Friday, March 18, 2005

Fireplay: LA&M Burns the Mortgage

(Leather Life column published in Lavender Magazine, Issue #256, March 18, 2005)

PHOTO: Leather Archives & Museum Founder and President Chuck Renslow burns the mortgage.

After seven years of intense fundraising, the Leather Archives & Museum (LA&M) in Chicago finally owns its permanent home. To celebrate, a mortgage-burning was held at the LA&M on Sunday afternoon, Feb. 20. A capacity crowd filling the Etienne Auditorium watched LA&M President and Founder Chuck Renslow set the mortgage papers afire.

The mortgage had been paid off in August of 2004. The LA&M capital campaign raised $400,000 from community donations, enough to purchase and improve a 10,000-square-foot building at 6418 N. Greenview Avenue on the north side of Chicago.

The afternoon’s events, underwritten by Randall “Bear Man” Klett and the LeatherWerks of Fort Lauderdale, Florida, began with a reception buffet and cocktail party in the lower-level museum area. After the reception John Krongaard, LA&M Vice-President and master of ceremonies, opened the mortgage-burning ceremony with the following words:

We’re brought together today for a celebration that’s been seven years in the making. Today, rather fitting for this very special place, we’re making history. Five years ago, this building was purchased to become the international repository of all things collectible from the leather & fetish community—our own private Smithsonian . . . . Today we’re celebrating our taking full ownership—ownership by the entire leather and fetish community, ownership of this property and all that is protected within its walls.

Rick Storer, LA&M Executive Director, then introduced Renslow, who reminisced about the moment of inspiration and discovery that led to the LA&M:

It’s hard to believe that I had an idea, and I talked to a very good friend of mine, Tony DeBlase—in fact, one of the things I feel sad about today is that he’s not here—but we were sitting in my living room, and had the idea of—I didn’t [envision] a museum, just an archives—and he said, “Oh, you’ve got to have a museum, too.” And then he said, “You know, we have to have enough material to start it with.” . . . And I said, “Tony, come on down in my basement with me.” . . . So we went downstairs, and Tony walks into the basement and he sees the boxes. And he starts opening this one, opening that one—he says, “My God, you got stuff here!” He looks a little more and says “Chuck, thank God you’re a pack rat!”

Randall “Bear Man” Klett, after Renslow the longest-serving member of the LA&M’s board of directors, continued the story of the LA&M’s early years:

The first question we all ask, once we’ve been fed, clothed, sheltered, and been laid, is: “Who am I, how do I fit into this world that I live in, and what makes me special?” And we answer those questions by creating a religious space. We create a holy space. That space preserves our heritage, our stories, our literature, our art, our fiction. And this, my friends, is a holy space to the leather community. . . .

How did this start? We hear about Chuck [Renslow] and Tony [Deblase], but the reality is, this started with the story that was reported in the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly report on June 5, 1981. Five men in Los Angeles were diagnosed with pneumocystis carinii in the previous few months. A plague was coming. And a result of that plague was, our history, our art, our stories, our clothes, our fiction was disappearing into dumpsters. . . .

Originally founded as the National Gay & Lesbian Archives by Chuck, Gary Chichester and Judy McCarthy, a year later it became the Leather Archives & Museum. Not much happened during those days. . . . They had a dream, and they kept it alive, and that’s what’s important.

Chuck opened a museum on Clark Street in 1996—managed to hire Joseph Bean to work for the princely salary of $600 a month to be the first Executive Director. Very shortly thereafter, Joseph said, “We need a holy space to call our own.” . . .

It was five years, nine months and three weeks ago that Tony DeBlase and Bill Kostamiris got me in a room at The Congress Hotel [during the International Mr. Leather Contest weekend], plied me with liquor—and if you know Tony, it was Jack [Daniels], I remember the hangover clearly—and said, “We found the building. Now we have to come up with the down-payment.”

Well, the best way to do that is to go out and get a half a dozen people to write you a check right off the bat. And I said, “I’ll put up $1500. Go out in the vendor market.” . . . And they went out into the vendor market and solicited people to put up $1500 with me. And we stood on stage during the contest the following day, the following night, hangover and all, and passed the hat. And we came up with the down-payment in two weeks. . . . We moved into this building a couple months later. . . .
Since then, we’ve gone from the kind of an organization that has a board that meets for an hour-and-a-half and tells people they’ve been elected afterwards, to a real organization, with a real board of directors, and no mortgage . . . . We’ve created a holy space to preserve our art, our stories, our fashion, fiction, our oral traditions. And for that, I can only do one thing that goes with holy space—say thank you.

Others speakers talked briefly and passionately about the LA&M’s present and future. There were awards: “Above and Beyond” plaques were presented by a contingent of LA&M volunteers to executive director Rick Storer and Facilities Manager Jeff Wirsing, and the first-ever President’s Award was presented to longtime activist Roger Klorese for his support of the LA&M. Past contributors who did not live to see this community milestone were remembered as Krongaard read a list of their names.

Then, after Krongaard playfully propped a fire extinguisher on the lectern, and while the audience did a countdown from ten, Renslow lit the mortgage papers and set them in a silver chafing dish, where they burned instantly and quite dramatically. After the cheers and applause died down, Krongaard ended the ceremony by inviting the audience to “continue to make some history.”

The Leather Archives & Museum compiles, preserves and maintains the history, archives and memorabilia of leather and related lifestyles for historical, educational and research purposes. Information on the organization, membership and publications is available at the museum or at <>.

Friday, March 4, 2005

People Who Live In Glass Houses . . . Philip Johnson, Architect, 1906-2005

Article published in Lavender Magazine, Issue #255, March 4, 2005)

The next time you look at the Minneapolis skyline and see the iconic IDS Center, remind yourself that its architect was a gay man. That architect, Philip Johnson, died Jan. 25 at the age of 98.

Johnson designed the IDS Center to be the center of a downtown that, prior to its construction, didn’t have one. The IDS Center and its Crystal Court became the hub of the Minneapolis skyway system, and both the building’s exterior and the interior of the Crystal Court became symbols of Minneapolis when they were used in the opening of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” Every week millions of American television viewers caught a glimpse of Mary dining in the restaurant overlooking the Crystal Court; a plaque still commemorates the table where she dined.

Prior to the construction of the IDS Center the tallest building in Minneapolis was the Foshay Tower. At 51 stories (plus six more stories of mechanical equipment), the IDS Center dwarfed the Foshay. The IDS is still (barely) the tallest building in downtown Minneapolis; perhaps out of respect for Johnson, no one has yet built a taller one.

Philip Johnson was born July 8, 1906 in Cleveland, Ohio, to a well-to-do family. Published reports differ on the year he graduated from Harvard with a degree in philosophy—some say it was 1927, others 1930. While at Harvard he suffered a nervous breakdown that years later he attributed to the stresses of coming to terms with his homosexuality.

Johnson’s career involvement with architecture started in 1932. That year saw both his appointment as chairman of the Department of Architecture at New York’s Museum of Modern Art and his mounting of an exhibition at the museum called “The International Style: Architecture 1922-1932.” This was the first exposure many Americans had to the “modern” architectural style that came to dominate the middle of the 20th century: the boxy, glass-walled skyscraper.

After his involvement with architects and architecture at the Museum of Modern Art, in 1940 Johnson went back to grad school at Harvard to study to be an architect. The first building Johnson designed is also one of his most famous: his own residence, the Glass House in New Canaan, Conn., which was his masters degree thesis.

Dating from 1949 and surrounded by woods, the one-story glass-and-steel house is completely transparent (except for a cylindrical brick core containing a fireplace and chimney in one half and a bathroom in the other half). At his first visit to the Glass House, fellow architect Frank Lloyd Wright found it hard to determine whether he was inside or outside and kiddingly asked Johnson whether or not he should remove his hat.

Johnson went on to become one of the leading advocates and practitioners of the International or modern style of architecture (the IDS Center, designed in 1969 and completed in 1973, is a relatively late example) before breaking with that style and embracing “postmodern” architecture. The Chippendale-topped AT&T Building in New York (now occupied by Sony) is the most notable (or notorious) example of Johnson’s postmodern work.

Another famous and instantly-recognizable building designed by Johnson is the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, Calif., home of the Garden Grove Community Church and Dr. Robert Schuller’s “Hour of Power” television ministry. One of Johnson’s final designs was that of the new Cathedral of Hope in Dallas for a former Metropolitan Community Church congregation that is now independent.

Johnson was the winner of many awards including the American Institute of Architects Gold Medal in 1978 and the first Pritzker Prize for Architecture in 1979. However, Johnson was not universally loved, nor were his buildings. Twin Cities cartoonist Richard Guindon drew a memorable cartoon showing the Minneapolis skyline, which at the time consisted of the IDS Center and the Foshay Tower. The cartoon was captioned, “There’s the Foshay Tower, and there’s the box it came in.”

While Johnson was sometimes criticized as being a better publicist than architect, he in fact was the most famous architect of his time and the epitome of the socially-prominent, modern-day architect as celebrity. He could be brash and outspoken and liked to say things that shocked, referring repeatedly to himself and other architects as “whores” who were paid very well for their services. (But a survey of architects will generally show that one doesn’t design structures on such a grand scale unless one has a sizeable ego.)

Befitting his celebrity, Johnson’s death brought a flurry of attention and coverage in both television and print media. Much of the television coverage omitted any mention of the fact that Johnson was gay. Print media stories gave more in-depth coverage of Johnson’s life. Some reports mentioned his homosexuality and some even mentioned that Johnson was survived by David Whitney, an art dealer and curator who was Johnson’s “companion” for over 40 years.

The Leather Life Interview: Angel Rodriguez, Mr. Minneapolis Eagle 2005

(Leather Life column published in Lavender Magazine, Issue #255, March 4, 2005)

Angel Rodriguez became Mr. Minneapolis Eagle 2005 on Feb. 2. Shortly after, I had a chance to interview him. Rodriguez was born in Chicago, but he and his family moved in with his grandmother in Guaynabo, Puerto Rico, when he was about eight years old. I started by asking him to tell me his best memory of growing up in Puerto Rico.

My best memory is probably the open arms that Puerto Rican people have. They meet you and automatically they say, “Come home and have something to eat.” Our house was always open, we never locked our doors, and living in the mountains everybody kinda watched after each other.

And food, of course, great food. We cook with some great flavors.

Did you come from a large family?

I have two sisters and a brother, and I’m the youngest one out of the four of us. My grandmother had nine children, so everybody in the family, cousins and aunts and uncles, we all lived probably no more than twenty minutes apart from each other. My grandparents were very religious, born-again Christians, and my parents really embraced the church, too. So of course we kids went to church also.

What kind of church was it?

Pentecostal. It’s called Disciplos de Christos, Disciples of Christ.

Where in Puerto Rico is Guaynabo?

It’s about twenty minutes south of San Juan, up in the mountains. So basically, on Sunday, everybody goes to church. And you go, of course, Sunday morning, Sunday night—if you’re not doing anything you go to church.

What’s one of your memories about growing up there that’s not so pleasant?

I think the worst times were when I was going to church and trying to find out who I was. That was really hard.

When did you start to realize who you were?

I remember having feelings, just being curious about guys and kinda felt that I wanted to be more intimate with them, probably since I was little. In elementary school I was attracted to other kids. I never saw something bad with that until somebody pointed it out. They used to call me fag, and I was like, “I’m not a fag,” because I didn’t know what that was. But for them fag or gay was something really, really bad. And of course, coming from the religious background, then I felt horrible because I was going to go to hell because I started to have feelings for guys. You know, especially when I was in high school, I kinda had a crush on this guy, and it was torture.

So how did you resolve that?

It got to the point after high school that I really needed to leave the island, because the pressure of being there was very intense. It’s hard when you go to a church where people are speaking in tongues and there’s somebody screaming in your face, you know, you need to save yourself, you need to get rid of those sins. I used to go every Sunday and just cry and cry and cry in front of the altar for forgiveness from God because I had a crush on somebody, or when I was in high school I was experimenting—I used to go out with guys who probably had more experience than I did in touching or feeling another guy. I remember my first kiss with this guy, and the next day I was in church crying. It was horrible to feel this way.

So it was probably high school when I went to church one day and I went to the altar and I said, “God, when I walk out of here either you’re gonna change me, like the church is saying that I could be changed, and I can be, you know, what they call, straight, or I can be happy and be myself, be who I am.” And I kind of said, “God, this is it.” When I walked out of the church I still felt the same way, and that’s when I decided to be happy and stop torturing myself.

So, after high school you left Puerto Rico, and you went . . .

To Fort Lauderdale to live with my sister. That was like three days after graduating from high school—I had already bought my plane ticket even before graduation. I started to go to massage therapy school, and massage was what I did for a good fifteen years.

What brought you to Minneapolis?

Well, that same sister moved here probably six years into me being in Fort Lauderdale, and I came to Minneapolis to visit her. That was in August, and my second week on vacation here I decided to leave Florida. I needed something slower, I liked the change of season. And I just went back, got rid of everything, my apartment by the beach, I was working two jobs, everything. I moved up here with a couple boxes and my suitcase, and I worked for Horst Salons as a massage therapist.

And now you’re starting a new business, and it has nothing to do with massage.

It’s an indoor play park for dogs with retail, food and supplies for dogs and cats.

I’ve seen two cats and a dog here, so you must like animals.

I love animals! I love dogs, cats, and I’ve got two fish tanks. Minneapolis needs a place, especially with our long winters, where people can socialize and take their dogs to play.

When will you be opening?

Spring, I hope. Either spring or late spring, Petey’s Place will be open. That’s what it’s going to be called, after my dog Pete.

So you’re going to open a new business and then run off to IML. What will you do if you win the IML title?

I’m actually hiring a manager and other people, so I’m more going to be overseeing the marketing part. Right now it’s working out great that I have the ability to take time off if I need to, so I can get ready for IML.

When did you realize there was something about leather that you wanted to explore?

I think I started to know about leather through magazines, and then through videos. And that’s when I started to experiment with different leather pieces, and I found it erotic, and then I started to experiment with some other guys. And then I started to go to the Eagle, and that’s where I found the people that I actually had something in common with.

What issues are you thinking about as IML comes up—things that you might talk about in your IML speech?

I really want to look into the Hispanic community and leather. I want to know where is the Hispanic leather community, if there is one. That, and mentorship for the young generation. What happens to a young person who doesn’t have a mentor? Where do they go when they feel they’re doing something wrong because society, and especially their parents, is telling them it’s wrong? It’s very tough on a kid that doesn’t have that support.

I had somebody awesome that just inspired me to be myself. I always tell this story, because it’s a true story and I would say it saved my life. It was in 1983 or 1984, when Madonna came out with her first album. I remember I used to hear it—these girls who lived high above in the mountains would play it, and the music used to echo down. My parents used to say, “Oh, those people are gonna go to hell!” I used to do yard work outside just so I could listen to the music.

I ended up buying a cassette of that album. Then I would tell my parents on Sunday night, “I don’t wanna go to church because I’m not feeling well.” So they used to go to church, and I had taped that cassette behind the speaker, so when they left for church I’d take it out and put it in the stereo. I’d put down all the windows so nobody can see me listening to Madonna. When I felt that I was a horrible person, she really made me feel happy and good about myself. Just listening to her lyrics—“Only when I’m dancing can I feel this free”—that was the best time! And then when I see the van of the church coming down the mountain, I’d take it out of the stereo, tape it back behind the speaker, and then run and get into bed so nobody would know what I was doing.

“At night I lock the door so no one else can see.”

That’s exactly what I used to do! And if it wasn’t for her lyrics I would not be here talking to you right now. She was a very good influence, she gave me a lot of strength to believe and say that, you know what? It’s gonna be okay.