Long-time community activist, volunteer and businessman Roger "R.J." Chaffin, 59, died June 17 after a short illness. A memorial is being planned.
Inducted into the Chicago Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame in 1997, Chaffin was involved in a wide range of causes and helped raise thousands of dollars for many AIDS and gay groups. He was a well-known business activist with the Northalsted Area Merchants Association ( NAMA ) , as owner of the now-closed RJ's Video and Rajin' Rae Jean's. He was NAMA president from 1998-2004.
Chaffin, a native of Ohio, is most associated with International Mr. Leather and its Leather Marketplace, an event he directed for 18 years, including this past Memorial Weekend in Chicago. He is interviewed in the new book Leatherman: The Legend of Chuck Renslow, about his IML and gay community work.
Chaffin was also involved in media, as co-producer of 1989's Crimes of Hate documentary on gay-bashing and as a long-time employee of GayLife newspaper. He started as a delivery person for the newspaper in the mid 1970s when it was owned by Grant Ford, and continued his employment there when Chuck Renslow purchased the paper around 1981. He did layout and paste-up for the paper, and eventually was a writer, entertainment editor, reviewer, and business manager. He also worked for other Renslow businesses.
One of the large benefits he was associated with was the Circus Vargas Big Top that raised tens of thousands of dollars for AIDS groups in the 1980s and early 1990s. Chaffin produced the souvenir programs for Circus Vargas and other benefits, and at the circus he also starred as one of the Flying Rotundas on a dare and fundraising activity
The Hall of Fame website reports that Chaffin and his then-partner were profiled in a three-part 1977Chicago Sun-Times feature on same-sex relationships, which included photo coverage of their ceremony at Chicago's Good Shepherd Parish Metropolitan Community Church. His friends stated: "We know that R.J. was a trendsetter of what we now enjoy as civil unions in Illinois. He was always a trailblazer," according to a statement on Chaffin's death.
"In 1983, he opened R.J.'s Video in the 400 block of North Clark Street when that neighborhood was still an anchor of the city's gay entertainment community," the Hall of Fame notes. "It became the city's first video store to offer a wide selection of general-interest gay and lesbian features, besides providing a comfortable venue in which to rent adult-oriented films. He briefly operated a second video store in Andersonville and then consolidated activities into a single, expanded location ( in partnership with Chuck Cox ) on North Halsted Street. As a businessman, he has sponsored Metropolitan Sports Association teams and the Righteously Outrageous Twirling Corps ( ROTC ) . His honors include Gay Chicago Magazine citations for business achievement in 1986 and ( with Gary Chichester ) in 1988, one by The Leather Journal's 1992 Pantheon of Leather, and a Chicago House award.
"Other business ventures have been Gay Mart ( 1993'95 ) , with Cox and Shelly Rosenbaum, and Holidaze ( 1995'97 ) , with Steve Hyde. The latter store later changed to Ragin' Rae Jean's. Alone and with partners, Chaffin has raised thousands of dollars for Chicago House, Howard Brown Health Center, Horizons Community Services, Open Hand Chicago, and other charitable organizations."
Chaffin and Chichester formed Back Door Promotions in 1985. They did for-profit events but also many AIDS benefits. Chaffin also volunteered for NAMES Project/Chicago and national NAMES Quilt displays, three national gay and lesbian marches in Washington, D.C., and many Pride Parades in Chicago. Chaffin also produced Chicago House's 1988 Labor of Love Weekend and played Santa Claus at all four of the group's Holiday Fares.
"R.J. gave me my first job writing for the gay press in 1976 for GayLife newspaper," said Richard Cooke. "He was a gentle kindly giant amongst men, both in girth and nature. It's hard to picture a gay Chicago without him."
"I'll always remember and honor that guy as the 'supreme community volunteer,' always offering a helping hand, service and commitment to the community," said Lori Cannon. "He was a special guy."
Chaffin also served on the boards of Strike Against AIDS, the Chicago AIDS Benefit Committee and NAMA.
Chaffin will be missed by so many. He was the beloved son of John and the late Mary Chaffin of Marion, Ohio. Dearest brother of David ( Margaret ) of Sheby, Ohio; and Mary Kay ( Ted ) Lyons of Prospect, Ohio; life-long and best chosen brother of Gary Chichester. Beloved uncle, friend and colleague of many.
Services are being planned and will be announced in the future. In lieu of flowers the family has requested that memorial donations be sent to John Chaffin, 1057 Olive Ave. Marion, Ohio 43302.
Arrangements by Cremation Society of Illinois, 773-281-5058 www.cremation-society.com
International Mr. Leather 1988: RJ Chaffin ( right ) with other IML producers Ron Ehemann, Chuck Renslow and Gary Chichester, from the book Leatherman: The Legend of Chuck Renslow. Courtesy of RJ Chaffin
RJ Chaffin at his 1997 induction into the Chicago Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame. At left is Clarence Wood, then head of the Commission on Human Relations, and at right is Mary Morten, then CHR LGBT Advisory Council director. Photo by Tracy Baim
RJ Chaffin receiving his Hall of Fame Award in 1997 from Mayor Richard Daley. Photo courtesy of Gary Chichester