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September 9, 2011

Evenings Out

Renslow biography is a fitting tribute to a pioneer of leather

In the history of the leather community, names like Etienne and Tom of Finland spring to mind, along with events and places like International Mr. Leather and the Leather Archives and Museum.

There is one thing all those things have in common, one motivating force that connects them all, a single strand that wove together the history of the leather community. That thread is Chuck Renslow.

Now, Tracy Baim and Owen Keehnen of the Chicago LGBT weekly Windy City Times have released Leatherman: The Legend of Chuck Renslow (Prairie Avenue Productions, $24.99, trade paperback), an exhaustive examination of Renslow’s life, from birth to the present day.

Renslow was born in Chicago in 1929, and realized fairly early in his life (especially given the time period) that he was gay. While others at the time might have fought it or given in to trauma, he had a supportive family and a self-confidence that has continued to this very day.

From his young adulthood, he was never satisfied with simply accepting things as they were. While still a soda jerk at Walgreen’s, he opened photo studios specializing in male physique pictorials.

That led into owning a gym, then one of the nation’s first leather bars, then bathhouses, adult video arcades, restaurants and more. With each new venture, his legend grew, and he became more prominent.

Surrounding him were always friends and lovers, his Family (yes, with a capital F), which included long-time lover Dom Orejudos, better known as the cartoonists/artists Etienne and Stephen.

Renslow co-founded the Second City Motorcycle Club, the first gay motorcycle group in the Midwest. He owned Man’s Country, the Gold Coast, and dozens of other gay venues.

One of his peaks, however, was in 1979, when International Mr. Leather grew out of his Mr. Gold Coast competition, arguably the most notable leather event in the world. It is certainly and undeniably the biggest leather competition globally.

The Leather Archives and Museum was founded by Renslow, using many items from his own personal collection as the seeds from which it grew.

Despite success after success, however, his life wasn’t always peaches and cream. There were businesses that failed, there were rumors linking him with organized crime. Of course, since every bar in Chicago had to deal with the mob for their jukebox or beer delivery or some other innate aspect of the business, that was probably to be expected.

Worse tragedies came, though, with the losses of his grandmother, his mother, and then, with the appearance of AIDS, so many friends and lovers over the ensuing decades. This is a man who has seen loved ones lost, but he is also the one who fought the knee-jerk reactions to close LGBT venues with the logical perspective that it was far easier to pass out condoms in a bathhouse than in the middle of the woods or a public park. You can have a poster in a bar explaining safer sex. Under the piers, however, is another matter entirely.

Over the years, he has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to LGBT and HIV causes, and Baim and Keehnen have given him a fitting tribute.

There are drawbacks to the biography, admittedly. There is a tendency towards over-citation. It might not be strictly necessary to repeat over and over that someone’s quotations come from a specific interview.

There is also the danger of having such an exhaustive biography: Renslow celebrates his 82nd birthday this year, and at times it seems like it takes 82 years to make it through the book.

Overall, however, it is a fascinating look at a figure integral to Chicago’s LGBT community, and central to the development of the national leather community.




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