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PASSAGES Writer, activist Paul Varnell dies
News update posted Dec. 10, 2011
by Tracy Baim, Windy City Times
2011-12-14

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Paul Varnell, a longtime columnist for the gay press, died Dec. 9 of complications from pneumonia and a stroke. He was 70.

Varnell, born April 16, 1942, in St. Louis, was the son of an attorney for the Pennsylvania Railroad, so his childhood was marked by a series of moves around the country. He graduated from Cornell University and attended graduate school in the mid-1960s at Indiana University in Bloomington.

Varnell taught for several years at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, but because he never completed his dissertation ( his specialty was Jonathan Swift ) , he never received tenure and eventually left his post. At Northern, he headed the education committee of the Gay/Lesbian Union from 1977 to 1982.

Ted Sigward, his friend from Indiana University, remained close to Varnell since their college coming-out days. Varnell visited Sigward in his Chicago home while still living in DeKalb. Varnell moved to Chicago around 1982.

Varnell held nontraditional jobs and began his activism in full force in Chicago. He was a board member of Parents and Friends of Gays in Chicago from 1983 to 1984; chaired the Media Committee of the Illinois Gay and Lesbian Task Force from 1983 to 1990 ( for part of that time he was also IGLTF's research director ) ; was a member of the Chicago AIDS Task Force from 1982 to 1990; was a co-founder of CARGO, the Chicago Area Gay Republican Organization, in 1984; and helped to promote the Gay History Month founding in 1994 ( some sources list him as co-founder, but he was not a founder of the event, though he was very supportive of the efforts ) .

Varnell was also appointed by Dr. Bernard Turnock, director of the Illinois Department of Public Health, to its AIDS Interdisciplinary Advisory Committee in 1985 ( he also lobbied for the creation of that committee ) . When Varnell was appointed, GayLife reported in its Dec. 5, 1985, edition that Varnell "had one of the best records of attendance at meetings of the Chicago Area AIDS Task Force. He has been in relentless communication with representative [ s ] of Abbott Labs, the New York Native, and other prominent organizations at the forefront of AIDS research."

In his AIDS work, Varnell took heat for advocating widespread testing for HTLV-III ( now known as HIV ) , but at the same time he and CARGO pushed strongly for confidentiality of the test results. In 1985, in his role with ILGTF, Varnell said there were legitimate reasons that some gay men would want to know their antibody status. Most gays were worried about discrimination against people testing positive, and there were no medications to take anyway. But Varnell argued that knowing their status could help gay men make better decisions about their health and sexual activity.

Varnell's tenure at IGLTF was marked by allegations of sexism within the group, as reflected in articles and letters to the editor of GayLife newspaper.

Varnell, who eventually turned his activism and letter-writing campaigns into a regular columnist role with Windy City Times newspaper, joined with fellow gay columnist Rex Wockner of the competing Outlines newspaper for a moment of journalist activism in 1989.

"Paul and I were good friends during my years in Chicago," Wockner said. "He was one of the most independent persons I ever have known. It wasn't easy to get close to him, and I figure I got as far as anyone did. He was a journalist, he was an opinion columnist, he was a thinker, he was a libertarian and, I think, a Libertarian, he was an intellectual. He liked classical music, he was a voracious reader. His columns raised the intelligence quotient of all the gay papers he appeared in. He was an activist, with IGLTF and other entities.

"He and I, as a journalistic exercise, tried to get a marriage license in Cook County in 1989. And when rebuffed, we filed human-rights complaints with the city and the state. We lost. We claimed sex discrimination but they told us it was sexual-orientation discrimination and that that wasn't illegal at that time in Illinois. The Sun-Times made a big story of our little effort. We turned down an invite to appear on Oprah. I suppose everyone is unique, but Paul was unlike anyone I've ever known. I think it was the degree of his independence and the degree of his self-sufficiency that stood out. He had very specific ideas about how he wanted to live his life—and that is exactly how he lived it, each day and without compromise."

"Paul Varnell was one of the first people to write about Lesbian & Gay History Month," said Kevin Boyer, former board chair for Gerber/Hart Library. "He recognized the role that Gerber/Hart Library played in the startup of that effort, and specifically wrote about me and the organizational work I put into it working with Rodney Wilson and Kevin Jennings. Those first weeks were filled with collecting information for teachers and librarians, and we would send out packets from Gerber/Hart for $5 to anyone who asked. Getting information, ideas and curriculum materials out was a key first strategy, along with getting politicians to acknowledge the work and set up proclamations. That was how I first connected with Paul, and I appreciate his effort to make sure that the role Kevin Jennings and I played was acknowledged, not being teachers or the guy who came up with the first idea ( Rodney ) ."

Longtime activist William B. Kelley also acknowledged the work of Varnell. "I liked Paul because he had intellectual breadth and erudition beyond me, and we shared tastes in music and ( sometimes ) politics," Kelley said. "Irascible, stubborn, hermitic, and endearingly Luddite he could be, but he was also a thinker and a social contributor who has already been missed during his declining health. I believe we met in Illinois Gay Rights Task Force days and had been infrequently but regularly in touch until his last year or so. Prior to that, while his eyesight was failing, I helped him edit some of his work. His columns and essays were often provocative and, I daresay, underappreciated by many readers as well as some of his publishers. Nevertheless, they deservedly attracted a national following, and they're worth rereading because of their many still-timely insights. His written work and the history of his political advocacy will carry on his memory."

"My first recollection of meeting Paul was some 30 years ago when he invited me to present a slide show on Chicago's gay history at a session of the [ American History Association ] having their annual meeting at the Hilton," said longtime activist and historian Marie J. Kuda. "Paul had laughing blue eyes and an extremely attractive, resonant voice—he could have been an actor instead of an academic. Along with my former landlord Jim Edminster he introduced me to Libertarian politics. Paul was a regular at Jim's annual October parties along with Jim Wickliff and Father Grant Gallup ( both gone now ) , and we would always cross paths at parades ( he in leather ) and events. But it was his intellect and writings that I admired most—I rarely missed a column of his, nor [ Jon-Henri ] Damski's; now they're both gone. But Paul was also a hands-on activist with a sense of history."

Mel Wilson, who served on IGLTF's board at the same time as Varnell, said he was sorry to hear about Varnell's death. "I have strong memories of him from 25 years ago working together on the IGLTF board ( in the days when Al Wardell was co-chair ) . He was an inspiration to me for his good heart and clear writing, although I didn't agree with his Libertarian political views," Wilson said.

Fellow CARGO activist Tim Drake said that while Varnell played a public role as a journalist, a board member of IGLTF, and the community's representative on the Illinois AIDS Interdisciplinary Advisory Council, "his most important service to our community was known to few: He tirelessly and honestly tutored the mainstream media about us, without attribution. In a community known for inflated egos, he was the quiet professor, happiest when able to hide at home with a stack of books and WFMT."

This media activism was evidenced by mainstream journalists who commented about Varnell's impact on their work.

"Paul became a friend years ago as a source and guide when I was a reporter at the Chicago Sun-Times in the late 1980s and early 1990s," said Tom Brune. "One of his best ideas was to try to get a marriage license with Rex Wockner from Cook County more than two decades ago. The response—gay marriage? Never! He'll be missed. … Paul played an important role as a contact through the Illinois Gay and Lesbian Task Force for reporters like me two decades ago. For two years I was assigned to cover HIV and AIDS, and he put me in touch with everyone from Jon-Henri Damski to Dr. Ron Sable."

Susy Schultz said she knew Varnell in the late 1980s when she was covering the politics and social-service issues of the gay community for the Sun-Times. "He was a quirky and generous soul with a real passion and intellect," she said. "He shared ideas, time, information and stories as well his gift of connecting people—always to help forward issues he held dear. He had so many fascinating layers to him, all of which were passionate. He was also just a fun person. The world is a little more dull without him."

Former GayLife newspaper reporter Karlis Streips said Varnell "was one of the smartest people I have ever known, he wrote wonderful essays and commentary, and he took no guff or nonsense from anyone."

In the 1980s, Varnell was very active not just meeting with and assisting journalists in the mainstream media. He also wrote numerous letters to the editor, especially of the Tribune and the Sun-Times, criticizing what he saw as anti-gay coverage of the community ( including coverage of bar raids where patrons' names were listed ) . He would copy these letters to GayLife and later Windy City Times, and they would run in the gay media, just in case the mainstream papers ignored the plea for better coverage. Varnell also participated in editorial meetings at mainstream papers. Even in 2005 he was still criticizing mainstream media, when he wrote to the Tribune questioning its use of two men dancing together to illustrate an article on the Gay Games ( which does include ballroom dancing among its competitions ) .

While his activism peaked in the late 1980s, Varnell found his true voice as a columnist in gay media, especially with Windy City Times in the 1990s. He was among the writers and other staff who left WCT in 1999 to start Chicago Free Press, and he was a columnist there until the paper fired him, for economic reasons, in late 2009, a few months before it folded.

His often-conservative political views were well known around the country, and frequently his columns would provoke angry letters. In a column posted on outonline.com, Pittsburgh's Out newspaper, March 2010, he said: "I have no quarrel with various sorts of 'trans' people and I wish them well. But I cannot see any justifiable grounds for their inclusion in the gay movement or in the acronym LGBT. Transpeople have different issues from gays and it is important to keep those distinctions in mind." He also objected to the use of the word "queer" by the gay movement.

His column was syndicated to other gay papers, and his work also appeared in Reason magazine, the Advocate, Lambda Book Report, the Chicago Reader, and the books Beyond Queer and The Bedford Guide for College Writers.

Varnell had a "prickly" personality, Sigward said, but in their 46 years as friends, they never had an argument, despite some differing views. "My friendship with him was really very independent of all of that activism and writing," he said. "He and I had some things in common—a love of music, interest in political philosophy, which we largely shared, and a long history."

Kit Duffy, Mayor Harold Washington's liaison to the gay community in the 1980s, said Paul "was a private man, determined to preserve his image as a curmudgeon, and so I won't disclose the specific acts of caring and compassion he offered me over the years, especially at the time of Harold Washington's death. I loved him, I will treasure his memory and for those who cared for him over this last year I have the utmost gratitude."

Several people mentioned columns by Varnell that they remembered, including one about Valentine's Day that seemed out of character for Varnell. "You might think [ Valentine's ] was an unlikely topic for him," said friend Gregory Nigosian. "We were wrong. He was a sentimentalist all along. He just tried to hide it, usually. I still cry whenever I read it."

Nigosian also related a story about Varnell's popularity as a columnist. "We were talking on a street corner ( I think it was near the Belmont el ) , and some young woman came by and waved, and he waved back. I think I must have raised an eyebrow, because he said it happens all the time. He remembered one time when a young woman came up to him, thinking she knew him, and asked, 'Didn't you use to be Mr. Varnell?' ( a reference to life as a philosophy teacher at Northern Illinois University ) . I guess he no longer looked like what a 'Mr. Varnell' should look like."

Sun-Times columnist Neil Steinberg wrote about Varnell after he was let go by Free Press. His piece read in part: "Think about being a gay columnist. Many gay men can't bear to tell their family, their closest friends, about their orientation, still, even to this day, and not without reason, given the various fears and hatreds they expose themselves to. And here's Paul, parsing the details of his personal life, his HIV-positive status, the issues facing the community.

"And not in a doctrinaire way—it's easy to serve a minority group by pandering to it, by defending its every step and misstep. Paul is too smart for that, and often wondered whether it was a false generalization to even speak of a gay community at all."

Varnell often spoke with friends about performing sex for money. In a column posted on outonline.com in March 2010, Varnell defended the practice: "I do not understand why men engaging in sex for money ( 'prostitution' ) is illegal. I suspect that most commercial sex laws were instituted to prevent the exploitation of women. But I am unaware of any analogous cases of the exploitation of men. It seems to be a law that catches men in its purview as if by accident. When I was younger ( and better looking ) , I occasionally accepted money for sex. It was a useful income supplement and harmed no one. When I have mentioned this to other gay men, quite a number have said, 'Oh yeah, I've done that.' One man paid his way through graduate school that way."

Rick Sincere, president of Gays and Lesbians for Individual Liberty, in Charlottesville, Va., emailed some memories about Varnell.

"I first met Paul Varnell at the Libertarian Party national convention, which was held in Chicago over Labor Day weekend in 1991," Sincere said. "A small group of libertarian activists who were also gay or lesbian met in a hotel suite. In those pre-email, pre-Internet days, it was difficult enough to make connections among libertarians ( a political minority ) , much less among gay libertarians ( a minority within a minority ) . So the gathering had special significance, especially among those of us who were just coming out publicly, beyond a small circle of friends into a larger circle of political acquaintances, journalists and politicians.

"From that brief meeting came a long and eventually well-developed network of what we now call LGBT libertarian activists. Paul was not so much a political organizer—that role fell to others—but he was an intellectual dynamo within the group. Once we began to communicate with each other over long distances via email and eventually Facebook and other social networks, Paul's thoughts on the issues of the day, arts, culture, public opinion trends ( and much more ) became the trenchant highlight of any conversation, whether long-distance and virtual or in person.

"I remember once, when I was on a business trip to Chicago, asking Paul to join me for lunch. I arrived at the restaurant in the buttoned-down drag typical of the Washington think-tank scene; Paul arrived a few minutes later in full leather from cap to boots. Culturally disorienting to me at first, within a few minutes I was so absorbed in our conversation that the external dissonance evaporated.

"Paul was a man of many and varied interests. He could discourse with equal facility about the philosophy of Friedrich Hayek or the latest superhero comic books. He could review a book of art photography, describe an opera recording or analyze the latest public-opinion data about issues of concern to the gay community.

"I always appreciated his annual articles about the survey of entering freshmen into U.S. colleges and universities. Nobody but Paul was able to discern sometimes subtle trends in those polls, often portending monumental changes in attitudes toward gay men and lesbians. Today's greater acceptance of ideas about equal marriage rights and the end of Don't Ask, Don't Tell were visible to Paul years ago in those freshmen surveys, but other researchers and journalists, looking at other questions and concerned about other issues, didn't see the trends."

Survivors include his father, Paul Varnell Sr., and stepmother, Kathryn Varnell, his friends Ted Sigwald and Greg Nigosian, and other relatives and friends. There are no plans for a memorial, but donations can be made in his name to Howard Brown Health Center.


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