This last Friday, 70-year-old LGBT advocate and journalist Paul Varnell died of complications with pneumonia and a stroke. His obituary at Windy City Times pay respects to his activism and intellect, but also includes some great bits about Varnell applying for a same-sex marriage license in 1989, ticking off readers by wanting to cut trans people from the LGBT movement and his younger days as a sex worker. Now let’s pay our respect to the man, warts and all.
First off, Varnell spent most of the 80s and early 90s working as an LGBT advocate:
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.
He also tried to get married to fellow gay journalist Rex Wockner back in 1989. According to Wockner:
“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.”
And while Rick Sincere, president of Gays and Lesbians for Individual Liberty, remembers Varnell as “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.
…the obituary makes sure to point out that Varnell’s well-known “often-conservative political views” and columns would often “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.”
But on the more liberal side, Varnell was also okay with male sex work:
“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.”
In an age where we need bold LGBT activists and journalists more than ever and where our Facebook and Manhunt accounts threaten to doom our runs for the Presidency forever, we give homage to Varnell; a guy who Wockner says, “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.”