Journalist, activist Paul Varnell dies at 70

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Paul Varnell, activist and journalist. – Photo: Jason Smith /

Veteran gay Chicago activist and journalist Paul Varnell died Dec. 9 at the age of 70.

Varnell died of complications associated with pneumonia and a stroke.

Colleagues — in the press and from the protests — remembered Varnell as an independent thinker, a loyal friend, an ardent activist, a devout atheist, a valued mentor to LGBT youth and a meticulous, thorough writer. He kept a detailed notebook in which he jotted and developed his many column ideas.

Varnell worked with WiG editors Louis Weisberg and Lisa Neff for more than a decade in Chicago, first at the original Windy City Times and then at the Chicago Free Press, an LGBT weekly they helped to create in 1999. When WiG launched in 2009, Varnell helped, serving as one of the newspaper's first columnists.

His op-ed pieces were syndicated in other LGBT newspapers, as well as online at the Independent Gay Forum, a website that Varnell founded to feature some of the nation's most prominent LGBT columnists.

Varnell's writings touched on familiar topics – gays in the military, the freedom to marry, bullying in schools, equality in the workplace, acceptance in homes, progress in political arenas.

But he began writing on those topics years ago, in the earlier days of the LGBT press, and he wrote from a unique, extraordinary perspective – he was a proud, gentle, gay, libertarian.

Varnell also was an avid reader, opera enthusiast and leatherman.

He was rarely seen in Chicago's Boystown bars out of his uniform of Levi's jeans, boots and form-fitting T-shirts.

He did not seek out fame or recognition – he turned down an invitation to appear on "Oprah" after attempting with journalist Rex Wockner to obtain a marriage license in Cook County, Ill., in 1989. Varnell and Wockner weren't romantically involved, but they wanted to challenge the law.

Varnell was born in St. Louis. He graduated from Cornell University and attended graduate school at Indiana University-Bloomington.

For several years, Varnell taught at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, where he served on a committee of the Gay/Lesbian Union.

He moved to Chicago in the early 1980s and quickly became involved in the push for gay rights. He was on the board of PFLAG Chicago, chaired an Illinois Gay and Lesbian Task Force committee, served on the Chicago AIDS Task Force, founded the Chicago Area Gay Republican Organization, was an early promoter of Gay History Month and served on the Illinois Department of Public Health AIDS Interdisciplinary Advisory Committee.

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