Chuck Renslow, founder of “International Mr. Leather,” dies

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Chuck Renslow file photo courtesy of Windy City Times
Chuck Renslow file photo courtesy of Windy City Times

Chuck Renslow, 87, a longtime pillar of the LGBT community in Chicago and around the world, has died after multiple long-term health issues.

Renslow reigned over a seven-decade empire, starting more than two dozen businesses’ 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.

Chuck Renslow file photo courtesy of Windy City Times
Chuck Renslow file photo courtesy of Windy City Times

The founder of International Mr. Leather, owner of Man’s ountry and the Gold Coast bar, publisher of the GayLife newspaper in the 1980s, political activist, and much more was an out business owner since the 1950s. He was a critical contributor to a wide range of political, social, business, health and other causes.

In the early 1950s, 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 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.

Renslow had many partners over the years, among them Dom ‘Etienne’ Orejudos, who he was with more than 40 years and, and helped encourage Dom’s 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. He encouraged each of them in their work.

In 1979, he founded International Mr. Leather, which grew out of his Mr. Gold Coast contest and the experience he had managing A.A.U. physique competitions. When Dom ‘Etienne’ died, Renslow combined his collection of Eteinne’s art with his own archives from his business and his life; Renslow and Tony DeBlase co-founded the Leather Archives & Museum in 1991. Renslow served as president for many years.

Renslow was inducted into the 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 and was a U.S. representative to what was known as the International Lesbian and Gay Association.
Renslow also was involved in newspapers, purchasing GayLife newspaper from its founder, Grant Ford, and publishing it for several years, until it folded in 1986.

Renslow was especially active in politics in the 1970s and ’80s, as the gay community gained clout. He was the founder of Prairie State Democratic Club in 1980, and they 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 Mayor Jane Byrne.

He served as a Democratic Party Ward precinct captain, as a candidate for delegate to the 1980 Democratic National Convention, and within the 46th and 48th Ward Democratic Organizations in Chicago. 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.

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

The Leather Archives & Museum staff and board issued this statement, in part:
“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.’ 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.”

Renslow’s life is chronicled in Leatherman: The Legend of Chuck Renslow, by Tracy Baim and Owen Keehnen.

Also see several video interviews here: http://chicagogayhistory.org/biography.html?id=772 .