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IML founder Chuck Renslow dies

by Tracy Baim

Chuck Renslow, left, with Sylvester. Photo: Courtesy<br>Windy City Times
Chuck Renslow, left, with Sylvester. Photo: Courtesy
Windy City Times  

Chuck Renslow, a longtime pillar of the LGBTQ community in Chicago and around the world, died June 29 after multiple long-term health issues. He was 87.

Mr. Renslow reigned over a seven-decade empire, starting more than two-dozen businesses â€" bars, 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.

The founder of International Mr. Leather, owner of Man's Country and the Gold Coast bars, publisher of the GayLife newspaper in the 1980s, and a political activist, Mr. Renslow was an out gay business owner since the 1950s. He was a critical contributor to a wide range of political, social, business, health, and other causes in the Windy City.

IML, an annual conference and contest that attracts leathermen from around the world, typically draws upward of 50 contestants who vie for the prestigious title and other honors.

"He was like a father to many of us," longtime leatherman and former San Francisco resident Peter Fiske wrote in a Facebook post. "A very kind, savvy, and loving father."

Others commented that Mr. Renslow helped usher in a greater acceptance of gays.

"His death marks the end of an era," San Francisco resident Steve Gaynes wrote on Facebook. "He made Chicago a gay-friendly city."

The Leather Archives and Museum in Chicago, which Mr. Renslow co-founded, issued a statement shortly after his death was announced.

"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," the statement read. "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."


Early days

In the early 1950s, Mr. 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 that, in the decades before the internet, were 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.

He opened Gold Coast, believed to be the first leather bar in the U.S., in Chicago in 1958. He was the founder of many bars and sex clubs since the 1960s, including Man's Country, which is still open in Andersonville.

Mr. Renslow had many partners over the years, among them Dom "Etienne" Orejudos, who he was with for more than 40 years. He helped encourage Orejudos' work as the artist Etienne. He was also involved with Cliff Raven, Chuck Arnett, Sam "Phil Andros" Steward, David Grooms of Wisconsin, and Ron Ehemann, and encouraged them in their work, too.

In 1979, he founded International Mr. Leather, which grew out of his Mr. Gold Coast contest and the experience he had managing Amateur Athletic Union physique competitions.

When Orejudos died, Mr. Renslow combined his collection of Etienne's art with his own archives from his business and his life; Mr. Renslow and Tony DeBlase co-founded the Leather Archives and Museum in 1991.

Mr. Renslow was inducted into 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, now known as the National LGBTQ Task Force, and was a U.S. representative to what was known then as the International Lesbian and Gay Association.

Mr. Renslow also was involved in newspapers, purchasing GayLife from its founder, Grant Ford, and publishing it for several years, until it folded in 1986.

Mr. Renslow was especially active in politics in the 1970s and 1980s, as the gay community gained clout. He was the founder of Prairie State Democratic Club in 1980, and it 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 Chicago City Council in the early 1970s, and the initial executive order banning discrimination in Chicago city government, as issued by then-Mayor Jane Byrne.

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.

Mr. Renslow was born August 26, 1929, raised in the Logan Square neighborhood of Chicago. He graduated from Lane Technical High School.

Mr. Renslow is survived by many friends and family. At press time, a memorial had not been announced.

Mr. Renslow's life is chronicled in "Leatherman: The Legend of Chuck Renslow," and Owen Keehnen. A video interview is available at:


This obituary is excerpted from Windy City Times. Used with permission. Cynthia Laird contributed reporting. For more on Mr. Renslow, see the Leather column in BARtab.


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