Saturday, December 10, 2011

Paul Varnell: RIP

Paul Varnell: RIP

Some Reflections on the Passing of an Old Friend

The Passing of Paul Varnell

Paul Varnell
Paul Varnell passed from this life on December 9, 2011 sometime in the afternoon. He had been experiencing a decline in health for some time and those of us who knew and cared were certainly prepared for what will be the final journey for all of us. It is inevitable when faced with the loss of a friend, no matter how much anticipated, that we stop to reflect a little on the life of the lost traveler and our own interactions over the years we knew, worked, played and enjoyed each other’s company. In Paul’s case it is a complex story; Paul was in some ways a complex man while in others he was crystal clear and transparent, never wavering from a strongly held set of values and ethics.

What follows are some of the highlights of my own interactions with Paul over time along with some notes about a few of his other noteworthy activities. I’m sure that many others will have relevant information to add to the story.

Paul is gone but I hope he will not be forgotten. His life is a model for many of the best characteristics of a man worthy of adoption and emulation by us all. His legacy is substantial.

His friends miss him greatly.

Independent Gay Forum

I first became involved with Paul in the 1990s. My own partner of 13 years died in 1994 and my life drifted to and fro without much direction. Bruce Bawer published Beyond Queer: Challenging Gay Left Orthodoxy in 1996. Beyond Queer included a number of essays by Paul along with others penned by Bruce Bawer, Stephen H. Miller, Andrew Sullivan, Jonathan Rauch, Mel Dahl, Stephen H. Chapman, David Link, Norah Vincent and David Boaz. With Bawer’s and the original authors’ permission we established a website to publish some of the essays contained in the book along with other work from other sources. Paul became the Independent Gay Forum’s first editor while I managed the technical aspects, becoming its first webmaster.

Over time Paul contributed many articles to the IGF website. I still have what I believe to be a complete archive of all of Paul’s articles now that the IGF has evolved into a different kind of program.

My own life took a different path toward the end of the 1990s and I turned my IGF responsibilities over to more capable hands while remaining an interested observer and avid reader of IGF content.

Around 2010 the IGF reevaluated its program and concluded that a shift in emphasis was in order. The IGF Culture Watch — IGF Culture Watch website explains it best:

IGF Culture Watch emerged from the Independent Gay Forum project. The original IGF project was created by a group of gay writers, academics, attorneys, and activists who felt dissatisfied with the then current level of discussion of gay-related issues. A great deal has been accomplished in the less than two decades since IGF was formed. Gay issues are now very much mainstream. The left-wing has lost much of its once exclusive grip on gay issues. Gays are now taking their place at the American political and cultural table, as equals, instead of as political pawns. With these advances, it was decide that The Independent Gay Forum should be downgraded from a formal 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization to a watch-keeper blog site, IGF Culture Watch.

 We still hold the following goals and values:

·        We support the full inclusion of gays and lesbians in civil society with legal equality and equal social respect. We argue that gays and lesbians, in turn, contribute to the creativity, robustness, and decency of our national life.

·        We share a belief in the fundamental virtues of the American system and its traditions of individual liberty, personal moral autonomy and responsibility, and equality before the law. We believe those traditions depend on the institutions of a market economy, free discussion, and limited government.

·        We deny conservative claims that gays and lesbians pose any threat to social morality or the political order.

·        We equally oppose progressive claims that gays should support radical social change or restructuring of society.

·        We share an approach, but we disagree on many particulars. We include libertarians, limited-government conservatives, moderates, and classical liberals. We hold differing views on the role of government, personal morality, religious faith, and personal relationships. We share these disagreements openly: we hope that readers will find them interesting and thought-provoking.


Paul Varnell was, if anything, the epitome of a gay activist. He was a long-time columnist for more than one gay newspaper in Chicago and his columns also appeared in other gay publications from coast to coast. It is perhaps for his writing as it appeared in print and on the internet that Paul will be best remembered.

But Paul was much more than a writer. He was also a leader, although he would probably dispute that assertion. With his quiet, polite and gentle style Paul achieved much on behalf of gay advancement over the years. I found a sampling of some of his activities in a short biography that appears on the Internet at Paul Varnell: "The controversy over poppers".

Paul Varnell writes a weekly column for the Chicago Free Press and other gay newspapers.

He has also written for Reason magazine, the Advocate, Lambda Book Report, and the Chicago Reader. Some of his essays were included in Beyond Queer (Free Press, 1996) and The Bedford Guide for College Writers (Bedford, 1999).

Varnell has been involved in gay advocacy for more than two decades. He headed the education committee of the Gay/Lesbian Union in DeKalb, Illinois, 1977-1982, was a board member of Parents and Friends of Gays in Chicago, 1983-84; and chaired the Media Committee of the Illinois Gay and Lesbian Task Force in Chicago, 1983-1990. He was a co-founder of Gay History Month in 1994.

 He was a member of the Chicago AIDS Task Force and was appointed to the Illinois Department of Health's AIDS Advisory Committee. His areas of interest include classical music, gay history, political philosophy, libertarian theory, and socio-economic analysis.

Many of Paul Varnell’s previous columns are posted at the Independent Gay Forum.

In 2004 I joined Paul in protesting the appearance of the Jamaican reggae artist Capleton, whose patois lyrics of violence, murder and hate target gays and lesbians. The Chicago Tribune reported the protest at Anti-gay reggae - Chicago Tribune. This movement against all reggae artists spreading hate and violence has continued to the present. A small compendium of concert cancellations that resulted from these protests can be seen at Murder Inna Dancehall: Bounty Killer Concerts Cancelled.

This is only my personal involvement with one of Paul’s activities. He was constantly aware of the cutting edge of gay activism and the progress of the gay movement toward full equality and inclusion in society.

Personal Life

Paul was a generally private individual. His personal involvements were not shared with a wide audience. Yet there are certain parts of Paul’s interaction with others that cast a brilliant light on Paul Varnell the human being and illustrate the great kindness and affection he had for others. New York Journalist Jennifer Vanasco writes:

What I loved best about Paul was his unrelenting kindness. Paul was encouraging of me very early in my career. When he thought I got something wrong in print or in person, he pointed it out in the most gentle possible way. He was a great sounding board and warm friend. What I miss most, already, is him calling in his deliciously rounded voice, saying “Hello, it's Paul Varnell,” as if we shared a joke, or were about to.

I was proud to share an op-ed page with him for 15 years at our Chicago paper. Any libertarian tendencies I have I owe to him and his gentle and thoughtful persuasion.

I miss him already.
Unrelenting kindness.” What greater tribute might one ask as a remembrance? I can offer nothing to surpass Vanasco’s description of Paul’s most memorable characteristic. I, too, was the recipient of Paul’s gentle persuasion and kindness.


Paul leaves behind a legacy of what it means to be an effective activist whether that be for gay causes or otherwise. His gentle, polite and rational approach to issues will long stand as a model to those who follow.

Paul’s philosophy and activism is well preserved in his numerous articles and essays available from many sources.

Likewise, his early efforts as the Editor of the Independent Gay Forum leaves behind a strong legacy of quality internet journalism that has grown and evolved over the years into what remains a strong and important voice for the advancement of gay and lesbian rights.

Paul’s early efforts on behalf of Gay History Month are mentioned in the Wikipedia article LGBT History Month - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Begun in 1994 this month-long celebration remains with us today and in 2005 similar observances were initiated in England and Scotland. Since these early efforts, interest in gay history has seen progressively greater attention. In Chicago Tracy Baim, Publisher and Executive Editor of Windy City Media Group Gay Lesbian Bisexual and Trans News, launched the Chicago Gay History website that features an extensive series of video histories of prominent gay Chicagoans. In one such video Activist Tim Drake recounts how he and Paul accompanied two reporters from Chicago’s mainstream press to a downtown gay bar for after-work cocktails and even to a Mr. Chicago Leather competition in their efforts to educate and inform the non-gay community about gay culture and issues.

Doubtless other examples of Paul’s lasting legacy will be found as time passes. There will likely be a public memorial service to celebrate and recount the life of Paul Varnell. Paul is gone, but his memory will live on and in all probability easily exceed my own lifetime and the lifetimes of those yet unborn.

Thank you, Paul. It was an honor and privilege to know you, work with you and learn from you.

May you rest in peace.