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Paul Varnell. Photograph by Rex Wockner, courtesy rexwockner.com.
Chicago activist and journalist Paul Varnell died on December 9, 2011 of complications from pneumonia and a stroke. A columnist for Outlines, Windy City Times, and Chicago Free Press, he also served in a variety of capacities as a member of the Illinois Gay and Lesbian Task Force and the Chicago AIDS Task Force. His work appeared in Reason, the Advocate, Lambda Book Report, the Chicago Reader, and some anthologies. In addition, he was a founder of the Independent Gay Forum.
Varnell was born April 16, 1942 in St. Louis. He graduated from Cornell University and attended graduate school in English at Indiana University. He taught for several years at Northern Illinois University, but because he never completed his dissertation, he never received tenure and eventually lost his position there.
Varnell moved to Chicago in the early 1980s, and threw himself into gay and AIDS activism. In the 1990s, he began writing for the Chicago gay press.
Varnell was a friend of fellow journalist Rex Wockner, who were fellow columnists for the now-defunct Outlines. Wockner described Varnell as "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."
Varnell was a founder of the Independent Gay Forum, which was intended to give voice to a gay conservative point of view, and for several years edited their website.
Fellow contributor to the Independent Gay Forum, Jonathan Rauch described Varnell as "exceptionally thoughtful and decent. It seemed as if there was nothing that didn't interest him, nothing he didn't know something about. . . . in his quiet way he was a pioneer and leader among those who made the world safe to be non-leftist and gay . . . partly through the power of his logic, partly through the gentleness of his touch."
Varnell is survived by his father and stepmother and his friends Ted Sigwald and Greg Nigosian, among other relatives and friends.
For more information about Varnell and his activism in Chicago, see Tracy Baim's story about him in Windy City Times: Paul Varnell.