Chuck Renslow, at 82, is one of our community's undisputed greats. During a business career that spanned more than fifty years, Renslow started and/or owned more than two dozen businesses in the Chicago area, including bars, discos, photo studios (Kris), gyms, bathhouses, newspapers (GayLife), hotels, restaurants and bookstores. Renslow led the LGBT community as it emerged as a major force in Chicago politics.
Leather folk worldwide know Renslow as the owner of the legendary Gold Coast, Chicago's first leather bar; owner of the Chicago Eagle and Man's Country; founding member of the Second City Motorcycle Club; founder of Chicago's annual International Mr. Leather contest; and a founder of the Leather Archives & Museum (also in Chicago).
Like other queers, this "Leatherman of the Century" redefined the family as the daddy of a loosely-knit, self-supporting family of lovers, slaves, tricks, friends and business partners. His longest and most famous life and business partner, the late Dom Orejudos, achieved leather immortality as the erotic artist Etienne.
With all his achievements, it is amazing that Chuck Renslow remains rather unknown outside of Chicago and what my friend Mauro Montoya calls "the kinky community." Hoping to correct this, Chicago journalist and author Tracy Baim joined forces with author Owen Keehnen to write Leatherman: The Legend of Chuck Renslow. A massive tome of over 400 pages, Leatherman collects Renslow's recollections as well as those of his lovers, friends and colleagues, all in a well-written, compelling narrative illustrated by scores of historic photos and drawings by Etienne and other artists.
"Chuck approached me last summer around the time he turned 81 years old," Baim tells me. "Many people had tried to do his biography before, but none had finished. He knew that I could get it done, hopefully before he passed away. I was honored to be asked, but Owen and I told him it has to be all there, the good and the bad."
"A biography of Chuck Renslow was an ideal means to tell the story of being gay in Chicago," Keehnen adds. "There are so many facets to this story - the McCarthy era, Stonewall and gay liberation, AIDS, activism, etc. With Chuck you have a male physique studio battling postal laws for obscenity, you have the mob, cop payoffs, the leather world, disco, the bathhouses, AIDS, community organization for fundraising, politics, The Kinsey Institute, all of it. Chuck Renslow's story was an ideal means for telling a much bigger story and I am so thrilled we got the chance to get a lot of it down."
As an activist and entrepreneur with considerable power and influence in his community, Chuck Renslow is a very controversial figure. On the other hand, in Leatherman the authors paint a very positive and respectful picture of the man, his businesses and his contributions. According to Keehnen, "most critics declined to be interviewed, but even many of those who had differences with Chuck over the years recognized the importance of having a trailblazer like him around. And most of them saw the need for the story to be told. Even his detractors seem to have an appreciation for what he did."
In both his business and personal lives, Renslow was involved with such politically incorrect pastimes as S&M, pornography and promiscuity. According to Baim, "Renslow was the first to see how that could hurt the community in the mainstream, so in some ways he protected the community by not being as out about his contributions. But, overall, I think most people understood the connections between free sexuality and the movement, so in the 1970s he was fine. But when AIDS started its devastation, some people did criticize him for the bathhouse and conflicts in owning a newspaper. I would actually say Renslow was more conservative than many of the 1980s activists, which is why he felt passed over by more radical elements."
"Lesbians who are part of the leather community are certainly aware of him, as he has always seemed very open to diversity in the leather world," Baim adds. " When he ran GayLife newspaper there were vast differences in the LGBT community, so some lesbians did have issues with how GayLife covered them. As a lesbian, I did not have too many issues with Renslow. I always felt respected by him, and he trusted me to be his managing editor when I was just 22, in 1985."
"Chuck Renslow's legacy," Keehnen notes, "is that Chicago's LGBT community is a very integral part of the political make-up of the city. He fought homophobic legislatures and laws, the mob, and a lot of preconceived notions about who gay people were and how they should be ashamed of who and what they are. Chuck challenged that in every way he knew how and he challenged it to his very core. He owned leather bars, discos, adult bookstores, bathhouses, started International Mr. Leather - and was rightfully proud of it all regardless of what anyone else thought. I guess for me personally Chuck Renslow's greatest legacy is his example and realizing the amazing things a person can accomplish when they are who they are without apology."
Leatherman: The Legend of Chuck Renslow by Tracy Baim and Owen Keehnen; Prairie Avenue Productions; 414 pages; $24.99.