For his book States of Desire, author Edmund White set out on a cross-country trip to document the changing profile of gay America in the late 1970s. Upon his arrival in Chicago, however, he came face to face with the old school.
White found Chuck Renslow to be "the best known gay personality in the area," who got his start in the 1950s as "a beefcake photographer and publisher of Mars, a physique magazine." Renslow went on to become almost legit--an ally of Jane Byrne and the owner of numerous bars, bathhouses, and the local newspaper GayLife. But Renslow, according to historian Marie Kuda, was also recognized for opening one of the country's first leather bars, the Gold Coast, in 1961. The putative daddy of what would become a worldwide phenomenon, Renslow, who's now 66, helped start the International Mr. Leather contest in the late 70s, and last month he set up a storefront museum dedicated to the underground movement noted for its natty sense of fashion.
While S and M circles had long taken a liking to leather, most experts trace the arrival of the leather scene to the first gay motorcycle club, the Satyrs, a group of Californians inspired in part by Marlon Brando's star turn in the 1954 film The Wild One. Seedy bars in larger cities may have been known to host an occasional leather night, but under the threat of police raids no one would risk catering to the leather crowd.
"Prior to my opening up the Gold Coast, people met in little cells or groups in homes," Renslow says. "In fact, it was a tight-knit group of people. If someone was coming from New York, they'd call me--that's the way we got to know each other."
In the late 50s, at the suggestion of his friend, tattoo artist Cliff Raven, Renslow and his cohorts began to gather in bars, finding safety in numbers. "Actually we wanted to start a leather group," Renslow says. "And we felt maybe if we'd meet in a bar, people would see us, and maybe we'd attract more people who were interested in leather." He says the group first descended on a "drag queen bar" in a Loop basement that was a cafeteria by day and a bar at night. But they were soon kicked out of that place and every other bar where they met. Eventually the group developed a big enough following to justify buying the old Gold Coast Show Lounge at Clark and Elm, which under Renslow's ownership survived more than five moves over 30 years. Setting the standard for leather bar decor, the Gold Coast's motif was dark and dungeonlike, with large depictions of jut-jawed muscle men lining the walls, some with penises bigger than their biceps, some committing acts that defy polite description even in clinical terms.
In an era when newspapers still printed the names of men arrested in police raids on gay bars, Renslow's business prospered. "We paid off, just like every other bar did," he explains. "The cops just wanted their money every month, that was all." A bigger problem was what he calls "the outfit," which tried to shake down gay establishments. He says the Gold Coast secretly relocated from one location when a landlord doubled the rent after only a few months. "We were worried for a while," he recalls, "but then he got shot in a gambling thing."
Given its strong bonds to the S and M community, the leather uniform conjures images of violence. But Renslow says that rap is unfair. "I don't think it has anything to do with people taking out their aggressions--it's a sexual thing," he says. "It's the only way in which partners show their love not with an act or words, but with trust. You've got to trust people to let them tie you up. I think that's why leather people tend to stay in long relationships. I was 40 years with my lover."
Renslow's partner was the late Dom Orejudos, an artist who signed his work under the name Etienne and who, in the days before the leather scene, depicted burly sailors, truck drivers, and Roman gladiators. His work lines the walls of the museum alongside art by Robert Mapplethorpe, Tom of Finland, and others. The exhibit also includes a painting by another of Renslow's early contemporaries, Sam Steward, a DePaul English professor who left academia to become a tattoo artist on the skid row along South State Street. Steward was noted for helping sex researcher Alfred Kinsey study the gay S and M community.
Renslow says he was once tapped as a Kinsey Institute resource: "There was a woman down there, and they were trying to find a gay necrophiliac. 'According to our statistics there should be four or five in the city of Chicago.' And I said, well, I don't think so. And she said, 'Well, please try to find me one.' And I thought about it--how the hell do you go about doing that? It became a joke I started telling everyone. About six months later she called me up and said, 'Thank you. We have two.' I said, how did you do that? She said, 'They heard you repeating the conversation we had and they called me up.'"
The leather uniform, with its bent for police and military gear, may suggest that the wearer's identifying with his oppressor. Renslow says he won't deny its obvious fascist subtext. "People didn't want to wear Nazi emblems. They sure didn't believe in the philosophy of it. But as a good friend of mine who was German told me, 'Vell, I hate ze party, but I sure love ze boots.'"
Adjacent to the museum are a bar and a leather goods store, both owned by Renslow. Though the exhibit documents the early years of the leather movement with artifacts, memorabilia, and such things as a complete collection of Drummer magazine, it does little to demystify the leather phenomenon itself. It's got plenty of who, what, how, and where, but precious little why. Like many leather devotees, the museum teeters on the fine line between respectability and disrepute, shored up by the numerous doctorates sitting on its board. As Renslow puts it, "Without a museum we're just a bunch of kinks."
The Leather Archives and Museum is at 5007 N. Clark. It's open Saturdays 2 to 10 PM; admission is free. For more information, call 878-6360.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Nathan Mandell; illustration/Dom Orejudos.