In Memoriam: Chuck Renslow

 

 

Young Chuck Renslow


Chuck Renslow, a legendary figure in LGBTQ history, passed away on June 30, 2017, at the age of 87. 

The the whole leather contest circuit actually began in a leather bar, the famous/infamous Gold Coast founded by Renslow. I know one person who remembers this bar; he is in his eighties (hard to believe). 

Much has been written on this place of LGBT history already; I’ll just add that it seems to be the granddaddy of places where like-minded men could meet others who shared their sexuality. 

Much of what is perhaps now the traditional dynamic of gay leather bars originated there: the leather biker look, the rough sex and BDSM, the hypermasculinity revealed in the famous artwork of Etienne aka Dom Orejudos, lover of Renslow now displayed in the Leather Archives and Museum
 

Gold Coast Mural

The Gold Coast closed in 1988 (alas, I never went there) at the 5025 North Clark location, having moved from its original location at 501 North Clark Street. Renslow later opened the Chicago Eagle in the 1990s; I remember the entrance being the inside of a truck, and the basement Pit. 

I actually consider this place my “coming out” bar as a leatherman. I was flogged in public down there, my first big BDSM scene. The Eagle closed in the early 2000s; the last time I went there was 2007; by that time the totally hot Pit had closed. 

Without Renslow's pioneering efforts that date back to the times when homoerotic muscle magazines were considered obscene by the government, the LGBTQ leather community might not even exist; in fact, he always showed the courage to navigate and eventually surmount oppressive political and social systems in that pre-Stonewall time when to even operate a gay bar one had to pay off the Mafia, when gay sex itself was illegal, a crime against nature. 

I consider his immense legacy (just look at his obituary) an inspiration, not just to LGBTQ persons, but to any marginalized group fighting for the right to full human dignity. 

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Mars: The First Gay Leather Magazine

 

MARS:
THE FIRST GAY LEATHER MAGAZINE

 
Chuck Renslow

Chuck Renslow, gay activist and a pioneering figure of the gay leather community, founded Mars magazine in May of 1963. Renslow definitely pushed the homoerotic envelope of his time with this cutting-edge vintage gay physique publication that was instrumental in both creating and disseminating the image of the gay leatherman. 

The magazine combines the classic smooth muscle jock physiques of the physique magazines with what became the iconic image of the gay leatherman: a super- or hypermasculine look emphasizing a well-developed physique, oftentimes facial hair, a generous endowment, and motorcycle gear: heavy boots and jacket. 

It featured art by Tom of Finland and Dom Orejudos aka the artist Etienne and Renslow’s partner, among others. Several of the models hailed from Renslow’s photography or “physique house,” Kris Studio. 

Renslow discovered many of his models, such as Ralph Kleiner and Paul Ferguson (one of the murderers of silent film legend Ramon Navarro) at bodybuilding circuit competitions such as Mr. Chicago. 
 

Ralph Kleiner wrestling

Contents of one of the last issues, Issue 21, September 1966: 

Mars magazine, September 1966

 

This issue still offers an article on physical culture entitled “Exercising the Abdomen,” focusing on leg raises: short on text, larger on pics of a naked guy doing them (no posing strap in site, the genitalia deftly covered by the camera angle and the position of the legs; note the hint of pubic hair). Pretty desultory compared to the much more detailed articles that appeared in the more conventional physique magazines of the period. But the point is the picture, really, by this stage of the game! 


The editorial on page three and on pages 42-47 shows the still difficult issues with censorship, despite the MANual vs. O'Day decision in 1962. The text reports that Ralph Ginzburg, producer of the erotic magazines Eros and Liason (the text reads “artistically produced”) another covering term for these types of publications), was convicted on a charge of mailing obscene materials in 1963. The prosecutor was the late great Robert Kennedy; wow! 

The above tidbit shows how one is continually uncovering parts of history that change one's view of a famous personage around which certain myths develop. The Supreme Court upheld his conviction by a 5 to 4 decision. The text also gives detailed analysis of the different judges' reasonings for their decision. The argument's thrust here is the ruling's unconstitutionality, despite the nuances of the judge's interpretation of this First Amendment issue 

Guild Book Services, one of the few openly gay companies during this time period, offers their usual insert in this magazine. The review of the book Homosexual: Personal Case Histories of Homosexuals is most interesting, as it seems to offer, for the reviewer, a really wild gamut of deviations (including BDSM), distasteful but without an overtly moralistic commentary. Though the comments of the psychiatrists that accompany these stories probably endorse the gay equals sick hypothesis prevalent during this period, which one could definitely claim is supported by the unusual evidence here! 

This issue, focusing on a motorcycle theme, contains stunning homoerotic leather/fetish art by Luger, Orsen, and Tom of Finland. On pages 10-11, there is a classic Etienne,which he painted for a local bistro in Chicago (the legendary Gold Coast Bar?). 
 

Gold Coast Bar mural - Etienne

 

Pictures from the movie Motorcycle Hero (take of more of the clothes and one would have a gay porn movie, but then, in this case, the leather gear would stay on). A young man dons his sleeping friend's (what a woofy hunk) leather gear ... and ... much is left to the imagination. 


The magazine ceased publication in 1966 or 1967. 

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A Fun Visit to the Leather Archives & Museum

 

A couple of months ago, I took one of my dearest friends to the Leather Archives & Museum. She is unabashedly heterosexual (and not kinky, I'm pretty sure). She initiated the visit. And it wasn't because of puerile curiosity (my friend is much, much more sophisticated than that). She read about the museum in a mainstream website Chicagoist. She wanted to go with an expert (c'est moi). It also helped (I emphasized this fact in our conversations) that I know the wonderful couple who run the place. 

 

Leather Archives & Museum exterior

Housed in what used to a synagogue in the Rogers Park neighborhood of Chicago, and for a nonprofit, in an enviable position (they own their own building and their board is incredibly generous), the museum showcases the history and imagery of two previously taboo subcultures that are now in the vanguard of discovering and also interpreting what used to be their secret, hidden history: LGBT leather and BDSM (both gay and straight). 


The museum regularly exhibits recent work featuring BDSM/fetish-related themes by current artists, but its claim to fame, at least I think, is its stunning collection of original homoerotic art by the legendary artist Etienne, including the murals which once graced the walls of the Gold Coast leather bar. My friend, with her art history background, immediately saw these works as art, and worthy of deep analysis. 
 

Two Etienne murals on display in the museum

 


One can also learn about the history of and view artifacts from leather motorcycle, commonly known as “patch” clubs, some of which involved into the gay sex/BDSM clubs of today, and also study the diverse contributions of women and transgender persons to this subculture. There's even a room with dungeon equipment (I must admit, my friend was somewhat shocked at the violet wands on display and some of the more fierce-looking whips). 
Leather Archives & Museum dungeon display


What both of us found really enjoyable was the comfortable room where one can watch documentaries on gay and sexual history. I didn't get the title of what we were watching, as we got there in the middle of it, but the documentary seems to be about the sexual revolution of the 1960s and its influence on the stellar growth of the straight and gay porn industries in the 1970s. The documentary showed scenes from and analyzed that controversial film Censorship in Denmark, by Alex de Renzy. It was an explicit documentary that mixed footage of Copenhagen tourist attractions with on-the-street interviews and hardcore scenes from the city's live sex clubs and movies, one of the first of its type to be shown at an art house and reviewed in the mainstream press. 

So much of the way we live, especially our personal relationship dynamics (both healthy and unhealthy, I might add), depends on what happened in the 1960s and the 1970s. But this time of liberation sprung from a rich, hidden history of courageous people living in the shadows but also fighting for basic personal freedoms; the Leather Archives & Museum is now bringing this history to light. 

We didn't get a chance to visit the library, a formidable archive that includes vintage leather/BDSM magazines like Drummer and interviews with notable figures in the various kink cultures, but there's time for that. 

As Lisa White in the Chicagoist article says, “This isn’t the place to take Grandma when she comes up to visit (unless you have the most badass liberal Grandma around). But it is a wonderful look into two vibrant communities and a great resource. “ 

After we concluded our visit, my liberal badass friend and I topped off our visit with lunch in the Mariano's cafe, where I said the word “sex” quite loudly there (gasp!), shocking a tweenish boy who was emptying his tray into the garbage. Hey, after that visit, of course, the topic was on our minds. 

Check out the Leather Archives & Museum website for more information, and of course check out bijouworld's extensive fetish/BDSM product line of DVDs, books, magazines, and sexcessories. 

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