What drew me to the “leather scene” in the 1970s was an image — a composite, really, of masculine images that all spoke of a raw passion and eros.
The drawings of Tom of Finland, the paintings of Etienne, those photos of mustached men in leather jackets and little else in the pages of “physique” magazines from the1960s — they all spoke to something deep inside me and motivated me to seek out those men.
What I didn’t know at the time was many of those images were a direct result of the work of a man whose name I didn’t learn until many years later: Chuck Renslow.
Chuck began working as a photographer in the 1950s, shooting images of the ballet. Later, his interests led him to body builders and, with his lover at the time Don Orejudos (the painter known as Etienne), he formed Kris Studios. That endeavor became one of the most profitable and prolific publishers of male erotica in the country.
Along the way, Chuck and Etienne purchased the Gold Coast bar in Chicago, and the first leather bar was born. That bar was part of my early leather life, being the first big city leather bar I ever went into.
That bar also became the site of a contest which eventually became International Mister Leather. IML moved out of the bar in 1979, and now the yearly event draws almost 10,000 leather enthusiasts to Chicago from all over the world. In 2013, I was honored to be a judge in that contest, and the experience ranks as one of my most memorable. I interviewed more than 50 contestants before helping narrow down the field to the top 20, who went on to compete in front of a huge crowd at Chicago’s Harris Theater.
Chuck has been a steadfast supporter of the leather community beyond IML, too, contributing to many charities and instrumental in the formation of the Leather Archives and Museum. That institution holds the world’s largest collection of leather-related memorabilia and literature. Its archives hold the papers of hundreds of LGBT writers and activists in the leather realm — including a few bits of my own past. On my last visit, I was shown my first club vest from the Dallas Motorcycle Club, neatly preserved and stored away. My papers and personal collections will end up there some day in the (hopefully) distant future.
Chuck was also an enthusiastic supporter of LGBT rights, and when Chicago’s LGBT community organized its first Pride parade, Chuck was there, contributing his time and money to make it a reality.
I had a chance to get to know Chuck better on a trip to South Africa a few years ago. I got to listen to a few of his stories, and I got a much better sense of his sense of humor and his commitment to our community. It is an experience even more dear to me now, since he is gone.
Chuck Renslow died of heart failure on June 29 at the age of 87. He is survived by his partner, Ron Ehemann, and his two sons, Patrick Corcoran and Robert Wilke. He is also survived by a large and loving family of leather men and women from all parts of the globe.
He will be missed not just by his family, not just by me, but by a generation of leather folk whose lives he influenced for the better.
Hardy Haberman is a longtime local LGBT activist and a board member of the Woodhull Freedom Alliance. His blog is at DungeonDiary.blogspot.com.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition July 7, 2017.