It was the mid 90’s and I was on a train in Chicago. This was a novel experience, since I had only recently arrived from a much smaller town. Seated across from me was husky, bearded man, heavily accessorized with leather straps. No, wait, not just one man; the train was full of men with black leather vests exposing ample, hairy bellies.
Besides a young lesbian and me, the only other passengers were a square couple who looked terrified and when they fled the train at the next stop, I caught the eye of the lesbian gal and we giggled. I was going to love living in Chicago.
That was my first sighting. A sighting is what happens every year, around Memorial Day, when I catch sight of a man, or two, or five, decked out in leather and suddenly remember “Oh yeah, International Mr. Leather.” IML is a weekend-long celebration of leather daddies, with a subset culture known as Bears; those hairy guys I saw on the train who are fetishized for their girth. (Um, can we also have a fan group like this for ladies too?)
International Mr. Leather, like every other festival in Chicago this summer, fell victim to COVID-19. First year without an IML sighting—GAH!
Museums, like festivals, have also been closed down, but one of the first to re-open was the Leather Archives & Museum. Despite it being located in my neighborhood, Rogers Park, I had never visited before.
The co-founder of the Leather Archives & Museum, Chuck Renslow, was also the co-founder of International Mr. Leather, so it is safe to say the man was into leather. So I’m not going to surprise you all by saying that the museum has lots of leather artifacts (and pictures of folks wearing it.)
Less predictably, the museum also has loads of ephemera, all of it remarkably similar to the endless patches, ribbons, buttons and t-shirts my grandparents pinned on their living room cork board to commemorate their many long distance bike rides. Not gonna lie; a Grand Champion Pony Girl 2008 ribbon is equally as banal to me as one reading I Survived the Kalamazoo 200K.
LA&M also has a fine library.
Normally I would have been quite entertained by the pulp fiction section, though in this COVID era touching anything, let alone books that were once likely held in sticky hands, was a bit unappetizing.
But not to worry, LA&M has something for everyone; I appreciated the bathrooms…and the art of Etienne.
The museum’s auditorium is named for Etienne and decorated with his work, much of which formerly hung (was it well hung?) on the walls of now extinct Chicago leather bars and bathhouses.
Etienne was the life partner of LA&M and IML co-founder, Chuck Renslow, so predictably his work primarily features leather-clad men with supernaturally-sized pectoral muscles and crotch bulges. Once in a while he went off script, though, and created a masterpiece like The Wizard. Hi there, Mr. Wizard, what are you pointing at with your magic blinging finger?
Etienne’s artistic narrative centers on a wholesome young blond man—let’s call him Chad. Chad is out surfing in his wholesome way (albeit in bulge-revealing trunks) with his wholesome friends when he is irresistibly drawn towards some decidedly unwholesome biker dudes. His blond friends try to restrain him “No, Chad no! Must avoid men who wear boots with speedos!”
Chad straddles his surf board (heavily foreshadowing upcoming events) while biker dudes with 5 o’clock shadows leer and yank his cross necklace. Uh oh, can Chad be saved?
Too late! Chad’s biker trunks fly like a trophy from biker dude’s handlebar and any second now he’ll be trapped inside the Road Kings club.
So, so many unspeakable things Chad must endure.
Prison! Chains! Artfully shredded pants!
And I don’t even want to tell you what happens to Chad at the car wash!
Dear readers, I have a favor to ask, or maybe I’ll just beg. One out of three US museums may not survive 2020. When your local museum reopens, go visit. If you can’t visit, donate. If you can’t donate, boost them on social media. You may discover your own Etienne, or maybe just have a fun socially-distanced outing with a friend.
We need you.