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Guest Column

Reader's Digest Redux
By Patricia Nell Warren


When I saw the mighty powers of the Reader's Digest and the Bible invoked against homosexuals in a recent column, I couldn't help smiling. I worked for the Reader's Digest as a book editor from 1964 to 1981, at the corporate headquarters in Chappaqua, N.Y. Yes, the Reader's Digest has published articles disapproving of homosexuality. In 1973 I came out to other staffers -- and lived to tell the tale.

Yes, the Digest have published many articles disapproving of homosexuality. And yes, the Digest, like many conservative media companies, has employed gay people -- more or less knowingly. I was among them.

The Bible is one thing, and real life is another.

"The solid-gold salt mine," we called the company. Those were different days, most media located in or near New York City, the word "media" just coming into being, and a handful of giants like the Digest in control. What else did a girl do with a B.A. in English lit in those days, except hope for an entry-level job in publishing?

There, in that bucolic Westchester landscape, on my lunch hours in 1973, on the brink of coming out, I labored over a novel about closet gay love in the sports world. I called it "The Front Runner" and kept it in a locked bottom drawer. Next spring, when it was published by William Morrow, I outed myself, in effect. The outing ceremony was completed by my statement to a New York Post reporter, about relationships with women. Since all my colleagues read the Manhattan press, the big secret was all over the company next day.

Shortly that "Front Runner" hardback leaped onto the bestseller list, and a year later was still selling briskly in Bantam paperback. All the while, some RD eyebrows were raised, for sure. But surprisingly, no one tried to burn me at the stake in the company parking lot. In fact, the company magazine "Pegasus" actually did a little article on my bestseller. I went on working there for another 6 years, on both the magazine staff and Condensed Book Club, and had many piquant adventures...like being sent to interview Merle Miller, after the Digest decided to condense this gay writer's biography of Truman.

Finally I left in 1981, having landed a book contract with Random House that led me to greener pastures. My CB buddies gave me a send-off party and many blessings.

Whether some Americans can accept it or not, we homosexuals are everywhere. We belong to everybody's families, and everybody's companies, and everybody's organizations. Many of us still stay hidden because of the terrible penalties for getting caught. Our society has chosen to live by the rules in a book compiled 2000 years ago, and the enforcers of those rules have tried to make us buckle. For centuries, they've tried torture, public execution, humiliation, blackmail, institutionalizing, shock treatment, prison, shame, unemployment, taking away your children. All things considered, I was treated royally by the Digest.

But the enforcers always fail. We always come back, like the geese in spring.

Oh yes, the shame, pain, horror, etc. do get to some of us. Some of us choose -- yes, choose -- to try and stop being gay. I tried -- for 16 years, while working there in the solid gold mine -- young career woman, coming and going in that 70s maxi-coat, with that heavy briefcase chained to my wrist. After I came out, I often lunched with another woman staffer, who was a newly out 24-carat rebel like me. The two of us sat at a corner table in the RD cafeteria, and talked of the hair-raising try -- giving heterosexual marriage our best shot for many years. We even reached the point where we could laugh about it.

Today "The Front Runner" is still in print, and I have to smile at all the sermonizing about evil gays -- the dramatic pointings to this and that verse. The thunderings in that ancient bundle of writings, which were edited and re-edited so many times, don't mean anything to me. You see, working at the Digest taught me of the power of an editor's pencil.

There is the fact of countless thousands of writers, translators and editors who labored over the Bible through so many centuries. Some people talk about the Bible as if it was never touched by human hands, or fought over -- or jimmied by a whole train of church councils, who put things in and took things out. I took things in and out of books for 16 years, and it taught me something unforgettable (a favorite Digest word) about the vast power that I had -- just one person at a solid-gold desk -- to change one single word in a text. Through changing that word, I could skew a whole paragraph or article. I could slightly twist 28 million minds (the number of Digest subscribers at that time). After all, didn't those people "have faith in Reader's Digest"? Didn't they believe everything they read?

In my opinion, any Deity -- Goddess and God -- who is smart enough to create the Universe, and all the laws in it, is also smart enough not to lock Truth in a book where people can mess with it.

Of all the things I learned in the solid gold salt mine, that illumination was the biggest nugget that I carried away.


Patricia Nell Warren is the author of the gay literary classic The Front Runner. She is also the advisor to The YouthArts Project. She can be reached online at WildcatPrs@AOL.COM. Article reprinted with author's permission.
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