my self-discovery as a woman and my consciousness-raising concerning women’s rights,” she wrote in The Advocate in Aug. 1998. 

“Only then, through running, could I finally catch up with those long-festering questions about sexual orientation. It dawned on me that sports are a major arena in which American society hard-wires ‘traditional’ notions about gender roles and orientation into its citizens,” she wrote.

The “Supreme Court Photo” with Robert Arthur, Ivy Bottini, Quentin Crisp, Morris Kight, and Patricia Nell Warren taken at home of Victor Burner. 1994. (Photographer unknown; photo courtesy ONE Institute)

Warren took that consciousness-raising seriously. In 1969, she and 11 other women “outlaws crashed the Boston Marathon and ran the race without numbers, another fist was raised” in protest in the “athletes’ rights movement” that was “battling antiquated and hypocritical rules that still ran U.S. sports,” she wrote.

Warren was part of a cadre of women athletes and distance runners intent on forcing the Amateur Athletics Union to change the discriminatory rules under which women were permitted to run.

“Women had been barred from road races since 1961, as experts claimed distance running was damaging to their health and femininity. Some officials infamously warned that a woman’s uterus might fall out should she attempt to run such distances,” according to a story in the New York Times about the women runners who broke and changed the rules.

This was around the same time when proudly sexist 55-year old Bobby Riggs challenged 29-year old tennis star Billie Jean King to a nationally televised tennis match at the Houston Astrodome in 1973 known as “The Battle of the Sexes.” When King won, suddenly women athletes were taken more seriously—though King’s main issue of pay equity was still a battle.

Warren fought battles off the running course, as well. She was the plaintiffs’ spokesperson for Susan Smith v. Reader’s Digest, a landmark case that resulted in a class-action victory for women.

“I was one of 18 women who filed Title VII charges against the Reader’s Digest,” Warren told Gay Today in 2003. “It was one of several major lawsuits against the media in the 1970’s. The media were full of talented and ambitious women who had been blatantly discriminated against—the very media that kept America informed on news from the civil-rights movement!”

TheDigest tried to dismiss the class-action aspect of the case. “But the federal judge – who was a woman! – didn’t buy their arguments. If the Digest had succeeded, it would have set a disastrous precedent for class actions,” she said.

Warren also worked on behalf of LGBT youth.

In 1994, she volunteered as a teacher at the West Hollywood-based EAGLES Center, a program for at-risk LGBT high school students. In 1996, she served on the LAUSD’s school Gay & Lesbian Education Commission and then in 1999, joined the Human Relations Education Commission. As a commissioner, she supported Project 10 and helped organize Youth Lobby Day, which became key in pressuring legislators during the knock-down fight for State Senator Sheila Kuehl’s AB222, the Dignity for All Students Act.

“I didn’t have a close relationship with her,” Project 10 founder Dr. Virginia Uribe tells the Los Angeles Blade. “But I admired what she did. ‘The Front Runner’ was a big influence on a lot of young people. When it came things like that, she was definitely a pioneer.”

Artist Windon Newton chats with Patricia Nell Warren at Friends of Project 10 fundraiser in Altadena. (Photo courtesy Lance Webster)

Gail Rolf, Uribe’s wife and the Education Director for the non-profit arm of Project 10, tells of how “The Front Runner” saved a student’s life.

Rolf was teaching at Alexander Hamilton High School and leading a Project 10 support group when she got word of a special education 12th grader who had attempted suicide just before Spring Break.

“He was very sweet and very conflicted about his sexuality. We sent him to see someone at Didi Hirsch (Mental Health Services) and then he came to the Project 10 support group,” Rolf says. “I had ‘The Front Runner’ paperback on the shelf so I gave it to him and told him to read it and keep the book as long as needed and then we’d talk about it. He came back weeks later with the pages folded—the book was ruined. He said, ‘This is the most fabulous book I’ve ever read. This book saved my life!”

He graduated and two years later came back to Models of Pride to say he’d come out and he was happy, Rolf says.

“We’ve lost an important voice for LGBT youth with the passing of Patricia Nell Warren. She was a fierce advocate for our youth. Her novels and many of her other work reflected that advocacy. Her writing also explored the complexity of youthful LGBT sexuality,” says Terry DeCrescenzo, former founder and executive director of Gay & Lesbian Adolescent Social Services (GLASS). “Her death silences an important voice.”

“When I came out as a gay man in 1990, my aunt gave me a copy of the Front Runner & I immediately read it. It was so influential for me & was part of my transition to fully embracing who I am. Patricia Nell Warren’s contribution to our community is a permanent one,” tweeted State Sen. Scott Wiener after Warren’s death was announced.

“It was one of the earliest books I read as a young lesbian. It was hard to find anything reflecting positively LGBTQ relationships when I came out in 1980-81. This was a jewel. Godspeed to Patricia Nell Warren,” State Sen. Toni Atkins tweeted.

Warren and Wildcat Press, the small publishing house she operated with then-business partner Tyler St. Mark, joined other plaintiffs in ACLU v. Reno and ACLU v. Reno II against the Justice Department “over right-wing federal legislation designed to promote censorship on the Internet and impede the online sale of gay and lesbian content,” her longtime friend Lance Webster says.

Webster and Warren worked with Senate Majority Leader Richard Polanco to write and pass SB1796, the Political Expression Protection Act to protect the rights of peaceful, non-violent protesters, based on an article she wrote entitled “Just Dissent.” Though the State Legislature overwhelmingly passed the bill, it was vetoed by Gov. Gray Davis.

During this time Warren not only continued to write articles, columns and books but she also joined the national LGBT site Bilerico as a blogger.

“When Patricia and I talked about our plans, she quickly volunteered to be our first new contributor. She was excited at the idea of speaking to a younger audience she didn’t know already and on issues that weren’t solely related to sports,” Bilerico co-founder Bil Browning tells the Los Angeles Blade, noting that her involvement enticed other contributors.

“Without her quiet voice of guidance and reassurance, I surely wouldn’t have been able to handle all of the responsibilities and attention that came with running a large site,” he says. “Her biggest commandment was to always respond to fan mail because it would make both the reader and the writer connect a little more closely.”

In 2007, Warren ran for a seat on the West Hollywood City Council. Though it was a long shot, she nonetheless did the due diligence producing astute policy analysis. That included a white paper on developing a true, single-payer comprehensive Universal Healthcare Coverage plan, as published by Smart Voter.

In it, she scrutinized the progressive healthcare system created by San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom—which she compared unfavorably to SB 840, legislation proposed by out Sen. Sheila Kuehl, Chair of the Senate Health Committee.

The Lambda Literary Foundation’s 25th anniversary of Outwrite!in April 2013 recognizing literary pioneers Rev. Malcolm Boyd, Lillian Faderman, Katherine V. Forrest, John Rechy and Patricia Nell Warren. (Photo by Karen Ocamb)

Warren also had an impact on her fellow writers. Anne Stockwell, former editor in chief of The Advocate and a cancer activist, visited Warren in a Glendale rehab facility a few months ago.

“She also told me she had cancer but didn’t make a big deal of that. She was sitting up in bed with her laptop, typing away on her fourth novel in The Front Runner series—which she apparently finished a couple weeks ago,” Stockwell says.

“Patricia really lived the values of her Montana childhood,” Stockwell adds. “She didn’t wait for permission to create or publish or act. She took the heat and led. She was an extraordinary American—we say that about a lot of people, but in her case it was true—and her vision of proud gay love helped to save a lot of lives, including mine.”

Rev. Malcolm Boyd and Patricia Nell Warren (Photo by Karen Ocamb)

Steven Reigns, West Hollywood’s first official Poet Laureate, was also impacted by Warren.

“There is still a struggle for LGBTQ representation and it was especially acute in 1974 when Warren published The Front Runner,” Reigns tells the Los Angeles Blade, who discovered the book at the St. Louis public library in 1994. “I was far from athletic and yet I identified and empathized with Billy. It also felt subversive to read this gay novel by a lesbian who, at one point, edited my mother’s favorite publications—Reader’s Digest.  The book illuminated for me that we were everywhere.”

And, he noted, “Though her imagination, she gave us mainstream representation and modeling,” including the creation of “Frontrunners” clubs worldwide.

One of the disappointments of Warren’s life was not having “The Front Runner” made into a movie. There have been so many rumors about the ups and downs of that endeavor—especially around actor Paul Newman as the first to option the work in 1975—that Warren and Zanfardino created a website devoted  to the story, the history of the movie project and the prospect of having it finally produced in the near future.

The final entry on the movie history timeline reads: “2019 – February 9th, Patricia Warren loses her battle with cancer. Literary rights (print, film and television) of all her books are now handled by her estate and are available for option, sale and production.  Interested parties should contact the executor of her estate GregoryZanfardino [email protected].

Patricia Nell Warren (Photo courtesy Lance Webster)

Making the movie was very much an imperative when Warren spoke with the Los Angeles Blade in Aug. 2017.

“I think it’s a good moment for a movie like that; the way the country is going, probably the timing is better than ever,” Warren said. “I’m really concerned about all the negativity about LGBT people that is going forward in the country right now, and that certainly will rebound into what we do in sports, so, I’m still hoping that it will happen.”


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New Supreme Court term includes critical LGBTQ case with ‘terrifying’ consequences

Business owner seeks to decline services for same-sex weddings



The U.S. Supreme Court is to set consider the case of 303 Creative, which seeks to refuse design services for same-sex weddings. (Blade file photo by Michael Key)

The U.S. Supreme Court, after a decision overturning Roe v. Wade that still leaves many reeling, is starting a new term with justices slated to revisit the issue of LGBTQ rights.

In 303 Creative v. Elenis, the court will return to the issue of whether or not providers of custom-made goods can refuse service to LGBTQ customers on First Amendment grounds. In this case, the business owner is Lorie Smith, a website designer in Colorado who wants to opt out of providing her graphic design services for same-sex weddings despite the civil rights law in her state.

Jennifer Pizer, acting chief legal officer of Lambda Legal, said in an interview with the Blade, “it’s not too much to say an immeasurably huge amount is at stake” for LGBTQ people depending on the outcome of the case.

“This contrived idea that making custom goods, or offering a custom service, somehow tacitly conveys an endorsement of the person — if that were to be accepted, that would be a profound change in the law,” Pizer said. “And the stakes are very high because there are no practical, obvious, principled ways to limit that kind of an exception, and if the law isn’t clear in this regard, then the people who are at risk of experiencing discrimination have no security, no effective protection by having a non-discrimination laws, because at any moment, as one makes their way through the commercial marketplace, you don’t know whether a particular business person is going to refuse to serve you.”

The upcoming arguments and decision in the 303 Creative case mark a return to LGBTQ rights for the Supreme Court, which had no lawsuit to directly address the issue in its previous term, although many argued the Dobbs decision put LGBTQ rights in peril and threatened access to abortion for LGBTQ people.

And yet, the 303 Creative case is similar to other cases the Supreme Court has previously heard on the providers of services seeking the right to deny services based on First Amendment grounds, such as Masterpiece Cakeshop and Fulton v. City of Philadelphia. In both of those cases, however, the court issued narrow rulings on the facts of litigation, declining to issue sweeping rulings either upholding non-discrimination principles or First Amendment exemptions.

Pizer, who signed one of the friend-of-the-court briefs in opposition to 303 Creative, said the case is “similar in the goals” of the Masterpiece Cakeshop litigation on the basis they both seek exemptions to the same non-discrimination law that governs their business, the Colorado Anti-Discrimination Act, or CADA, and seek “to further the social and political argument that they should be free to refuse same-sex couples or LGBTQ people in particular.”

“So there’s the legal goal, and it connects to the social and political goals and in that sense, it’s the same as Masterpiece,” Pizer said. “And so there are multiple problems with it again, as a legal matter, but also as a social matter, because as with the religion argument, it flows from the idea that having something to do with us is endorsing us.”

One difference: the Masterpiece Cakeshop litigation stemmed from an act of refusal of service after owner, Jack Phillips, declined to make a custom-made wedding cake for a same-sex couple for their upcoming wedding. No act of discrimination in the past, however, is present in the 303 Creative case. The owner seeks to put on her website a disclaimer she won’t provide services for same-sex weddings, signaling an intent to discriminate against same-sex couples rather than having done so.

As such, expect issues of standing — whether or not either party is personally aggrieved and able bring to a lawsuit — to be hashed out in arguments as well as whether the litigation is ripe for review as justices consider the case. It’s not hard to see U.S. Chief Justice John Roberts, who has sought to lead the court to reach less sweeping decisions (sometimes successfully, and sometimes in the Dobbs case not successfully) to push for a decision along these lines.

Another key difference: The 303 Creative case hinges on the argument of freedom of speech as opposed to the two-fold argument of freedom of speech and freedom of religious exercise in the Masterpiece Cakeshop litigation. Although 303 Creative requested in its petition to the Supreme Court review of both issues of speech and religion, justices elected only to take up the issue of free speech in granting a writ of certiorari (or agreement to take up a case). Justices also declined to accept another question in the petition request of review of the 1990 precedent in Smith v. Employment Division, which concluded states can enforce neutral generally applicable laws on citizens with religious objections without violating the First Amendment.

Representing 303 Creative in the lawsuit is Alliance Defending Freedom, a law firm that has sought to undermine civil rights laws for LGBTQ people with litigation seeking exemptions based on the First Amendment, such as the Masterpiece Cakeshop case.

Kristen Waggoner, president of Alliance Defending Freedom, wrote in a Sept. 12 legal brief signed by her and other attorneys that a decision in favor of 303 Creative boils down to a clear-cut violation of the First Amendment.

“Colorado and the United States still contend that CADA only regulates sales transactions,” the brief says. “But their cases do not apply because they involve non-expressive activities: selling BBQ, firing employees, restricting school attendance, limiting club memberships, and providing room access. Colorado’s own cases agree that the government may not use public-accommodation laws to affect a commercial actor’s speech.”

Pizer, however, pushed back strongly on the idea a decision in favor of 303 Creative would be as focused as Alliance Defending Freedom purports it would be, arguing it could open the door to widespread discrimination against LGBTQ people.

“One way to put it is art tends to be in the eye of the beholder,” Pizer said. “Is something of a craft, or is it art? I feel like I’m channeling Lily Tomlin. Remember ‘soup and art’? We have had an understanding that whether something is beautiful or not is not the determining factor about whether something is protected as artistic expression. There’s a legal test that recognizes if this is speech, whose speech is it, whose message is it? Would anyone who was hearing the speech or seeing the message understand it to be the message of the customer or of the merchants or craftsmen or business person?”

Despite the implications in the case for LGBTQ rights, 303 Creative may have supporters among LGBTQ people who consider themselves proponents of free speech.

One joint friend-of-the-court brief before the Supreme Court, written by Dale Carpenter, a law professor at Southern Methodist University who’s written in favor of LGBTQ rights, and Eugene Volokh, a First Amendment legal scholar at the University of California, Los Angeles, argues the case is an opportunity to affirm the First Amendment applies to goods and services that are uniquely expressive.

“Distinguishing expressive from non-expressive products in some contexts might be hard, but the Tenth Circuit agreed that Smith’s product does not present a hard case,” the brief says. “Yet that court (and Colorado) declined to recognize any exemption for products constituting speech. The Tenth Circuit has effectively recognized a state interest in subjecting the creation of speech itself to antidiscrimination laws.”

Oral arguments in the case aren’t yet set, but may be announced soon. Set to defend the state of Colorado and enforcement of its non-discrimination law in the case is Colorado Solicitor General Eric Reuel Olson. Just this week, the U.S. Supreme Court announced it would grant the request to the U.S. solicitor general to present arguments before the justices on behalf of the Biden administration.

With a 6-3 conservative majority on the court that has recently scrapped the super-precedent guaranteeing the right to abortion, supporters of LGBTQ rights may think the outcome of the case is all but lost, especially amid widespread fears same-sex marriage would be next on the chopping block. After the U.S. Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against 303 Creative in the lawsuit, the simple action by the Supreme Court to grant review in the lawsuit suggests they are primed to issue a reversal and rule in favor of the company.

Pizer, acknowledging the call to action issued by LGBTQ groups in the aftermath of the Dobbs decision, conceded the current Supreme Court issuing the ruling in this case is “a terrifying prospect,” but cautioned the issue isn’t so much the makeup of the court but whether or not justices will continue down the path of abolishing case law.

“I think the question that we’re facing with respect to all of the cases or at least many of the cases that are in front of the court right now, is whether this court is going to continue on this radical sort of wrecking ball to the edifice of settled law and seemingly a goal of setting up whole new structures of what our basic legal principles are going to be. Are we going to have another term of that?” Pizer said. “And if so, that’s terrifying.”

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Kelley Robinson, a Black, queer woman, named president of Human Rights Campaign

Progressive activist a veteran of Planned Parenthood Action Fund



Kelley Robinson (Screen capture via HRC YouTube)

Kelley Robinson, a Black, queer woman and veteran of Planned Parenthood Action Fund, is to become the next president of the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s leading LGBTQ group announced on Tuesday.

Robinson is set to become the ninth president of the Human Rights Campaign after having served as executive director of Planned Parenthood Action Fund and more than 12 years of experience as a leader in the progressive movement. She’ll be the first Black, queer woman to serve in that role.

“I’m honored and ready to lead HRC — and our more than three million member-advocates — as we continue working to achieve equality and liberation for all Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer people,” Robinson said. “This is a pivotal moment in our movement for equality for LGBTQ+ people. We, particularly our trans and BIPOC communities, are quite literally in the fight for our lives and facing unprecedented threats that seek to destroy us.”

Kelley Robinson IS NAMED as The next human rights Campaign president

The next Human Rights Campaign president is named as Democrats are performing well in polls in the mid-term elections after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, leaving an opening for the LGBTQ group to play a key role amid fears LGBTQ rights are next on the chopping block.

“The overturning of Roe v. Wade reminds us we are just one Supreme Court decision away from losing fundamental freedoms including the freedom to marry, voting rights, and privacy,” Robinson said. “We are facing a generational opportunity to rise to these challenges and create real, sustainable change. I believe that working together this change is possible right now. This next chapter of the Human Rights Campaign is about getting to freedom and liberation without any exceptions — and today I am making a promise and commitment to carry this work forward.”

The Human Rights Campaign announces its next president after a nearly year-long search process after the board of directors terminated its former president Alphonso David when he was ensnared in the sexual misconduct scandal that led former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo to resign. David has denied wrongdoing and filed a lawsuit against the LGBTQ group alleging racial discrimination.

Kelley Robinson, Planned Parenthood, Cathy Chu, SMYAL, Supporting and Mentoring Youth Advocates and Leaders, Amy Nelson, Whitman-Walker Health, Sheroes of the Movement, Mayor's office of GLBT Affairs, gay news, Washington Blade
Kelley Robinson, seen here with Cathy Chu of SMYAL and Amy Nelson of Whitman-Walker Health, is the next Human Rights Campaign president. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)
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Eastern Europe

Former Ambassador Daniel Baer explains it all on Ukraine crisis

Expert downplays strategic thinking behind Putin’s move



Daniel Baer, United States Department of State, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, gay news, Washington Blade
Daniel Baer served as U.S. ambassador to the Organization for Security & Cooperation in Europe. (Blade file photo by Michael Key)

Daniel Baer, who worked on LGBTQ human rights and transatlantic issues as one of several openly gay U.S. ambassadors during the Obama administration, answered questions from the Washington Blade on Ukraine as the international crisis continues to unfold.

Topics during the interview, which took place weeks ago on Jan. 27, included Putin’s motivation for Russian incursions, the risk of outright war, predictions for Russia after Putin and how the crisis would affect LGBTQ people in Ukraine.

Baer was deputy assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor and U.S. ambassador to the Organization of Security & Cooperation in Europe.

The full interview follows:

Washington Blade: What’s your level of engagement with this affair? Are you doing any consulting work? Is the administration reaching out to you at all?

Daniel Baer: I actually think the White House is doing a pretty good job of recognizing that they need to not only have press conferences, but also talk to other people who are trying to figure out how to be constructive critics, idea generators from the outside.

Blade: OK, so you’re being solicited and engaging on this issue. My next question for you is why do you think Putin is doing this at this time?

Baer: So, I guess taking a step back from the whole thing, one of the things about a problem like this is that everybody is searching for the right answer assuming that there is a like comfortable or compelling or intellectually accurate answer, and I actually think we’re just in a really hard moment.

I don’t know why he’s doing it now. And in fact, I think that one of the puzzles that we haven’t solved yet is that all the things that he says are the reasons that he’s doing it — that he feels encirclement by NATO, … or that the situation in Ukraine is untenable — none of those things have changed. Setting aside the fact that they’re spurious, it’s not like there’s been some new move in the last 12 months that has precipitated [a reaction] on any of those fronts that you can say, “Oh, well, he’s responding to the recent meeting where Ukraine was offered membership in NATO, or he’s responding to a change in government in Ukraine that it’s clearly anti-Russia, or any other move that we’ve done.” The explanation just doesn’t hold water, and so I think we need to look for alternative ones.

The best I can come up with is actually just a broad — it doesn’t actually explain this particular moment, but I think you could look at the timing of his life. He has, I don’t know, 10 years left. And during those 10 years, it’s unlikely that Russia is going to grow more powerful; it’s much more likely that it’s going to become at least relatively and probably nominally less powerful. And so, if you’re unhappy with the status quo, and you feel like you’re a declining power, and you don’t have endless time, there’s no time like the present. And you’ll make up whatever reasons you need to in order to justify it.

I also think there’s a tendency on our part to attribute far more “strategery” to Putin than there necessarily is. I mean, he’s a bully and a thug. I think the whole Putin’s playing chess and we’re playing checkers is actually completely inverted. We’re in our own heads that there’s some kind of nuanced position that would mollify him. He’s just a gangster and he’s taking a punch because he has one. And I don’t think it gets much more complicated than that. And so, I guess the answer to why he’s doing this now, because the international conditions are such that he feels like the United States is focused domestically, the Ukrainians are not moving forward with succeeding to build — they’re kind of in stasis on building a European state— and he has, you know, he has the space to take a punch, so he’s contemplating doing it, or he’s already decided to do it. And he’s just extracting as much as possible before he takes it.

Blade: That leads me to my next question: What is your judgement of the risk of out and out war?

Baer: I don’t know because I have two hypotheses that cut both ways. One is that I think Putin is vastly underestimating the degree of resistance. On the other hand, I think that nothing short of domination is satisfactory. And so, I don’t know. I guess I think there’s a 90 percent chance that he does something, and I think there’s a 75 percent chance that what he does is not an all out invasion or ground invasion, at least not at first, but rather something that is aimed at confusing us. So some sort of hybrid or staged or false flag kind of attack in tandem with a political coup in Kiev, where he works to install a more Russia-loyal leader.

The thing with the ground invasion is that Russian soldiers’ moms are one of the only, like, powerful political forces in civil society in Russia. I just don’t see any way that a ground invasion doesn’t involve massive Russian casualties, even if they will be dominant. The people who are going to impose the consequences on him will be the Ukrainians, not the rest of us, and he should not invade, and if he does, we should, frankly, work hard to make it as painful and difficult for him as possible.

Blade: What will that look like?

Baer: I think we should at that point continue — we shouldn’t pause, we should continue to send the defensive equipment and backfill as much as possible their ability from an equipment basis to resist.

Blade: So if we were to look at a model for past U.S. engagements. I’m thinking Greece under President Truman, which was so successful that nobody really knows about it, I don’t think. Is there any model we should be looking toward, or not looking toward?

Baer: No, I guess. I’m not sure there’s any good historical model because obviously, any of them you can pick apart. I do think that one thing that has gotten lost in a lot of the analysis — and this goes back to Putin being a gangster thug, and not being such a genius — is there’s a moral difference between us. The reason why Putin gets to control the dialogue is because he’s willing to do things that we aren’t willing to do — as gangsters are, as hostage-takers are — and so yes, they get to set the terms of what we discussed, because we’re not holding hostages. We’re trying to get hostages released. And the hostage-taker has an upper hand and asymmetry because they are willing to do something that is wrong.

We shouldn’t lose the kind of moral difference there. Nor should we lose sight of the fact that Ukraine is being menaced. And I’m not saying it’s our obligation [to intervene militarily], certainly not our obligation. They aren’t a treaty ally. We have neither a political obligation nor a moral one to necessarily risk our own lives, our own soldiers in defense of Ukraine. But if Ukraine wants to defend themselves, there’s a strong moral case to be made that anything, short of risking our own lives, is something that is morally good. We generally believe that self-defense from lethal threat is a reasonable moral cause and assisting others in defending themselves is too — I think there’s a lot of back and forth that get glossed over whether that’s a provocation or whatever, and I want to say to people stand back, look at this: we’ve got one party that is attacking another. And the question is, does the other have a right to defend itself? Yes. And if they have a right to defend themselves, and they also have a right to have whatever assistance people will offer them in defending themselves.

That doesn’t mean that they get to demand that we show up and fight in the trenches with them, of course, and I don’t think there’s any serious people who are recommending that but it’s a good thing to help them. It’s not like a technical thing. It’s a good thing to help

Blade: Getting into that moral background, one thing I want to ask you was about the significance of what would happen in this concept of democracy versus autocracy. First of all, how much is Ukraine a functional democracy, in the sense that if we’re defending Ukraine, we are defending a democracy, and what signal do you think it would send if that Ukrainian government fell to Russian autocracy?

Baer: I think the institutions of government that the Ukrainian people have are not worthy of the Ukrainian people’s own demonstrated commitment …

They are not worthy of the Ukrainian people’s own demonstrated commitment to the idea of democratic institutions. So the answer is today’s Ukrainian government is a mixed bag and it’s very hard to build, on the rot of a Russian fiefdom, a functioning democracy, so I think it’s a mixed bag. I don’t want to sound like I’m minimizing [the changes], or that they’ve completely bungled an easy project. It was always going to be a hard project, and it was never going to be linear.

But I think that what we’ve seen from the Ukrainian people — by which I mean not Ukrainian people, but people of Ukraine — is that there is a broad part of society that a) does not want to live under a Russian thumb and b) sees its future in kind of European style democracy. And so I think that if there was, there’s no question that the Russian attack would be in part about subjugating the people of Ukraine and forcing them to live under some sort of new Russian satellite. And I think that there’s little space for serious argument that that’s something that the people of the country wish to have.

Blade: But I’m just kind of getting at — you’re kind of minimizing that this is a strategic move by Putin, but if he were to successfully dominant Ukraine it becomes a Russian satellite isn’t that saying like, “Well, ha ha West, you thought the Cold War was over and there’s going to be just be a unipolar world in the future but no, we’re gonna we have this we’re back and we’re gonna create a multipolar world for the future.”

Baer: Yeah, I mean, my answer to the Russians who always raise the multipolar world to me is, “Fine, it’s going to be a multipolar world. What makes you think that Russia is one of the poles?” Poles by definition draw people to them, they are compelling and a pole attracts, magnetically or otherwise, and there is nothing attractive about the model that Russia is pursuing. And if the only way that you can be a pole is by subjugating, to force your neighbors, you are proving that you are not one.

I think the benefits for Russia are far smaller than Putin thinks and I think the consequences for the rest of the world of allowing a violation of international order to go forward are much larger than many people recognize.

Blade: But that was their approach when they were the Soviet Union. They were subjugating the Eastern Bloc through Russian force. They did have, in theory, the concept of their worldview of you know, of socialism, or whatever you want to put it charitably, was going to be the right way to go. Is there really that much of a difference?

Baer: Yeah, however disingenuous it was, they did have an ideology . So you’re right, that was a key distinction. The other thing is that the Soviet Union in relative size — its economy and population etc. — was much larger than Russia is today. And Russia is shrinking, and its economy is less diverse than the Communist one was. I think it’s a delusion to think that they’re going to kind of rebuild an empire, even if yes, because of their willingness to do awful things, they could potentially for a time politically control through violence, their neighbors. I just don’t — in a multipolar world, I don’t see Russia being one of the poles, at least not on its current path.

Blade: How would you evaluate the U.S. diplomatic approach to this issue?

Baer: There’s been very clear over-the-top effort to include the Europeans at every step — meetings with them before each meeting and after each meeting, to force conversations into fora that are more inclusive and stuff like that. And I think that Secretary Blinken is rightly recognizing the need to kind of play a role of kind of keeping everybody on the side while we test whether diplomacy whether there’s anything to do, whether there’s any promise with diplomacy.

I think there’s kind of, sometimes kind of, two camps in U.S. foreign policy circles. One is like: We should give the Russians what they want because it just doesn’t matter that much. War is much worse than anything that we would give them. And another is that we can’t give them an inch and we have to punch them in the face whenever we can. And I think both of those are kind of knee-jerk positions that have become a bit religious for people and neither of them is paying attention to the practical challenge that’s in front of the administration, which is like this guy’s threatening to invade and we need to identify whether there’s any opportunity for a functional off ramp, and that doesn’t mean we do that in a vacuum and ignore the long-term consequences, but our problem is not a religious one, it’s a practical one. And I think they’re doing a pretty good job of threading the needle on that and being not too far forward and not too far back.

Blade: Do you see any significant daylight between the United States and Europe?

Baer: No, I mean, no more than the minimum that is possible. There’s a lot of talk about Germany these days. Look, I think some of the things they say are not particularly helpful, but I don’t actually think that in the long run, if Putin invaded, I don’t think that they would hold up sanctions or anything like that. So I think they’re on our side, even if they’re talking out of both sides, in some cases.

Blade: I am wise to the fact that this is a nuclear power. It might be a little old school, but could escalation get that far?

Baer: There can’t be war. There can’t be war between NATO and Russia. It should be avoided. Obviously, there can be, but it should be avoided.

Blade: How committed do you think President Biden is to protecting Ukraine?

Baer: Reasonably so. I think he’s enough of an old school trans-Atlantist that he understands that this isn’t just about Ukraine.

Blade: I was wondering because he had those comments from his press conference about “minor incursion” and I’m just wondering if you’re reading anything into that or not.

Baer: No, I think that was that was a — I think broadly speaking, everything he says is in line with the kind of view that you would expect. And of course, one sentence can catch [attention]. That wasn’t what he meant. What he meant was that he didn’t want to draw a “red line” that would prejudge policy in response to something short of the most extreme scenario.

I think it is a good caution to not obsess over a single sentence and to look at the broad considered policy statements.

Blade: What do you think if you were looking for developments, like what would you be looking out for is significant in terms of where we are going to be going in the near future? This is one thing to keep an eye out for but is there anything else that you are kind of looking out for in terms of the near future?

Baer: I guess I would look out for whether or not the United States joins meetings of the so-called Normandy Format, which is the France, Germany, Ukraine and Russia grouping, which has so far been unsuccessful, but I think can only be successful as the United States joins it, but the Russians, I think have misgivings with the idea of our joining it.

Blade: I’m not at all familiar with that. What makes this forum particularly so —

Baer: So it was started in the summer in like June of 2015, on the margins of some meeting between Merkel and Hollande. The French and the Germans are very committed to the idea that they might be able to mediate peace between Ukraine and Russia. It was supposed to implement the Minsk Agreement, and it just hasn’t been productive so far. I don’t think that the Russians will do anything — I don’t think the Ukrainians feel comfortable negotiating anything without the Americans at the table. And I don’t think the Russians feel like anything is guaranteed without the Americans at the table. So I just, I’m fine with France and Germany taking the lead, but I think the U.S. has to be there.

And there was a meeting of this group in Paris yesterday, and which the U.S. was supportive of, and so I’m watching to see whether or not the United States gets added in some ad hoc way, whether there are future meetings. I guess the reason I would watch it, if the U.S. were to join future meetings that would signal to me that it’s actually there’s some diplomacy happening there.

That’s meant to be focusing mainly on the existing Russian invasion, the occupation of the Donbas, so that’s not about the threat of the new invasion, but it would be interesting to me if there was forward movement on other parts of Ukraine. The announcement of the American ambassador is one. I think that last week movement of troops into Belarus was a game changer for the U.S., because there are all kinds of new implications if you’re using a third country as your launchpad for war, and so it complicates things and it also looks more serious if you’re starting to deploy to third countries and stuff like that. So I think that was that last week, you noticed a difference in the U.S. tone and tenor in response to that.

So things like that. But in general, like what I would do and I don’t think people always catch this is because there’s a boiling frog aspect to it. There are statements coming out from the White House or State Department. Almost every day on stuff related to this and like last week, there was a noticeable change in the tenor as the U.S. became less, I think more pessimistic about the prospects of diplomacy and those I don’t have anything better to look for in those statements as tea leaves, in terms of what the U.S. assessment is of the prospects of the escalation are, so it’s bad.

Blade: Right. That’s very sobering.

There’s a lot of talk, and I’ve just been seeing some like about in terms of, there’s like comparisons to Afghanistan and making sure that all Americans are able to get out of Ukraine. Is that comparing apples to oranges?

Baer: Yes.

Blade: And could you unpack that a little bit? I mean, I can kind of guess the reasons why. How is that apples to oranges?

Blade: Well, the level of development in Ukraine in terms of infrastructure and transport and stuff like that is not comparable to Afghanistan. I think it would be– if there were a Russian invasion–you would definitely want to, obviously, for safety reasons, it’s not safe to be in a war zone, so you would want people to be able to evacuate and you’d have to plan for that.

A major concern [in Afghanistan] was also that there were tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of locals who had worked for the Americans. The Americans that are in Ukraine are not a departing occupying power. There’s just not the same footprint there — the Americans are in Ukraine or there as business people or young [people working on] democracy assistance or whatever. And it’s just it’s a different context.

Blade: Why do you think the Russians put up with Putin? I mean, this is a country that was a world power and I would think has some economic potential just given its sheer size, first of all, and they do have oil to offer people. So why aren’t the Russians like angry at him for obstructing their participation in the global order as opposed to just putting up with him for years and years and years.

Baer: Successful instrumentalisation of cynicism. The lack of a belief in an alternative will keep you from fighting for it.

Blade: That’s pretty succinct.

Baer: I mean, I don’t think there’s any question that the people of Russia could be better off or different in terms of kitchen table issues, and ease of navigating the world, prospects for their future for their children’s future. The amount of money that Putin has invested into military modernization that Russia can ill afford, while he’s cut pensions and social services and health care. It’s just it’s objectively true that the average Russian person would be better served by a different leader. But he’s done a very good job of effectively selling off the country for profit and persuading people through repression and propaganda that there is no alternative.

Blade: And Putin won’t be around forever. Once he finally goes, is an alternative going to emerge, or will it be the next guy in Putin’s mold?

Baer: I think it’s far from clear that what comes after Putin isn’t worse and bloody. Regimes like this don’t reliably have stable transitions.

Blade: Wow, okay.

Baer: Yeah, we shouldn’t… we should be careful about wishing… wishing for his demise.

Blade: That’s good to know. It’s kind of a frightful note for me to end my questions. But actually before I sign off, there’s one more thing too because I do kind of want to talk about the intersection about your old job in democracy and human rights and then a Venn diagram of that with your experience in Eastern Europe in particular. Do you have a sense of what’s at stake for LGBTQ people in Ukraine or if they’re in more danger right now than they would be otherwise?

Baer: That’s a good question. I mean, my knee jerk reaction is yes. That — as mixed of a picture as Ukraine has been in the last seven years, or eight years — there have been meaningful steps forward, and certainly, in terms of visibility.

I guess, in the sense that Ukraine is better than Russia today, if you’re gay, if Russia is going to occupy or control Ukraine we can expect that it will get worse because it will become more like Russia.

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