LoyolaRogers Park

Chicago Leather Museum Iron Mask
An iron mask on display at the Leather Archives & Museum. (Photo/Faith Berwick)

Cultural Shift in Chicago's Leather Community

Editors note: Some of the content in this article is not suitable for work and contains explicit content that may not be suitable for readers under the age of 18.

By Faith Berwick and Rebecca Laubs

Posted: Friday, May 3, 2019

Hidden away in Rogers Park, just minutes from the Loyola Red Line stop, is the Leather Archives & Museum.

Founded by Chuck Renslow in 1991 in a location that was once a synagogue, the historic kink museum is based on Chicago’s first leather gay bar, the Gold Coast, at 501 N. Clark St.

The museum is a library, museum and archival collection pertaining to leather, fetishism, sadomasochism and alternative sexual practices. Recently, the museum board adopted a new mission statement designed to set the focus and priorities of the Rogers Park community.

“Our primary purpose of existence is being a research facility,” said Gary Wasdin, the museum’s new executive director. “The biggest misconception people have about the leather community is the fact that alternative sexual practices have been going on for years and years, but people just don't want to talk about it. As long as people have existed, we've been having really crazy, wild, kinky sex.”

Whip iconInteractive quiz: Take the BDSM safety quiz

The archives try to remove the stigma of this from the community, and this starts through education.

The building houses the Teri Rose Library, which contains more than 12,000 books, 13,000 magazines, 100 journals and 5,000 films devoted to leather and kink. Additionally, the collection houses unpublished records, letters and other documents used by scholars to do analysis on the leather community.

Part of this education is focused on a particular kink that is sometimes forgotten in the community, ranging from piercings to flesh hook suspension. Fakir Musafar, an American piercer and body performance artist, holds a spot in this section of the archives for his works documented in photographs and a copy of his book, “Spirit and Flesh: Body Rites and Modifications”. His work is still studied and admired, through the help of the museum’s research.

The museum seeks projects that will use its archival and research collections to create new scholarship related to its history and culture. Officials have announced the museum’s eighth annual Visiting Scholars Program for 2019, in which a stipend of $1,000 will be awarded to someone to conduct research using the collections of the Leather Archives & Museum.

360: Inside the Leather Archive & Museum Library 

Leather Archive & Museum Teri Rose Library - Spherical Image - RICOH THETA


While leather culture is often associated with the gay community, Wasdin said that “leather” is generally an umbrella term, and that the museum strives to be inclusive of all genders and sexual orientations. This is evident in the leather community itself as transgender man, Tyler McCormick, better knowns as Mr. Rio Grande Leather of New Mexico, won the International Mr. Leather competition in 2010.

Two years ago, the museum launched the Women’s Leather History Project to analyze and document women’s involvement in the leather community.

“Just like in all other aspects of history, women’s involvement with leather tends to be erased and forgotten,” Wasdin said. “Although we try to incorporate women as much as we can throughout the entirety of the museum, we felt it was important to dedicate 'A Room of Her Own' to Virginia Woolf’s 1929 feminist text that argues for women’s need for space to think and create.”

Those who practice BDSM have rules for protecting boundaries, safety and consent. When asked where the line is drawn between abuse and BDSM, Wasdin said that “many of us think we know what the rules of bondage involve until you test yourself.” The museum offers an interactive bondage safety quiz as an educational resource.

There are also monthly meetings of the Power Exchange Roundtable the third Saturday of every month at the archive center from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. During the meeting, conversations of consent are held, with special guest speaker appearances as well as regular moderators. These meetings are open to the public, and are welcome to those with all levels of experience and all interests in the kink community.

Community Response

Leather64TEN, located at 6410 N. Clark, is one of three leather shops in Chicago that claims to have had a positive impact after Wasdin has taken on the position of executive director at the museum.

“They (the museum) hold engaging contests and even allow us to hold educational classes within their theater,” said Eric Kugelman, owner of Leather64TEN. “Whether it be for fetish lectures, piercing demonstrations, or educational roundtable discussions. You name it, they got it.”

The Etienne Auditorium, where these events take place, is also made available for leather clubs and groups to use free of charge including the Chicago Leather Kennel Club, Windy City Boys Troop, The Next Generation Chicago, Chicago Leather Club and Chicago Hellfire Club among others. It is also the location in which the iconic Mr. Chicago Leather takes place among other contests and film screenings.  

Chicago Leather Museum

A Room of Her Own display at the Leather Archives & Museum. (Photo/Faith Berwick)

 Bradley Tobias, assistant manager at Leather64TEN, said that he has noticed a major shift in how the leather lifestyle has been viewed within the past few years.

“It used to be very undercover and subversive.," he said. "Whereas now, during International Mr. Leather (IML) weekend you can see people walking in chaps and harnesses down the street.”

IML is an annual conference and contest of leathermen held in Chicago during the spring.

Much of these lifestyle changes can be noted within the generational gap of those in the community.

“Younger generations tend to look at leather as a fetish. But to an older person like myself -- no, it’s a lifestyle,” Tobias said.

Like most innovations, it is recognized within the leather community that whatever does not adapt will ultimately die. To keep the leather tradition alive during these timely shifts, the museum has resources such as The Leatherman’s Handbook that educates the community on everything leather protocol.

While it is important to keep tradition alive, these changes may be for the better for some.

With an increasing youthful interest, it’s encouraging others to change and be more open about what is and is not acceptable.

“Leather allows me to express myself in a way that I had no idea existed,” said Jo Leyson, an active member of the leather community. “It was a way to explore my sexuality in a limitless way.”

Upcoming events

International Mr. Leather 8 p.m.

Thursday, May 23 - Monday, May 27

3712 N Broadway #602

Chicago, IL 60613

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