The Chicago Hellfire Club is one of the most mysterious organizations within the LGBT community, but, as the private gay men's club prepares to celebrate its 40th anniversary starting this November, club president Roger Scheid sat down for an exclusive interview. He spoke with the Windy City Times' Ross Forman about the Hellfire 13's members, memberships, practices and attitude toward transgender people, among other topics.
The Chicago Hellfire Club is one of the oldest, and certainly one of the leading, BDSM ( bondage, discipline, sadism and masochism ) leather organizations in the United States.
There are about 400 members, including 70 who live in the Chicagoland area. Members are as young as 21 and some are in their 70s. The group is commonly referred to as Hellfire 13 after its 13 original founding membersand one of the 13 is still alive and active in the organization.
"It's a safe place to come and play, a great place to learn," said Roger Scheid, in his fourth year as president of the club. "We are a private gay men's club that believes in practices of a leather lifestyle, including BDSM; that's the common bond that brings the group together."
Typical Hellfire activities include flogging, bondage, wrestling, rubber gear, water sports, master-slave, daddy-boy, role-playing and more. Scheid said many club activities are fetish-driven.
"When the club started, the BDSM aspect was a very buried subset of the gay community, probably even more closeted than the gay lifestyle [ as a whole ] ," Scheid said. "Many in the Chicago area didn't think [ the club ] would succeed when it started, but the club has prospered and done well.
"Like any group or organization, we've had our trials and tribulations over the years, our ups and downs, but we've always persevered. And the common bond has made it successful."
Plans to celebrate the 40th anniversary are now being finalized, Scheid said. But they plan to start celebrating this November with Associate Applicant Weekend, an in-town get-together with events at its private Chicago clubhouse, along with a banquet and more.
Membership is limited. New members must be sponsored and each must be approved to join. Annually, they bring 10-40 new members into the club.
"Everyone has different interests. Not everyone is into everything. It's what you feel comfortable doing, or what you're expertise is in, or what they enjoy as a recipient or the giver," Scheid said. "Bondage is always very popular, including rope and metal restraints. I haven't yet seen the current hot trend.
"The biggest misconception is the whole concept of BDSM; people don't understand it. Some people might consider it to be abuse or perceive it as hurtful, but, there's a huge bonding between people [ who participate ] . People don't understand the energy exchange and the love that can be exchanged between those [ participating ] people; I think it's at a different level of connection, and a lot of people don't understand that; they only look at it from the outside or at a very surface level. I think people pre-judge people in the club."
And yes, the public "absolutely" would be surprised by the Hellfire Club's membership, which includes professional, along with others who work in retail, government, education and factory jobs, among other areas.
However, the Chicago Hellfire Club employs a controversial policy of not including transgender people.
"They are not [ allowed ] ," he said. "We are a private club and have the ability to set our memberships, and they are currently not accepted in our club."
Do you foresee the membership expanding and inclusion of transgender people?
"It has been discussed in the past, and is reviewed annually," Scheid said.
"I think everyone in the leather community [ across America ] knows about the Chicago Hellfire Club," Scheid said. "We're very proud to have reached our 40th year."
The club's website is hellfire13.org/ .