Chad falls in with a biker gang at Chicago’s Leather Archives & Museum

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.

Please.

We need you.

Thanks.

15 comments

  1. Hah! I don’t know where to start with this, so maybe I shouldn’t… But I hear you about museums, and there’s a revamped one in a new location a dozen miles from me which was due to reopen just as lockdown started which is on my wishlist to visit. Artworks! Archives! Exhibits! Publications! Anticipating many future visits…

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I have the impression that UK museums are state funded. Is that true? If so, I am exceptionally jealous. Looking forward to your future posts on the revamped museum.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Only the national museums are state funded and free to enter (though special exhibitions usually cost) and some of the county institutions, funded by local taxes. Specialist museums like the one you describe here tend to be privately provided for and charge for entry, focused on toys, witchcraft, writers, and artists for example. The Brontë and Austen museums, for instance, may attract the occasional grants but are essentially dependent on income from visitors.

        Liked by 2 people

  2. Well that certainly brightened up a rainy afternoon! Enough to put you off a carwash for life!

    Liked by 3 people

    1. The human imagination….

      Liked by 2 people

  3. So true that we need to support local museums. Theaters and music groups too! Self-effacing Midwesterner that I am, I grew up thinking that gay people and others with unconventional lifestyles should just blend in and act “like everybody else.” Now I see that nobody in the world is “like everybody else” and I’ve come to value individuality and flamboyance. (I do draw the line at anything that even hints of violence or mistreatment, though). Very adventurous of you to visit! In my small town, we have a quilting exhibit on right now…

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Yeah, I admit I breezed on by the displays of paddles and such—not my cuppa either.

      I’d love to see a quilting exhibit! I was just reading about this one that looks sensational: https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/06/26/arts/design/rosie-lee-tompkins-quilts.html

      Liked by 1 person

  4. How did you resist visiting until now? Okay – it’s a pretty weird place. But the chairs are cool. And I love the image of you on the train. I promise I will find a museum to visit – you’ve inspired me (as usual) – I’ll look for an odd one.

    Liked by 3 people

  5. I always, always, always found car wash to be far more dangerous than they appear to be! I just have found one plot hole in Chad’s story: where did he find those artfully shredded Papillon-style trousers? At the beginning he’s wearing the most succint of all surf shirts. Then, on the bike, he’a already gone commando. Then trousers appear. And I doubt that the Leather Men sourced them. Me confused.

    Like

    1. This is a case of the Magical Narrative Zone, where all stories are true. Like have you ever seen a movie where there’s a lady and she’s lost in the woods and sleeping a cave or something but when she wakes up in that cave she has lip gloss on and styled hair? This is where the artfully distressed pants come in.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Gosh what a totally different blog post content than all your others ie. liturgical art. 😀

    Like

    1. That’s what my mom said too, Jean, and I don’t think she meant it as a compliment. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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