Karen Ocamb

Gay Syndicated Writer Paul Varnell Has Died

Filed By Karen Ocamb | December 13, 2011 4:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Gay Icons and History, Living, Marriage Equality, Media
Tags: Frontiers magazine, gay writers, Paul Varnell, Windy City Times

When I first started freelancing for Frontiers magazine in the late 1980s/early 1990s, I was intrigued that the gay publication printed opinion pieces from conservatives and people who were more independent-minded than most of the left-leaning gay community. PaulVarnell-Rex.jpgI didn't know that the late publisher Bob Craig was a Republican until one-time "moderate" Republican Gov. Pete Wilson vetoed the gay rights bill he promised to sign. Bob quit the GOP and became something of a mash-up between libertarian/independent/Democrat.

Paul Varnell (Photo by Rex Wockner)

Perhaps the most prominent consistent voice for libertarian/independents on the Frontiers opinion page was Paul Varnell, a one-time academic-turned-activist-turned-columnist, mostly for the Windy City Times. Some of Paul's columns would drive liberals and leftists crazy. There were angry letters to the editor and even some staffers would throw up their hands, vexed beyond words.

But that's what made a Paul Varnell column so interesting to read: he made you think, especially if you disagreed with him. He forced you to analyze why you disagreed. For those of us who think thinking is fun, it was a great intellectual exercise that often yielded new thoughts.

Paul Varnell died on Friday, Dec. 9, of complications from pneumonia and a stroke. He was 70. Windy City Times publisher Tracy Baim has a terrific piece about him, including background on his life and comments from some who knew or worked with him.

Rex Wockner also has a blog up with photos. Two decades ago, in 1989, in what Rex calls a journalistic exercise, the two gay friends tried to get married in Chicago. Interestingly enough, that's roughly around the same time The New Republic's Andrew Sullivan also started agitating on marriage rights for same sex couples.

News clipping courtesy Rex Wockner

Varnell co-founded the Independent Gay Forum blog with the subtitle "Forging a Gay Mainstream." Among the writers there are some of the LGBT community's leading intellectual conservatives, including longtime gay rights attorney David Link, writers Jonathan Rauch and John Corvino, law professor Dale Carpenter and blogger-in-chief, Stephen H. Miller, a self-described "recovering progressive."

One example of a jaw-dropping Varnell column with which I took immediate umbrage was "Harry Hay: One Big Idea," which originally appeared Oct. 30, 2002, in the Chicago Free Press. Harry Hay, the founder of the Mattachine Society and widely believed to be the "father" of the modern gay rights movement, was my neighbor in WeHo and one of my teachers when I segued over from mainstream journalism to the gay media. Here's what Varnell wrote, in part:

"Hay had one big idea. After reading Kinsey and recalling a short-lived Chicago gay organization in the 1920s Hay decided that homosexuals should form an organization to advance their interests. And he had the courage and perseverance to create one. But for the rest, his ideas seem now, from a distance of 50 years, largely without merit.....

Most of us today probably realize that the purpose of our individual life is whatever we want it to be and that we can insist on respect as gay individuals whether or not being gay contributes to our purpose. The idea that gays need to justify our existence as gays falsely assumes that reproduction is itself a justification the lack of which gays need to compensate for.

Hay may have been wrong about almost everything. But in the end we do not insist that founders have the right answers, not even ask the right questions. We can honor them as founders and leave it at that."

His friends and associates repeatedly describe Varnell as an "old curmudgeon" and proud of it. And yet - under that tough exterior beat the heart of a sentimentalist, as indicated by his column "A Valentine's Story," written Nov. 30, 1999.

But here is a Varnell column with which I completely agree, as you might understand: "Defending the Value of the Gay Press" - originally published in the March 7, 2007 edition of the Chicago Free Press. I re-post it here in full from the Press Pass Q newsletter of that month:

Every few years, someone announces that the gay press is obsolete. Once it was because the mainstream daily papers were doing a fine job of covering gay issues. Then it was because the Associated Press was already providing ample coverage so gay newspapers were unnecessary.

Now, in last month's issue of Press Pass Q in an article entitled, "Merger mania: Is media synergy a good thing for the GLBT press?," Prof. Larry Gross, director of the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School of Communication, announces, “I don’t see the gay press serving any important political or cultural function for the community anymore."

“The Internet is much more effective because it is there all the time,” Gross explained. “The gay press can’t compete in terms of news value. It used to be that the gay press was essential, that you couldn’t find this information anywhere else.”

Well, it wasn’t true then and it isn’t true now. I don’t know how much of the gay press Gross sees for comparison, but if he is depending on the Internet for his gay news and “culture,” I dare say he is missing quite a lot.

One obvious reason is that the very virtue of the Internet -- that no one is in charge -- means that information is widely dispersed, so it is impossible to find relatively comprehensive coverage of gay news and culture at just one or a few websites. You have to do a lot of searching on different websites to hope that you are getting a good overview. Even then, you cannot be sure.

Another is that a good deal of information on the Internet, from blogs to organizational and institutional websites, is selective, partisan or biased in a wide variety of ways. No one has the responsibility of making a judicious blending of viewpoints and perspectives, including the known facts that may be favorable to the various perspectives.

Without the constant pressure of a daily deadline, gay newspapers have the time to develop a story providing pertinent background information and context that the breathless -- “This just happened!” -- rush of most Internet coverage seems to have neither the time nor inclination for. And the Internet then abandons each story for the next thing that just happened this moment.

Third, and vitally important to notice, is that most Internet sites and the individual or groups running them simply lack the economic means to do much serious journalism, whether news or culture. The hunting down of facts, the examination of documents and the grilling of politicians and advocacy group spokespeople (not just publishing press releases), takes time and someone has to be paid to do that. And “someone” seldom is.

The gay press can act as a widely available advocacy mechanism for gay issues in a way that websites do not have the clout to do. It can lure electoral candidates to submit to interviews and publish the results. It can push gay issues that are being neglected. It can shame homophobes in a way that the mainstream press seldom does and websites have little impact to do effectively.

And a good deal of news and -- even more -- culture never makes it to the Internet at all, so people have no idea what they are missing. It takes time to go to a gay play or concert and write a cogent evaluation, to read a book of gay history, psychology, or sociology and write a thoughtful review, to go to an exhibit by a gay artist and write judiciously about it. Few people have the (a) time, (b) commitment, and (c) background knowledge to do that for free or for the pittance a website might pay.

The gay press also serves as one of the few centripetal influences in a gay/lesbian community that constantly threatens to fragment into mutually non-communicating subgroups. It provides everyone with the same mix of information, evaluation, and opinion rather than leaving gays and lesbians to access such widely divergent sources that they have little in common. The gay press may not provide the final word, but it does provide a common starting point.

Finally, the gay press serves as a community bulletin board in a way that websites have not (yet) become. Drawing on my own experience, after I wrote a column about the need for a gay artists group, I got numerous e-mail responses from gay artists, and those became the nucleus of what is now a thriving organization. More artists contacted us after announcements of the first meeting. But if I had posted some notice about an artists group at some website, who knows whether gay artists would have stumbled upon it?

Jonathan Rauch ended his Sunday, Dec. 11 blog remembrance of Paul Varnell with: "Goodbye, Paul. You were a good man and you made a difference."

Yes - and thank you for nudging me to think differently.

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