New ‘Leatherman’ book: The story of sexual renegade and businessman Chuck Renslow

A prominent Chicago gay activist and entrepreneur is the subject of an in-depth biography, Leatherman: The Legend of Chuck Renslow, by journalists and authors Tracy Baim and Owen Keehnen. The book contains more than 300 images, including murals and drawings by Dom “Etienne” Orejudos, posters for International Mr. Leather (IML), and photos from the Gold Coast, Pride Parades, IML contests, physique magazines and more.

The book is published by Prairie Avenue Productions, 414 pages, $24.99 black and white (ISBN 1-46109602-2), $79.99 color (1-46111908-1). It is available on Amazon.com. People can search for the title or link: http://www.tinyurl.com/renslow. It will also be available from Women & Children First and Unabridged bookstores.

Living as an openly gay man in 1950s Chicago was no easy task. For Chuck Renslow, that was only his first of many bold moves. Just out of high school he began what was to become a six-decade empire, starting more than two dozen businesses in Chicago, as well as a few in other cities. He has owned bars, discos, photo studios, health clubs, bathhouses, gay magazines and newspapers, hotels, restaurants, and bookstores. Throughout it all he dealt with Mafia and police payoffs, anti-gay political policies, harassment from censors, and even controversy within the gay community.

In the mid-1950s, after having a portrait and then cheesecake studio, Renslow began experimenting with beefcake photography and began Kris Studio. With his longtime lover, the artist Dom Orejudos aka Etienne and Stephen, at his side, Renslow created Kris Studio a leader in male physique photography, resulting in such magazines as Triumph, Mars and The Rawhide Male, producing thousands of erotic images as well as several films.

In 1959 Renslow took over the Gold Coast Show Lounge and transformed it into one of the most lowdown libidinous gay leather bars in the world. With Etienne’s murals adorning the walls, a leather/Western/uniform dress code for patrons, and a dark Pit that featured all sorts of goings-on, the Gold Coast set the standard for raunchy kink and gay sexual liberation. It was the birthplace of motorcycle clubs and sex groups, but above all a place for people to meet, connect, and explore themselves and their sexuality.

The Gold Coast was also the birthplace of the first leather contest, which in the span of a few short years evolved beyond the bar’s capacity and became International Mr. Leather in 1979. More than three decades later, it continues to be one of the world’s most popular gay events.

Renslow was also one of the pioneers in taking a bathhouse beyond merely the borders of a mere sex club. Man’s Country became something truly unforgettable in the 1970s – a sex-and-entertainment complex with a variety of rooms, shops, and a Music Hall that attracted top names touring in the “K-Y circuit,” from Sally Rand to Wayland Flowers to Rusty Warren and Charles Pierce.

Renslow was a dynamic force in Chicago politics under mayors starting with Richard J. Daley, and he ran as a delegate for Sen. Ted Kennedy’s 1980 presidential run. He danced with another man at a 1977 inaugural ball for Jimmy Carter. Renslow helped protest against unfair policies, fought censorship and entrapment, and battled Anita Bryant. He even served as a field contact for the pioneering work at the Kinsey Institute, as well as performing sexual acts for Kinsey researchers. He knew entertainment celebrities from Marlene Dietrich to Rudolf Nureyev, from Divine to Grace Jones, and from Sylvester to Quentin Crisp. In their heyday Chuck Renslow’s annual White Parties were celebrations beyond compare.

When Chicago’s gay community faced the loss of its newspaper, Renslow bailed out and ran GayLife. He gave the community a voice at the critical time when AIDS was first discovered and began its devastation of the community. Though Renslow had always donated to gay causes, with the emergence of the epidemic he drastically increased his contributions and helped host major benefits for AIDS organizations.

Seeing such loss and the frequent erasure of these vibrant lives, Renslow knew he had to do something more. His co-founding of the Leather Archives & Museum (with Tony DeBlase) and his tireless devotion to the institution have helped ensure that the voices of so many who have lived and loved and ultimately passed can be heard for ages to come by all those who wish to listen. It was but another way to serve his community.

Through it all Renslow has also been Daddy of the Family, a unique created group of lovers, tricks, and friends who were bound by sex and oftentimes love and by a goal of providing comfort and support to one another.

Unique and controversial, Chuck Renslow is still doing his work and activism, more than six decades after he first opened shop as a photographer.

Authors Tracy Baim and Owen Keehnen uncover the truths and myths of a living legend in this compelling new biography about the man many know, but few understand.

Senior editors of the book are William B. Kelley and Jorjet Harper. Book design is by Kirk Williamson.

Leatherman: The Legend of Chuck Renslow, by Tracy Baim and Owen Keehnen, Prairie Avenue Productions, 414 pages, $24.99 black and white (ISBN 1-46109602-2), $79.99 color (1-46111908-1).

About the Authors

Tracy Baim is publisher and executive editor at Windy City Media Group, which produces Windy City Times, Nightspots, and other gay media in Chicago. She has won numerous gay community and journalism honors, including the Community Media Workshop’s Studs Terkel Award in 2005. Baim is the author of Obama and the Gays: A Political Marriage (Prairie Avenue Productions, 2010). She is also the co-author and editor of Out and Proud in Chicago: An Overview of the City’s Gay Community (Surrey/Agate, 2008) and is author of Where the World Meets, a book about Gay Games VII in Chicago (2007, Lulu.com). Her most recent book is a novel, The Half Life of Sgt. Jen Hunter, about lesbians in the military prior to Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.

Owen Keehnen’s fiction, essays, erotica, reviews, and interviews have appeared in hundreds of magazines and anthologies worldwide, including the upcoming Windy City Queer from University of Wisconsin Press. His newest novel, The Sand Bar, is due in autumn 2011 from Lethe Press. Keehnen is the author of the horror novel Doorway Unto Darkness (Dancing Moon Press, 2010) and published the humorous gay novel I May Not Be Much But I’m All I Think About (e-gaymag.com). His upcoming collection We’re Here, We’re Queer features more than 100 of his best interviews from the 1990s with LGBT writers, artists, and activists who helped lay the groundwork for the current LGBTQ world. He is also co-editor of Nothing Personal: Chronicles of Chicago’s LGBTQ Community 1977-1997 (Firetrap Press, 2009) and contributed 10 of the essays in the groundbreaking coffee-table book Out and Proud in Chicago (Surrey/Agate, 2008). Keehnen has written for Penthouse Forum and Men’s Style and was author of the Starz books, a four-volume series of interviews with gay porn stars.