A memorial service was held for Paul Varnell at the Leather Archives and Museum Sunday. Those gathered remembered Varnell as an out-spoken and often controversial individualist, but one who also was rather reclusive and preferred to work behind the scenes.
It is hard to say how many people were close to Varnell, though he was by all accounts a connector and collaborator. Because of this, much of Varnell’s original work scattered among those associated with him and attendees his memorial service has prompted some to consider forming a central archive.
The memorial itself was an open and honest discussion of Varnell in his many incarnations, as an unapologetic sex worker, as a libertarian thinker and writer and as a gay media advocate for the non-LGBT press.
“Paul took on a media advocacy campaign to teach the straight media about gay culture … It was a day and night difference in the major papers because of his efforts,” said Dr. David Ostrow.
Ostrow recounted how Varnell would take reporters out to gay bars and connect them with the wider community.
Varnell was also a supporter of PFLAG and organized many meetings there. His commitment to the idea of civil inclusion and assimilation of gays drew him to similar moments throughout his life. He liked to connect various people rather than being the figure himself.
This was a theme repeated at the memorial service. That while Varnell was often described as a “curmudgeon,” he connected many people together and was an early pioneer of the idea of syndicated columnists for the gay community. Varnell himself was a regular columnist for Windy City Times, Chicago Reader and Chicago Free Press for many years.
Tracy Baim, who was at Windy City Times with Varnell, spoke a little about how he would often cause controversy with his opinions. Baim gave the example of Varnell’s shifting views on the transgender community and towards the end of his career said that the transgender community was an equal but separate issue.
These kinds of comments did not gain Varnell favor to the wider activist community, though this suited him just fine according to many.
Outside of his columnist work, he had a propensity to work behind the scenes and his reclusive nature made him a unique figure in activism. Many of those gathered lamented that this has resulted in his impact being overlooked by many who were not close to him.
“He never wanted to be on the front line,” Ostrow said. “He would do the research for you and then shove you in front of the camera. He never wanted to be credited and we need to thank him.”
His often unpopular opinions and political affiliations were openly discussed at the memorial. Varnell was one of the founders of a gay Republican group that was a forerunner to the Log Cabin Republicans. However, the affiliation with the Republican Party only went as far as his libertarian commitment.
This libertarian edge often was the source of intense but measured debate among early activists. Varnell was and early part of the Illinois Gay and Lesbian Task Force and would be the reliable dissent to the left leaning members, many of whom were present and had glowing things to say of Varnell despite political differences.
Varnell thus had debates with on topics ranging from condom use and sexual freedom in the gay community to his distrust of anti-discrimination laws.
“He was adamantly against anti-discrimination laws, worrying about being stuck at the level of victimization of an identity group,” said Kit Duffy, who was involved in IGALTF with Varnell. “He was always in favor is assimilation.”
Milan Vydareny remembered Varnell coming to him with an idea to set up a website, the Independent Gay Forum, which would be an alternative to the “left-orthodoxy” of LGBT activism at the time.
The website has long since been out of the hands of Vydareny, who was able to save an archive of over two hundred of Varnell’s articles and intends to find a way to make them publicly accessible once again.
There are others who have various stockpiles of Varnell’s personal effects. However, there are legal ownership and copyright matters to be sorted out before an archive can be formed. Varnell had no written will, but has a surviving mother, who may hold the copyrights at this time.
The memorial ended with a fitting comment by Andrew Patner, a Chicago-based journalist and art critic.
“Paul would appreciate the levels of irony today. We’re in a former synagogue made into a careful academic archive of leather on tax day.”