As a young gay man growing up in Chicago in the 1970’s and 1980’s, and being involved in the gay community, wandering aimlessly through Boys Town, it was hard not to know an iconic man in the neighborhood: Chuck Renslow.
I was never deeply involved with him, just meeting him at events that I attended, and yet he is one of the most captivating people that I’ve ever had the pleasure to have in my life. I ran into him a few years ago when I attended International Mr Leather in Chicago and went up to his table when the sychophants of the event had left. I introduced myself, telling him that he probably didn’t remember me from so long ago, and yet he did remember me as a youth. I didn’t want to take up much of his time but did thank him for everything he’s done for the community and for people in general.
I wouldn’t remind him that I had been in his bars as an underage lost boy. I wouldn’t let him remember that it was his lifestyle that took me in when no others would. I didn’t dare reflect upon the challenges of getting equality for minority groups in Chicago and working so hard to get the Human Rights Ordinance passed. Nor would I bring up the pain of living through the AIDS epidemic, challenging the government to come clean and fund research, nor the lost people in our lives. It was a simple meet and greet and the adoration of a young man who looked up to this older man. I’m sure that he’ll pass through history never knowing the impact he had on some starry eyed idiot child dressed like a rag doll, hair spiked and dark glasses on, who went about the streets of Boys Town with wonder, or stood in the leather bars too terrified to approach a Master, yet fascinated by the interactions.
I don’t need to list the volumous organizations which Chuck Renslow has been involved in, you can read that for yourself in the articles below. Nor the list of establishments to his credit which include bars, bath houses, photography studios, magazines and charities. He’s been a pillar of the gay community for decades and been awarded almost every possible honor that the community has to give, not just in Chicago but internationally.
He’s also one of the pioneers of the leather community. His first bar, the Gold Coast (and yes I remember it), was the oldest leather bar in the world. It was the beginning of an established leather community in a time when gay men hardly had the freedom to be who they wanted to be. The International Mr. Leather competition not only is a huge tourism boon for Chicago but brings together people of all walks under the great black and blue flag of brotherhood / sisterhood.
The reason why he’s my hero, not just for taking a young gay man under his wing years ago, is because he is a perfect mixture of quiet support and vocal champion. He’s donated his time, money and guidance to many efforts for the establishment of equality, not just for gay men but for everyone. He’s been there with a guiding hand at times or a gentle slap when you screw up. When you’re in his presence, you just feel safe.
As gay men go, he’s the top of the list and someone to strive to be like. As a boy looking up to someone, I couldn’t have done better to know someone like him.
Growing up, I don’t think I had a single traditional hero. Not Superman. Not G I Joe.
But even as an older man, I still consider Chuck Renslow to be my hero.