What do you get when a leather daddy and a librarian walk into a synagogue? Well, apparently, a museum. The now 30-years-old Leather Archives & Museum to be exact.
Three decades ago, Chuck Renslow and Tony DeBlase dreamt up a way to collect and preserve queer, mostly kink, art and culture for generations to come. They were each famous leathermen in their own right, and a powerful duo together. Renslow was the owner and operator of the Man’s Country bathhouse in Chicago, and founded the International Mr. Leather contest that still brings thousands to the city every year. DeBlase, the one-time publisher of kink-focused magazine Drummer, created the Leather Pride flag—a symbol that is used to this day to celebrate leather and kink sexuality.
Originally the National Gay and Lesbian Archives, LA&M incorporated in May 1991, a month before the passing of Renslow’s partner of 40 years, Dom Orejudos, the world-renowned homoerotic artist known as Etienne. The name officially changed to LA&M in May 1992.
Now, decades later, leatherfolk and lookie-loos alike acknowledge the museum’s role in preserving an important history. The museum has a troupe of eager volunteers who staff rummage sales and do landscaping work, and donations make up the lion’s share of the museum’s collection. LA&M was also inducted into the Chicago LGBT Hall of Fame in 2017.
“Chicago is probably the only place that this could exist, because we’re right there on the street front in Andersonville like, ‘Hey, look at us,'” says Gary Wasdin, LA&M’s executive director and resident Daddy. “We’re not ashamed or shy.”
Wasdin joined the museum as its new executive director in January 2018.
The Leather Archives and Museum, in its current form, occupies what was once a synagogue, just steps away from Devon Market, tucked gently between a gas station and rows of two- and three-flats on an otherwise residential Rogers Park street.
But as unassuming as the facade may be, its interior holds an unvarnished and hedonistic history few others, if any, are collecting in any meaningful way.
“These are community-based institutions that have tried to fill the gaps in acquiring and preserving and making available primary source materials for populations that were largely neglected by major research institutions,” says Gayle Rubin, LA&M board member and celebrated gender and sexuality scholar. Rubin has spent her career researching and writing about queer sexuality, particularly leather and kink.
The museum’s auditorium is lined with enormous murals of men painted by Etienne. Its lobby boasts a display case of kink-themed parody tchotchkes like a “BOND-AID” box and a trio of S&M-themed Lego pieces, across from a standard display of museum T-shirts and mugs. Intricately adorned and well-worn leather vests hang in reverence in an adjoining room.
But among the smut and sex is an important collection of the evolution of American sexuality. The museum’s early pieces chronicle the underground bar scene that characterized much of queer male sexuality in the 50s and 60s before Stonewall. Many of the pieces in its collection of materials from the 1980s are all that’s left of a generation of men who died—from equal parts AIDS and the homophobia that let it run rampant.
“It was this sort of counter act to the gay plague fears that were everywhere,” Wasdin says. “It’s hard for any of us to even think or describe what that would be like, because it’s mind-boggling.”
Wasdin also credits Renslow himself, his business acumen, and his political connections with the early survival of the museum.
And now, in an era where pop stars like Lil Nas X can wear chaps and a chest harness while doing a striptease on Saturday Night Live to whoops and hollers, Wasdin and others say the museum is still an important resource, both for a historical understanding of kink, and as a place for the newly initiated to explore.
Other than its actual founding, few moments stand out among the museum’s history more than the 1999 move to its current home, the former synagogue. The only milestone that might upstage that is the capital fundraising effort to pay off the building’s mortgage, which Windy City Times reports raised more than $400,000 and allowed the museum to buy the space.
And as the museum has grown and evolved, it’s been able to hire staff to more particularly care for its collection. LA&M’s archivist, Mel Leverich, has the important task of managing the rows and rows of metal shelves that hold artwork, posters, leather, and other kink accoutrements.
Leslie Anderson has the equally important job of preserving those accoutrements. Leather sashes, shirts, pants, shorts, harnesses, and gear of all kinds hang in a corner that reminds more of a tightly packed thrift store than a museum. Armed with a cart overflowing with paintbrushes of various sizes and a litany of balms and polishes, Anderson makes sure the leather pieces acquired by the museum stand the test of time.
“For years, I lobbied them to do something with me, and I made myself just so annoying, eventually, I think they just gave up and decided,” Anderson says. By her own admission, though, Anderson has been involved in the museum in some fashion since its founding.
As the museum expands, so does its collection. And Wasdin says that diversifying that collection to include folks left out of what can only paradoxically be called “mainstream kink culture—meaning people of color, women, and trans people to name a few—is crucial if the museum is going to survive for the next 30 years.
“You have to actively go out and seek people of color or women or trans leather and kink folks, reach out to them and put in the work and time to build that trust and relationship to get these kinds of collections,” Wasdin says.
And to the LA&M’s credit, its downstairs gallery has specific spaces to acknowledge the kink history of those communities. But as Wasdin says, it’s not just about putting people from these communities on display, it’s about ensuring that they have an equitable role in the museum.
And for some kinksters, previous iterations of the museum, even under Renslow’s leadership, have been less than equitable.
Joey McDonald, a Black man who has been heavily involved in the museum since it was founded, says he has had to push some of the older, white men on the museum’s board to better serve marginalized populations, namely people of color and women.
“There is a serious commitment to address and move forward with racial equity, but it’s a hard drive because there’s so much white, patriarchal bullshit that has been embedded in the archives since its inception, you know, including my daddy, Chuck Renslow,” McDonald says.
Alexandra St. James, a Black transgender woman who won the Ms. Iowa Leather 2017 contest, recalls hearing transphobic comments from people at leather and kink events who didn’t know she was trans. And Choc Trei, at one time the only person of color on the board, says she received significant pushback and accusations of tokenism when another board member, Catherine Gross, brought her to the board for consideration four years ago.
Trei says that since then, she has recruited another woman of color and hopes St. James will join the board as well.
But the trio all agreed that under current leadership, particularly Wasdin, the museum has made incredible progress.
“There has been a more dedicated push in the last five years than I saw ever before, and I’m sure part of that has to do with the fact that they have had women—active, vibrant, powerful women—that have come on to the board,” McDonald says.
And Wasdin readily admits that the museum may have previously “fallen short” in its mission of equity and inclusion, particularly as a predominantly minority-serving institution. But realigning in that mission to better serve the full spectrum of the kink community is part of how the museum survives for the next 30 years and beyond, he says.
“Now, what’s the work look like to actually be equitable?” Wasdin says. “That’s where we’ve been for the last several years, trying to look at things differently.”
It’s also under Wasdin’s leadership that the museum has weathered a challenge unlike any other, the COVID-19 pandemic, one that marks the second pandemic that has gripped the museum, following the AIDS crisis.
Alongside the unprecedented challenges of COVID-19, Wasdin says there have been some points of relief. The Paycheck Protection Program loans the museum received were its first federal funding, something Wasdin says bodes well for its future.
And now that spaces are slowly beginning to let guests return, Wasdin says he hopes people will support the museum in person.
“The story we tell everybody today is we exist because the community wants us to exist,” Wasdin says.
After all that, you might be surprised to hear that the museum has only been protested once, by Wasdin’s count. But that single protest speaks volumes about the museum and its place in the community, he says.
The protestors, who Wasdin says came from out of state, arrived on the otherwise quiet Rogers Park block to protest a kink-themed Last Supper-style painting that hangs in a hallway at the museum. But instead of ignoring the protestors, Wasdin says the community rallied around the museum, even calling the local alderman and staging a counterprotest.
“There’s been really wide acceptance,” Wasdin says, “and people always say that something like this probably could not have existed anywhere except Chicago.” v