Tributes are rolling in for one of the pioneers of gay journalism in Chicago and nationwide, Paul Varnell. He was 70.
Tracy Baim of the Windy City Times–where Varnell was a columnist in the 1990s–has a great obituary and tribute.
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.
His friend and former colleague Rex Wockner also has a nice reflection:
Paul 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 and opera, he was a voracious reader. His columns raised the intelligence quotient of all the gay papers he appeared in. He was an activist, with Illinois Gay & Lesbian Task Force and other entities.
There’s also a great column by Chicago Sun-Times columnist Neil Steinberg:
“Think about being a gay columnist,” I wrote in 2009, when he was let go from his last paper due to budget cuts. “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.”
He’s also being remembered at the Independent Gay Forum which he founded and served as the editor, providing a space for some of the most well-known conservative and libertarian gay and lesbian writers and thinkers.
I’ve always been a fan of Varnell’s work. He has the spirit of a gadfly and activist, challenging both the non-LGBT and LGBT worlds. Even if you didn’t agree with his opinions–and many didn’t–it was hard not to appreciate that he was a brilliant writer and thinker. He also belongs to that tradition of activists/journalists that helped create the LGBT press, challenging journalists in the mainstream press to ask harder questions and examine stereotypes. He was the type of activist and writer who showed up at every meeting holding people accountable and taking notes. By creating IGF, he also created an environment and model for conservative and libertarian gay and lesbian journalists and thinkers, including Jonathan Rauch, Bruce Bawer, Dale Carpenter, and Andrew Sullivan.