The painter was dying, and his lover struggled to find a home for his art.
“In the late 1980s when Dom [Orejudos] was getting sick with AIDS, Chuck [Renslow] was looking for a place, a museum to house his extensive art collection. Not only the murals in the auditorium, but he had hundreds and hundreds of oil paintings and pencil drawings,” said LA&M Executive Director Rick Storer. “And Chuck was not able to find a museum that would take them first, or would say ‘We can take them, but we can never put them on exhibit because of the subject matter.’”
The subject matter was key, Storer said as we sat in swivel chairs in the volunteer orientation area of the Leather Archives & Museum in a quiet residential slip of Rogers Park. Art museums wouldn’t take sadomasochistic gay erotica.
Under the pseudonym Etienne, or sometimes just as “Stephen,” Orejudos painted larger-than-life murals and figures that celebrated the gay leather scene he and Renslow lived. Often adorning ‘70s and ‘80s leather bars like Renslow’s Gold Coast, Etienne’s works featured leather-clad daddies with massive muscles and massive phalluses engaged in exaggerated bondage and sadomasochism.
“Somebody might fantasize about being locked in a bondage cage for six months straight. Now, obviously, that’s not physically practical, that’s not safe, people aren’t going to do that. But you can explore that through erotic art,” Storer said.
Places that show art wouldn’t take it. Places that would take it wouldn’t show it. And as the 1990s approached and the decade’s AIDS-related death toll approached 100,000, more art, books, papers and other records of an erotic nature were being lost.
“Because so many people were dying, especially gay men, at the time from AIDS, there were a lot of stories of people who had collections, sexual collections. They would pass away and an uninformed family would come in and find these things and say, ‘Oh my gosh, I had no idea my son was into this stuff. We need to throw this away,’” Storer said. “Dumpsters were being filled with history.”
To fight this, Renslow, who formed the International Mr. Leather conference and competition in 1979, founded the Leather Archives & Museum in 1991.
Etienne died that same year. He was 58.
It’s a kink museum, yes. It has butt plugs and fetish gear, leather whips and rubber masks. It has kink-based pulp novels and Tijuana Bibles. And it has individual writings, oral histories, paintings, sculpture and other memorabilia of people society actively tried to sweep under the rug.
That’s not to say only the whips are prurient and only the writings are history. Both are records of an aspect of life often pushed aside.
“Traditional archives and libraries and museums have a track record of ignoring sexuality or oftentimes hiding sexuality,” Storer said. “The vision for the museum was that this part of people’s lives, their sexuality, their sexual identity, shouldn’t be thrown away or hidden. It should be saved and preserved and put on display for people to see and learn about.”
The library has 25,000 to 30,000 books, magazines and films. The museum collection has about 10,000 artifacts and art pieces. And the archive gathers individuals’ and organizations’ various papers, memorabilia and other kink- and fetish-related collections.
“We’ve got about 90 of those collections that vary in size from one box to 75 boxes,” Storer said.
Storer started volunteering at the museum in 1998. He was volunteering on stage crew for International Mr. Leather, building sets at the museum’s former location in Andersonville, a little storefront by Clark and Foster. He became executive director in 2002.
“When the opportunity came to join the staff, I was doing financial reporting for a big insurance company downtown. I loved my job, I enjoyed accounting — I still do. It took a while to reflect on it and get over earning a lot less money than I was, working for a not-for-profit as opposed to a big insurance company, but there was something inside of me just said, ‘Hey, this is an opportunity. You’re probably never going to get something like this again, so go for it,’” Storer said.
The museum now sits in Rogers Park, in a large building Storer estimates they’ll grow out of in four years. Subject matter aside, the museum is still a museum. Space and preservation are the main concerns.
“A piece of paper, if you take care of it the right way, you can really kind of put it in a box and not worry about it. Check on it for bugs occasionally. But leather requires more periodic care,” Storer said.
Volunteer bootblacks come in to help care for the leather. Other volunteers care for the rubber or latex fetish gear, which can dry out if unattended.
The museum’s priority right now is the audiovisual collections. Chemically developed film not only deteriorates, but faces technical obsolescence — imagine having your movie collection on Betamax.
They’re slowly digitizing the audiovisual collection, but money and man-hours are an issue for the small museum. About 20 volunteers and staffers come in to help with the museum on an average week. There’s a pool of about 100 volunteers who come out for big events like International Mr. Leather.
“The type of collections that we have, the sexuality of the collections, certainly turns some grant opportunities away for us,” Storer said.
Part of the museum’s purpose is to build community for leather, fetish, BDSM and kink practitioners. But another part is to fight a cultural mythology crafted “to try to shame people about sexuality,” Storer said.
The museum provides evidence, a term Storer used half a dozen times in our brief talk. Real evidence to fight the myth that people just didn’t do that back then. The museum can hold up a kinkster’s collected writings from the 1800s or the jacket worn by an Eisenhower-era gay biker gang and say yes, yes people did.
“A lot of people, as they’re discovering especially things like fetishism or bondage or S&M, you almost always start out thinking, ‘Well, I’m the only person in the world that enjoys this kind of sexual activity,’” Storer said. “But when there’s evidence, we’ll know that many, many people enjoy the same thing you do, and people have been enjoying that for as long as history has been recorded, then that’s evidence people can use.
“Rather than feeling ashamed about their sexuality, they can feel proud about what they do or what their desires are.”