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A Kinky History

September 28, 2016 2:44 pm0 commentsViews: 75
Image courtesy of the Leather Archives and Museum.

Image courtesy of the Leather Archives and Museum.

The Leather Archives and Museum Turns 25

by Steve Desroches

It was a familiar, yet heartbreaking story. During the worst years of the AIDS epidemic, when many gay men died, their families simply threw out many of the deceased’s personal belongings, especially anything relating to their gay identity. Sometimes it was done out of ignorance and other times shame. In the process, the individual stories of these men was discarded and collectively, gay life and culture was continuing to be ignored and lost to history.

Throughout that most painful, sad time many men and women rose to the occasion in so many ways, living the words of Mother Jones to “pray for the dead, fight like hell for the living.” And one of those actions was to save important items, like works of art, LGBT publications, artifacts, and ephemera from friends who passed on, for future generations. It’s these materials that form the backbone of many LGBT archives and other specialty collections around the country, like the Leather Archives and Museum in Chicago, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year.

“Even LGBT archives weren’t able to collect many of these items,” says Leather Archives & Museum executive director Rick Storer. “It came out of a need for a place where leather and sex history could be celebrated and preserved.”

Whether it was lack of knowledge as to how best to preserve leather and rubber, or the absence of a deep understanding of the leather community, the Leather Archives and Museum took charge to tell the history of the leather community. Founded by activist Chuck Renslow, it has grown to include a full history not limited by sexual orientation or gender. Located in the Rogers Park neighborhood of Chicago, the Leather Archives and Museum occupies a 10,000-square-foot building with a state-of-the-art archive, 164-seat auditorium that hosts film screenings, panels, and lectures, a research and reading library, as well as museum space that hosts rotating exhibits.

Image courtesy of the Leather Archives and Museum.

Image courtesy of the Leather Archives and Museum.

The collection is sweeping and national in scope. Of particular note in their holdings is the largest collection in the world of the work of Dom Orejudos, better known under the name Etienne. A prolific artist, Etienne used leather imagery throughout his work. The Museum also has original works by Tom of Finland, writings by the Marquis de Sade, Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, Laura Antoniou, John Preston, and Larry Townsend, all of whom wrote about bondage, sadomasochism, or some form of fetishism. The archives also feature complete sets of leather publications like Drummer Magazine, Bound & Gagged, SandMutopia Guardian, as well as the papers of individuals and organizations important to the subculture, like Tony DeBlase, Joseph Bean, Jim Kane, Leonard Dworkin, and the records of The National Leather Association, International Mr. Leather, and The Mineshaft.

Provincetown and its corresponding leather community and events throughout the years are also integral parts of the Archives and Museum’s collections, including materials relating to Mates Leather Weekend, fliers from now defunct events like Mr. Trojan Rubber Contest, and papers of past leather events. All of this combined attracts not just fellow members of the leather community, but also researchers and academics in fields ranging such as anthropology, psychology, history, sexuality, women’s studies, and art, says Storer.

“There’s a definite interest in the subculture,” says Storer. “And it really is a subculture unto itself. We see a lot of interest in access to these kinds of materials.”

The Leather Archives and Museum is still very much a collecting institution, seeking materials that reflect the national scope of their mission, with a specific effort to make sure their holdings include the stories, papers, and artifacts relating to transgender and other gender non-conforming members of the leather community, and people of color.

Image courtesy of the Leather Archives and Museum.

Image courtesy of the Leather Archives and Museum.

In addition to reaching out in their collecting efforts, the Leather Archives and Museums also produces traveling exhibits, and it is a presence at a variety of leather events around the country, with plans to attend the Mr. New England Leather Weekend produced by FK Gear here in Provincetown, November 18 – 20 at the Crown and Anchor. All this community outreach continues to build both financial support and donations for the collection.

“It really is community-driven,” says Storer. “It was built by the leather and kink community for its own preservation and the future of the collection continues to come from the community itself.”

Anyone or any organization with artifacts or papers that they were like to donate should contact the archives and museum at 773.761.9200 or use the online form on their website. For more information on the Leather Archives & Museum visit leatherarchives.org.