CHICAGO — Chuck Renslow, one of Chicago's earliest openly gay entrepreneurs, died Thursday, but the longtime activist's leather-clad legacy continues on.
Renslow, 87, died Thursday after multiple long-term health issues and nearly seven decades of pioneering the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer business scene in Chicago.
He is perhaps best known as the founder of the International Mr. Leather contest and the Leather Archives and Museum in Rogers Park, but Renslow has a storied history of opening dozens of gay friendly businesses around Chicago.
His life was extensively chronicled in "Leatherman: The Legend of Chuck Renslow," a 2007 biography by Tracy Baim and Owen Keehnen.
Chuck Renslow, a pillar of our lgbtq community here and around the world, has died at age 87. The founder of International Mr Leather pic.twitter.com/REekpoCapK— Windy City Times (@WindyCityTimes1) June 29, 2017
Born and raised in Logan Square, Renslow came out as a gay man when he was a student at Lane Technical High School, he told Baim, who is also the publisher of the Windy City Times.
"By some grace of God, I accepted my identity and what I was very early," Renslow said in Baim's 2007 series of recorded interviews. "The problems I had, of course, was hiding it. At times, that was extremely frustrating, but everybody did. You really couldn't come out."
With just a handful of gay bars in Chicago entirely controlled by the the Mafia in the 1950s, Renslow recalled the "very free atmosphere" they provided, safe from police raids thanks to payoffs from the syndicate. Even so, dancing together and kissing someone of the same sex was off limits.
A few years later on Oak Street Beach, he met Dom Orejudos, an artist who worked under the pseudonym "Etienne" in physique portraiture and dance. The couple remained together for 43 years until Orejudos' death in 1991 that resulted from a combination of pneumonia and complications from AIDS.
Renslow continued to love and nurture artists after Orejudos' death. He was involved with Cliff Raven, Chuck Arnett, Sam 'Phil Andros' Steward and David Grooms and had a relationship with Ron Ehemann that spanned 30 years.
In the early 1960s, Renslow opened Gold Coast bar, one of the first leather bars in the world and among the earliest gay-owned businesses in the city and went on to be the oldest leather establishment before it closed in 1987.
He and other aficionados of leather culture — what Renslow called a "symbolic" fetish that exists under the BDSM umbrella — tried to find a bar to call home, patronizing bars like Omar's and The High-Ho (now Friar Tuck in Lakeview) until they were kicked out.
Eventually, they found a bar at Elm and Clark with little business, and the elderly Italian owner welcomed his new cohort of customers. When the owner died, his son offered to sell the bar to Renslow, and it became Gold Coast bar.
"We were raided once in those early days, when you had to pay off," Renslow said. "The police came every month for their cut, the Outfit wanted theirs, and you'd do it."
At one point, Renslow asked the neighborhood watch commander if Gold Coast could stay open past 2 a.m. on New Year's Eve. It could — for $50 an hour.
RIP Chuck Renslow. In the front office of his bathhouse, he gave one of most memorable interviews for QUEER CLOUT. pic.twitter.com/H9zxtH0Lua— TSW (@timothysw) June 29, 2017
"You were at the mercy of every cop that wanted to come in, and the only way you could get them to go away was to pay them off," Renslow said.
Ten years later, Renslow heard about the Stonewall Inn riots from a friend and helped organize the first Gay Pride Parade in Chicago. At that point, he also owned the drag bar Sparrow's Lounge and continued to run his semi-nude physique photography studio, Kris Studio, which sent out photos to the gay community at large.
As gay rights rose in the public dialogue, Renslow became more active politically, pushing then-Mayor Richard J. Daley to recognize the community and organizing with the Prairie State Democratic Club and what's now known as the National LGBTQ Task Force.
He continued to blaze trails in business, taking control of the failing GayLife newspaper and starting Triumph, Mars and Rawhide Male magazines. He fought back against a censorship lawsuit from the U.S. Post Office targeting his photography studio's mailings of scantily clad men in 1964 and won when the judge declared "the human body is not obscene," Renslow recalled.
Renslow hired the first black bartender at a gay bar and reinvented bathhouses in Chicago, adding an entertainment aspect to Man's Country, which remains open in Andersonville to this day.
"The idea was to have a place that everybody can go and be free and do whatever they want, not necessarily sexual," he said.
He and Orejudos started a Mr. Gold Coast contest out of the leather bar that was so popular in its first year, crowds stood in the streets outside the at-capacity bar.
When they relocated to a Downtown hotel the following year, the contest became International Mr. Leather.
"I saw the popularity just in Chicago, and I wanted to make it international," Renslow said. Together, they translated IML posters and sent them to leather bars worldwide.
From 400 attendees and a dozen contestants, IML has grown into four-day-long extravaganza for more than 8,000 people each year.
Renslow and Orejudos also organized the long-running White Party that took place at venues around the city each year on Renslow's birthday. Named for the white outfits of guests, the White Party grew up to 5,000 people when such celebrations of gay life were rare.
After Orejudos' death, Renslow inherited an estimated $1 million-worth of his partner's art. Seeking a lasting way to keep the works together and honor Orejudos' legacy, Renslow and friend Tony DeBlase launched the Leather Archives and Museum, now located at 6418 N. Greenview Ave., in Rogers Park.
The museum "serves as a repository for our history," Renslow said in a 2012 speech. It's "a place where future generations will be able to know what has come before."
Renslow continued to press on in the face of the AIDS crisis, which created "devastating" fear in the community, he said.
"You have no idea the devastation," he said. "Man's Country went from a beautiful, surviving business to next to nothing. People were dying left and right. I buried seven of my closest friends."
To celebrate Renslow's legacy, the Leather Archives will establish a temporary display of rare items from his collection. The display will also have a letter-writing station for those who wish to send messages to the Renslow family.
Those who cannot attend can mail their letters to the archives.