Chuck Renslow, 87, a longtime pillar of the LGBTQ community in Chicago and around the world, has died after multiple long-term health issues.
Renslow reigned over a seven-decade empire, starting more than two dozen businessesbars, discos, photo studios, health clubs, bathhouses, gay magazines and newspapers, hotels, restaurants and bookstores. He fostered organizations and dealt with Mafia and police payoffs, the Chicago Machine, anti-gay government policies, and controversy within the gay community.
Because of his businesses, he also knew celebrities from Marlene Dietrich to Rudolf Nureyev, from Divine to Sally Rand. He even helped with the Kinsey Institute's sex research.
The founder of International Mr. Leather, owner of Man's Country and the Gold Coast bar, publisher of the GayLife newspaper in the '80s, political activist, and much more was an out business owner since the '50s. He was a critical contributor to a wide range of political, social, business, health and other causes.
In the early '50s, Renslow founded Kris Studios, one of the earliest and most durable of the physique photography houses. He was an accomplished photographer, including of the ballet. His dance photography is in the Newberry Library dance collection in the Chuck Renslow Dance Photographs collection.
He was the publisher of Triumph, Mars and Rawhide Male magazines, publications mailed and shared across the country as the earliest ways gay men found each other. In 1965, he was a founder of Second City Motorcycle Club, the first such club not on the West Coast.
He opened Gold Coast, believed to be the first leather bar in the U.S., in Chicago in 1958. It closed in 1987, when it was known internationally as the oldest leather establishment in the world.
He was the founder of many bars and sex clubs since the '60s including Man's Country, which is still open in Andersonville. In the '70s, the bathhouse attracted top names on the "K-Y circuit."
For decades, he and his Renslow "family" ran Chicago's famous White Party, coinciding with his August birthday. He was reportedly the first to have a float in the Chicago Gay Pride Parade (a flatbed, a gazebo, and three drag queens).
Renslow had many partners over the years, among them Dom 'Etienne' Orejudos, who he was with more than 40 years and, and helped encourage Dom's work as the artist Etienne. He was also involved with Cliff Raven, Chuck Arnett, Sam 'Phil Andros' Steward, David Grooms and Ron Ehemann and encouraged them in their famous work too.
In 1979, he founded International Mr. Leather, which grew out of his Mr. Gold Coast contest and the experience he had managing A.A.U. physique competitions. When Dom 'Etienne' died, Renslow combined his collection of Eteinne's art with his own archives from his business and his life; Renslow and Tony DeBlase co-founded the Leather Archives & Museum in 1991. Renslow served as president for many years.
Renslow was inducted into the the Chicago LGBT Hall of Fame in 1991 and received dozens of awards from the gay and leather communities. He received The Leather Journal's lifetime achievement award and a Centurion Award as Leatherman of the Century.
He served on the board of directors of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and was a U.S. representative to what was known then as the International Lesbian and Gay Association.
Renslow also was involved in newspapers, purchasing GayLife newspaper from its founder, Grant Ford, and publishing it for several years, until it folded in 1986.
Renslow was especially active in politics in the '70s and '80s, as the gay community gained clout. He was the founder of Prairie State Democratic Club in 1980, and they hosted events with top politicians from Chicago and Cook County, and even presidential candidates coming through the area. He pushed for the gay and lesbian civil-rights ordinance when it was first introduced in the City Council in the early '70s, and the initial executive order banning discrimination in Chicago city government, as issued by Mayor Jane Byrne.
Organizations he was involved in included Strike Against AIDS, Human Rights Campaign Fund, Metropolitan Business Association, Illinois Gay and Lesbian Task Force, National Organization for Women, American Civil Liberties Union, NAACP, Chicago Association of Commerce and Industry, Uptown Chamber of Commerce, 46th Ward Advisory Council and the 48th Ward Democratic Party Advisory Board.
He served as a Democratic Party 43rd Ward precinct captain for eight years, as a candidate for delegate to the 1980 Democratic National Convention (for U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy), and within the 46th and 48th Ward Democratic Organizations.
His other bars and businesses have included the Chicago Eagle, Triumph Health Studios, Sparrows Lounge, Bistro Too, Zolar, The Club Baths, Center Stage and Pyramid.
In 1958, he was brought to a local court for the distribution and possession of material with "excessive genital delineation." Unlike some gays, Renslow did not passively wait for a conviction. He and his attorneys fought back, including as evidence nude statues in Chicago. In 1964 the Post Office Department also brought Kris Studios up on charges of pornography. The studios did not use the more common strategy of saying the materials were art; they just denied they were pornography, and the judge agreed that the human body itself, in posing straps, was not porn.
Renslow was born in 1929, raised in the Logan Square neighborhood of Chicago, and graduated from Lane Technical High School.
The Leather Archives & Museum staff and board issued this statement, in part:
"As LA&M's co-founder, Chuck gave deeply and worked with great passion for over 26 years to save the names and faces of Leather, kink, BDSM and fetish people, communities, and history, and he fought to ensure that Leatherfolk were the ones who would 'tell' their own stories so that they might better understand and bring enhanced visibility to 'Leather history.' As co-founder, longtime President and, most recently, Chairman of the Board, Chuck has left his mark throughout our institution and touched each of us very deeply. He will be missed.
"During this time of grieving and celebrating of Chuck's life and contributions, LA&M will continue to hold its open museum hours. Beginning Saturday, July 1 we will establish a temporary display of rare and remarkable items from Chuck's private collection for visitors to view In the Etienne Auditorium.
"For the next month, we will also have a letter-writing station available during museum hours where folks can write letters to Chuck that we will then bundle and give to the Renslow Family. Those who cannot visit LA&M are welcome to write a letter or send a postcard to Chuck and mail it to us via the postal service at 6418 N. Greenview Ave., Chicago, IL 60626 USA. Letters via post only, please."
In a 2012 speech to the crowd gathered from around the world at International Mr. Leather, Renslow, ever the political activist, stated, in part:
"I am really proud of the Leather Archives & Museum. The Leather Archives serves as a repository for our history ... a place where future generations will be able to know what has come before. It is never too early to save history. … Write your history as it was and as you lived it. Don't rewrite history as others have done. ...
"If you're here from one of our 50 United States there is something else you can do this year. You can help someone and in doing so, help yourselves. A few weeks ago, during an election year when it could hurt him the most, President Obama became the first sitting President to champion gay marriage. As you can imagine, the right-wing conservatives have been energized and the only way to off set them is to become energized ourselves. More than any other time in your lives you need to become active and involved in the campaign for President of the United States. We need to re-elect President Obama. This year the choice is between a history making man who stands up for the gay community and tells the world that we must have civil rights. Or … if he is defeated, we'll live under Mitt Romney, a self-avowed Mormon conservative who believes that marriage is strictly for one man and one woman."
Renslow is survived by many friends and family. More details, and memorial info, will be posted as information becomes available.
Renslow's life is chronicled in Leatherman: The Legend of Chuck Renslow, by Tracy Baim and Owen Keehnen, available in B&W and full color editions.
See Tracy Baim's 2007 interview from 2007 here: