Paul Varnell | Bleader

Monday, December 12, 2011

Paul Varnell

Posted By on 12.12.11 at 09:00 AM

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  • Rex Wockner
Paul Varnell had respectable activist credentials, but I knew him only through reading him, and knew him as I believe he primarily was—a gay thinker who liked ideas that twisted the nose of doctrine. This pleasure is common among libertarians generally, but Varnell wasn’t one of the smug ones. He died last Friday at the age of 70, and this fine obituary in Windy City Times offers one tribute after another to his playful intellect. I admired the columns he wrote for the Windy City Times and then for the Chicago Free Press back in the 90s and 00s, and so did the Reader's Harold Henderson. Varnell made several appearances in City File, Henderson's weekly potpourri of intriguing facts and opinions.

I've culled our archives for a sampling of Varnell as quoted by Henderson:


"If I can gain something from heterosexual or heteroerotic art (for instance, those innumerable heterosexual Renaissance love poems), then heterosexuals necessarily should be able to glean something of universal value from gay art," argues Paul Varnell in Windy City Times (May 17). But you wouldn't know it from the wimpy liberal defenses of gay art: "We heard a great deal about artistic liberty, about freedom of expression, and, of course, that old stand-by, the First Amendment. But where were the arguments—the claims—for gay-related art as having a dignity and value of its own quite beyond being tolerated within a liberal society?... Most often liberals will be on our side only when we are part of a package, or the beneficiary of some broad general principle. In the crunch, liberals are squeamish about us and our lives."

"The curiously modern social practice of hiding behind one's children" is what Windy City Times columnist Paul Varnell sees in the controversy over CTA posters by Art Against AIDS that show same-sex and different-sex couples kissing (July 5). Would-be censors claimed the ads might "entice children to a particular [i.e., gay] life-style." A bemused Varnell reflects, "Thus while adults just maybe are beyond the range of enticement, children—pure, innocent, naive, little tabula rasa rascals that they are—are infinitely malleable. Despite heterosexual upbringing, heavy peer pressure, massively heterosexual mass media (e.g., MTV), a picture or two of a gay couple kissing can undo it all in the flick of a tongue.... If so, it is amazing that there are any heterosexuals left at all."


Lookin' good? Paul Varnell in Windy City Times (January 13) has a good word for "looks-ism": "Most people, maybe all of us, recognize that some natural objects and human creations can embody beauty. Most of us enjoy things such as sunsets, scenic vistas (Yosemite Valley), certain paintings, buildings (Taj Mahal), poetry (Keats' 'To Autumn'), and music (Mahler's Ninth Symphony). The enjoyment of such things is for some people one of the chief rewards for living. And yet it seems extremely odd to say that these objects in various ways embody beauty but that human beings do not, can not, or should not."


Ready for a 2,000-year wait? "It is fascinating to catch the Catholic church in mid-transition on an important moral issue that has some historical and doctrinal parallels to our own: anti-semitism," writes Paul Varnell in Windy City Times (June 8). "No one can doubt that the New Testament contains anti-semitic passages and explicit condemnations of 'the Jews.' There are far more, and more explicit, anti-Jewish references in the NT than there are anti-gay texts in the old and new testaments combined. "


"The free market is better for gays than democracy," argues Paul Varnell in Windy City Times (April 11). "In the economic marketplace, when you cast your 'dollar vote' for the product you want, you get the product you want. That is, you win no matter what other people do with their dollar votes, and your approval registers economically with the firm whose product you bought. In the political marketplace, you get what you want only if half of all the other voters already agree with you. If you voted for a losing side, you get nothing. And your candidate gets no reward for making outreach to you. In fact, he may be being penalized. In short, the economic marketplace fosters a pluralism of values and a plurality of results—i.e., a variety of ways of living. In the political marketplace, the winner's values are imposed on the losers....Which of these better benefits minorities like gays seems clear."


Early in this century "governments were consistently the enemy of gay people," writes Paul Varnell in Windy City Times (January 15), summarizing one aspect of the book Gay New York 1890-1940, "but business entrepreneurs were often much friendlier. This should not be surprising. Governments tend to impose the opinions and prejudices of the majority. By contrast, the free market is where people have an incentive to suspend their prejudices and simply try to make money from every available source."

Draw your own conclusions. Paul Varnell in the January 29 Windy City Times describing an annual survey of college freshmen conducted by the Higher Education Research Institute of the University of California-Los Angeles: "The percentage of 'born again' freshmen at schools with low admission standards is twice the percentage of 'born agains' at schools with high admission standards. For instance, 38.7 percent of the freshmen at low-ranking public colleges are 'born again,' while only 19.1 percent of the freshmen at high-ranking public colleges are 'born again.' The same two-to-one ratio (or more) holds at low- and high-ranking non-sectarian, Protestant and Catholic colleges and all universities. The higher the admission standards, the fewer the 'born agains.'"

"We will never eliminate the so-called 'heterosexual presumption,'" Paul Varnell advises readers of Windy City Times (April 9). "If 95 percent of the population is heterosexual, people are going to assume, reasonably enough, that any given person is heterosexual. It need not be hostile; it is simply a safe bet. (In most parts of the U.S. Jews encounter the 'Christian presumption' and in most gay enclaves Republicans encounter the 'Democratic presumption.')"

"One of the most irritating things people sometimes say is 'Now, don't be judgmental,'" writes Paul Varnell, who must often be irritated, in Windy City Times (April 23). "I always want to snap back, 'Of course you should be judgmental, you jerk. That's what you have a brain for.'"


"One of the more interesting effects of gay rights laws is that while fewer gays may be fired, fewer may be hired in the first place," argues Paul Varnell in Windy City Times (April 8). "It is much easier for an employee to make out a claim of discrimination after he has been on the job for a while than to prove discrimination in the hiring process. Employers know this. So they may feel concern that if they ever had to dismiss a gay employee, the employee might file a discrimination suit that could result in costly litigation, even if the firing was not motivated by bias. This could make even unprejudiced employers reluctant to take a chance on a good gay job candidate."

"Apparently there was almost no attempt to counter [white supremacist and murderer Benjamin Smith's] opinions with better informed views," writes Paul Varnell in Windy City Times (July 15), "so no one, including Smith, learned why he was wrong. Instead there was a march by 500-1,000 people [at Indiana University] to condemn Smith's 'hate speech.' But frankly this seems remarkably anti-intellectual. Denouncing someone's views does not show why those views are wrong, only that they are unpopular....In addition, according to The New York Times, people 'kept breaking the windows of his car and his apartment as often as once a week,' presumably trying to punish him for his beliefs or intimidate him into silence. It would be gratifying to learn that free speech advocates condemned this vigilante harassment and the violation of Smith's property rights, but there is no record that anyone did."


"There will be a new pope, sooner rather than later," writes Paul Varnell in the Chicago Free Press (January 19). "Gay Catholics may hope he will be more moderate on gay issues than John Paul II, but that will not happen....Too many other doctrines would be destabilized by any change on homosexuality. However, the new confirmation of the rigidity of Catholic doctrine will accelerate the trend for Catholics to treat Catholicism more as many Jews view Judaism—that is, a cultural tradition rather than a set of doctrinal demands."


Gay foreign policy, as Paul Varnell, writing in the Chicago Free Press (May 30), would have it: "So long as the United States has an ambassador to the Vatican, that person should be gay. It is high time those men in cassocks at the Vatican secretariat met a gay man who is not repressed, closeted or a hypocrite."


"Gays and lesbians have nothing in common," writes Paul Varnell in the Chicago Free Press (August 21). "Gay men like men. Lesbians like women. What could be more different? That whole notion that we share a common 'homosexual orientation' is just semantic fraud. You might as well say that atheists and Christians are just alike because they both have opinions about the existence of God. Or: If you buy lots of clothes and I buy lots of books, do we have a 'purchasing orientation' in common?" Maybe you do if millions of people hate you for it.


Rah rah ROTC. Writing in the Chicago Free Press (April 9), Paul Varnell argues that the military isn't going to become gay friendly on its own. "The effect of banishing ROTC and military recruiting by the most liberal, gay-accepting colleges and universities was to increase the proportion of recruits and young officers who are less accepting of gays, whose college experience was unlikely to counter negative views of gays, and who do not want gays in the military.... That means we need to change our tactics—and advocate bringing back ROTC programs and on-campus military recruiting at all those gay friendly colleges and universities where we and our allies once urged their elimination."


"The Vatican has never really come to terms with evolution," writes Paul Varnell in the Chicago Free Press (September 8). "To say genitals were 'intended' for procreation ignores the fact that genitals, like the rest of our bodies, evolved as they did because they were more efficient means of reproduction than other means. Nothing about their development in the random mutation and natural selection process of evolution requires or implies any 'intention'—or precludes their use for other purposes. The mouth evolved as an efficient way to eat, but people also use it to talk, sing, whistle and suck venom from snakebites."

Varnell published a strange, amusing article in the Reader in 1989. He was in the lockup at 11th and State — don't ask why, he doesn't say. A large contingent from Operation Rescue was hauled in and locked in nearby cells. There was much whooping and hollering. Then they were all let go in time for dinner. Varnell stayed the night. Here's the story.

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