An interview with Chuck Renslow's biographer Owen Keehnen

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Chuck Renslow is a living legend in the LGBT community. Now in his 82nd year, Chicago-based Renslow has lived a full life by being a bar owner, photographer, political activist, newspaper publisher and more. But Renslow's social and cultural influence stretches far and wide, beyond the borders of Chicago. Just ask any of the thousands of people who flock to Chicago every May for International Mister Leather (IML).

So it makes sense that Renslow's story be told.

Owen Keehnen, the co-author of Leatherman: The Chuck Renslow Story (Prairie Avenue Productions, 2011), managed to get insight into the man who has defined and sculpted the leather community for most of his life. In fact, the author interviewed the legend long before he and co-author Tracy Baim wrote his story.

Keehnen shared his thoughts with us on the project and the man who inspired it:

WATERMARK: You interviewed Chuck Renslow years before this biography project. Is there something that you can recall about that experience you want to share?
OWEN KEEHEN: It was probably 15 years ago that I interviewed him. It was for an online leather blog that someone was doing. What struck me actually, in interviewing him that time was the scope of his experience. That he had done the (Kris) physique photography studio, that he'd done the Gold Coast, that he'd been involved in politics, that he'd been involved in the newspaper.

A lot of times when you interview people, you have so much that's just about one thing, and with him it was more like there was one question or two questions about a lot of different things.

He was someone who had done a lot of living over the years.
Oh yeah, a lot. Capitalized, italicized! [Laughs]

Why do you think that the time was right this year for a Chuck Renslow bio?
I think the time was right because, for one thing, Chuck was born in 1929, so on a basic level it's like you have this huge reservoir of information that is this man, who's 81. And on another level, I think because of his age. So many of the people from that era, which just was this amazing, vibrant age of the 60s, the 70s, gay liberation, all of that stuffâ┚¬â€there aren't a whole lot of people left. It's a very finite resource, and it was a population that was decimated by AIDS. Now it's sort of a population that's threatened by a lot of other things. And it was just important for this story to be preserved.  

Was Chuck a willing subject and participant in the process?
Oh yes, yes. Chuck approached us to write his life story. He wanted to tell it warts and all.

Would you describe Chuck as a raconteur?
Yes. What's interesting is that in this book we include interviews with so many people. But what's interesting a lot of times is hearing the tales from a lot of different perspectives. I'll put it this way: he's a good story teller, but you can bring up a story, and it will be like the craziest most insane scenario you can imagine. And he will go, â┚¬Å”Oh, I completely forgot about that.â┚¬Â

LeathermanAs Resnlow's biographer, what were some things that you were surprised to learn about him?
You have this vibrant business man and leather man who is out and he's himself and he's very aggressive and he's known as the dominant-dominant topâ┚¬â€and at the same time he also is an amazing gourmet cook, raised orchids, and for all his sort of ways, he has this amazing paternal side. It's like he always wants to protect and take care of people. I'd say probably his loyalty is really the most defining characteristic. To people he considers close, he's like a daddy bear.

Are there things about Renslow that you think readers will be surprised to learn?
Oh God, yes. That's the amazing thing, too, with doing all of these interviews, is so many people will know a lot, but so many people will know half, and those are the people that will know a lot because there's all these things going on simultaneously.

There's this stuff with the leather scene; and there's this stuff politically that's going on; there's this stuff with the paper; there's this stuff with the bars; and at the same time he's having this spiritual life that's going on, that's very important. And then over it all is this what's called the â┚¬Å”Family,â┚¬Â which is this created family he had of friends and lovers that were amazingly important to him, they had this incredible home life.

So, all that's going on at the same time. Some people might know more about the Family part, some might know more about the spiritual part, and some people might know a lot about the political or the bar part. But there are so many facets to him that people who are close to him are even going to be surprised by a lot of this stuff.

Who do you see as the audience for the book?
I see people interested in the history of leather, the Leather Archives and Museum crowd. I see people interested in gay history, I see people interested in political history. I see people who are just interested in a really good story, where you read it and say, â┚¬Å”Oh my God, that's living.â┚¬Â I think the thing that makes this book so exciting is that it really is bigger than any sort of marketing niche you can put it in.

As it got bigger and bigger, I thought, â┚¬Å”Oh this is bigger than the leather crowd,â┚¬Â and then â┚¬Å”this is bigger than the gay history crowd,â┚¬Â and then I think it just makes a good story period; very illuminating on a lot of different levels.  

Prior to the Chuck Renslow bio, you wrote a series of â┚¬Å”Starzâ┚¬Â books in which you interviewed gay male porn stars. Do you think that the Renslow book will have an appeal to that readership as well?
Well, one of the members of Chuck's extended Family is (porn star) Jeff Stryker. And there are connections with porn stars from dancing at Man's Country, from the sexual atmosphere at The Gold Coast and the Eagle, so I think that would appeal to that set, and IML.

But I think this is a lot deeper. You're capturing is an era more than like a sexual snapshot, that really is evocative of gay life in the 60s, 70s and 80s, and up to the present, but especially those sort of lost eras.

Have you begun work on your next book project?
I'm working now on organizing a bunch of those interviews that I did with writers and different people from the â┚¬Ëœ90s. I'm going to call that We're Here, We're Queer. By doing this (Renslow) book it made me really see how important it is to have those primary resources out there for people to be able to use.

There are interviews with people like Samuel Stewart and Quinton Chris, and Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, the Daughters of Bilitis, or Harry Hay, where people who want to do research in the future will be able to look at this and have direct quotes of what those people said, rather than have them just be interpreted.

And then I also have a novel that's planned for October called The Sand Bar. I'm excited about that. It is my smutty art novel. And then I want to do more history, I'm going to keep going. I'm working with the Legacy Project here in Chicago, too.

That sort of dovetails really well with this need to preserve history and get our stories out there.

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