(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 <www.leatherarchives.org>.