Chicago SM club under fire for anti-trans policy
by Heather Cassell
As thousands of leathermen head to Chicago for this weekend's International Mr. Leather contest, one group won't be welcome at a Windy City gay SM club â€“ those who are transgender.
Leather transmen and their advocates are putting pressure on the Chicago Hellfire Club, one of the oldest leather and SM clubs in the country, to repeal its 10-year-old policy against female-to-male individuals.
According to David Igasaki, the immediate past president of the Hellfire Club and a member for 15 years, "The general rule of thumb is that there has to be a penile attachment." This means that for transgender men to be invited to or considered for membership to attend the private play parties and events they need to complete convertive surgery.
Igasaki told the Bay Area Reporter that he was aware that many FTMs don't complete genital surgery for various reasons, but that he opposed changing the current policy regarding transmen.
"They don't want to admit women," said Igasaki. "It's not that people are anti-women or personally discriminate against transgender people. It's just that as a sex club there is a desire to protect a gay environment during play."
The Hellfire Club has an estimated 400 members with an annual operating budget of over $300,000, according to David Schultz, a member for 10 years who supports transmen's inclusion in the club.
The Leather Journal lists just over 400 leather clubs in the United States, but according to leather transmen and their advocates, only a handful have active anti-transgender policies. The Hellfire Club, in existence for 35 years, is the largest club in the country.
The issue has heated up within the past several months after a majority of the Hellfire Club's board members voted in October 2006 to continue the current policy, according to Igasaki.
According to Schultz, several developments regarding the club's transgender policy have occurred within the past several months. Due to the incidents and the policy, Schultz has withheld his membership dues in protest.
First, Schultz said, there was the dumping of the print edition of the January/February 2007 issue of The Brand, the club's newsletter, after a letter he wrote regarding the board's decision to retain the discriminatory policy was published. Editor Ken Jacobsen Jr. confirmed the destruction of the newsletter. Jacobs told the B.A.R. that he resigned from the position in March because "I wasn't going to be a party to censorship."
Second, according to Schultz, an unofficial request to look into the issue was brought to the city of Chicago's Human Relations Advisory Council on Gay and Lesbian Issues.
Bill Greaves, director and LGBT community liaison of human relations council, told the B.A.R., however, that discrimination complaints needed to be filed formally with the Chicago Commission on Human Relations in order to be investigated.
Ken Gunn, first deputy commissioner of the Commission on Human Relations, told the B.A.R. that a formal complaint hadn't been filed against the Hellfire Club.
Third, the 15 Association stopped sponsoring the club this year and posted its anti- discrimination policy regarding "birth gender" on its Web site. A link to the Hellfire Club was still on its Web site at press time.
"It's a sore spot," said 15 Association Chairman Steven Gaynes. There are two transmen who are active members of that club, according to Gaynes. "We disagree with them on this, but we don't want to make it into a situation where there are any bad feelings. We are not coming down on them, we are just not doing business with them."
Current Hellfire President Roger Scheid refused to comment about the club's internal policies and individual's personal decisions regarding the transgender policy.
According to Igasaki, the club is in compliance with the Chicago human relations commission.
"We are a private club that fits within the exemption of the Chicago ordinance, which the club did endorse when it was adopted," said Igasaki. "There is a private club exemption and since we are essentially a private sex club we are not covered by the ordinance."
Transmen and their advocates are critical of the Hellfire Club's endorsement of the human rights ordinance that includes "gender identity," when the club openly carries out a discriminatory policy against transmen.
"Do you support transgender equality or don't you?" asked Billy, a transman who asked that his last name not be used. "If you do ï¿½ why is it that transgender men that are like myself [and] that are legally men can't come to your event?"
Leather transmen and their advocates believe that after 10 years and the fact that many clubs either allow transmen or have active anti-discrimination policies in place that it's time for the Hellfire Club to change its policy. Many transmen and their advocates told the B.A.R. that people wouldn't even know if someone was transgender unless they tell someone. Billy likens it to the military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy.
"It's a disappointment that they are not willing to change with the times," said Tyler Fong, 40, a gay trans man.
"What are they going to do? Are they going to do a dick check at the door? I don't think so," said Billy about the Hellfire Club's insistence on maintaining the policy. "The United States government recognizes me as male, yet this club does not recognize me as male."
Billy, 43, a gay leather man who transitioned in 1992 and has been a member of the leather community since about 1987 or 1988, is the only out transgender individual who has attended Inferno, the club's invitation-only event held in September. Fifty-three Hellfire Club members sponsored him to attend Inferno in 2003.
Billy told the B.A.R. that he attended the event even after he was disinvited by Brent McGuiness, who coordinates Inferno, because it would "harm the community."
Billy didn't back down despite the request not to attend Inferno and the public shunning at the event. He went and had a good time, hoping that his presence would educate and help the board members reconsider their policy. Billy was disappointed that the members chose not to invite him back the following year. Billy said that no negative incidents happened at Inferno.
"When you're a part of a community that can be invisible I think that it's really important when you have an opportunity to try and do something positive," said Billy. "I thought that might help change the club [and] promote some positive dialogue. Unfortunately, what it did was quite the opposite."
McGuiness did not return a call seeking comment.
Transmen and their advocates question the Hellfire Club's viability as a private club. They argue that it isn't strictly a private club because it solicits invitations to its events at public venues and on its Web site. They also take issue with the fact that the Hellfire Club doesn't recognize valid government-issued identification, including driver's licenses and passports.
"I don't think that a private club would set up a table at a public venue and allow anybody to talk with you and inquire to attend an event," said Billy.
It's not just that the club solicits potential members in public spaces, but then the invitation gets extended.
"How hurtful is it for somebody to walk up and invite you to an event and you say I can't come because I'm not allowed?" asked Billy, who told the B.A.R. that this happens to him several times every year he attends the IML event, during which Hellfire sponsors several invitation-only parties. "It's hurtful for the person that's extending the invitation and it's hurtful for the person who's gotten the invitation."
The IML contest, which gets under way today (Thursday, May 24), does not discriminate against transmen.
Chuck Renslow, the owner of IML, did not respond to an e-mail request seeking comment on the issue.
[On Thursday, Renslow called, saying he did not receive the e-mail message. He confirmed to the B.A.R. that IML does not discriminate. "If their driver's license or other legal ID says they're male, they're male â€“ there's no two ways about it."]
Igasaki told the B.A.R. that transmen do attend Hellfire's more public events, such as the annual cocktail party that happens during IML, and bar nights. He said there haven't been any problems at these events with transmen.
"We do have some effort to be somewhat public in invitation, but it's closely guarded," said Stephen Schorle, a full member emeritus of the Hellfire Club who advocates against the club's transgender policy.
"I would argue if that's not solicitation and foregoing your rights as a private club, nothing else is," said Schultz.
Schorle and Schultz told the B.A.R. that like discrimination against many groups in the past, it's done through innuendo and word of mouth.
"What's interesting about the club is if you name drop somebody that's in Hawaii, I'll call that person in Hawaii and say, 'What do you know about so and so over here?'" said Schorle. "So we get reports on people who aren't even members."
Fong said that he has spoken with Igasaki about the policy in the past.
"He kind of scooted around the policy and asked me, 'Gee, Tyler, do you have a dick? Do you have a penis?'" said Fong. "I said, 'Yeah, but it's very small.'"
Billy told the B.A.R. that he had a similar experience.
"The pure meanness like calling my friends up and asking my friends what kind of surgery I had," said Billy.
Igasaki admitted that the issue had escalated.
"Whatever their views on the issues [Hellfire members] were starting to raise it to such a pretentious and personal level it was just antagonizing other people," said Igasaki. "If they want to change views they need to engage in education, but just attacking people personally â€“ the people on the other side â€“ is not going to bring them the vote."
Igasaki told the B.A.R. that the issue "was starting to tear us apart" and "grate on people, even people who wanted to change the policy."
According to Billy, opportunities for education were offered.
When the B.A.R. asked Igasaki if members had taken the opportunity to be educated he said, "There are all these opportunities, we all have each other's contact information."
When pressed on whether any formal education had happened, Igasaki said, "No. There hasn't been a formal educational program."
Lance Moore, 47, who said he is a bisexual man with "a transsexual history," told the B.A.R. that he would like to go to Inferno someday, but he's aware of the policy, which angers him.
"Some people find FTMs sexy," said Moore. "Let them go through the elimination process like anybody else. Either they get in or not on their own merit. That's how it should be in all of the clubs."