The Leather Archives & Museum
The LA&M is one of the most significant accomplishments of the late 20th century movement for the rights, dignity, improved status, and self-acceptance of the leather and kink populations. Although formally established in the early 1990s by Chuck Renslow (LHOF 2009) and Tony DeBlase (LHOF 2010), the idea of a repository for the history of leather had been percolating for many years. As is often the case, what seemingly appeared overnight had been contemplated for decades.
As recently as the 1970’s, collecting, compiling, and documenting leather history was a more or less unthinkable project, in part as a consequence of the pervasive stigmatization of the community and its assortment of sexual practices. This general disreputability was largely responsible for the way knowledge about these sexualities and its practitioners was produced and circulated. Because many individuals involved in leather and SM often did not consider their papers, art, literature, and artifacts to be worth preserving, much primary source material was discarded. In scholarly literature, since SM and fetishism were classified as psychological disorders, these were mainly addressed in the psychiatric literature. At the popular level, most writing about leather, SM, and fetishism was published as porn. There were rare exceptions, such as William Carney’s The Real Thing, published in 1968 by a mainstream press, and The Story of Harold, published in 1974 by Terry Andrews (a pseudonym for a very successful, award-winning, author of children’s literature who recounts the sexual adventures of an… author of children’s literature!). Some key texts were produced by publishing houses situated in a kind of netherworld between pornography and avantgarde literature. Pauline Réage (LHOF 2020)’s Story of O, then one of the most notable works of (predominantly) heterosexual SM erotica, appeared in English and in French in 1954. The English translation was published by Olympia Press, whose catalog included Nabokov’s Lolita. Grove Press, which published a new translation of Story of O in 1965, also published Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. In 1972, the Olympia Press would go on to publish The Leatherman’s Handbook, by Larry Townsend (LHOF 2016), albeit in their pulp porn imprint, the Traveller’s Companion Series. However, even the fiction of Phil Andros (Sam Steward, LHOF 2012), extremely well honed and filled with erudite literary references, was produced and marketed as porn. So was Drummer, the most significant of the leather magazines.
One of the largest impediments to developing any sort of credible leather history was the scarcity of primary source material. With few exceptions, such as the Kinsey Institute, the kinds of research libraries and archives that make serious historical work possible did not collect leather and SM materials.
During the 1970s, new kinds of organizations such as The Eulenspiegel Society (LHOF 2011), the Society of Janus (LHOF 2018), and Samois (LHOF 2019) emerged, with increased attention to SM and leather knowledge and education. In 1982, New York’s GMSMA (Gay Male SM Activists) (LHOF 2022) hosted a panel on SM in New York City in the 1950s. This panel discussion featured some of the founders of the New York leather scene, including Bob Milne (LHOF 2011). Other key founders, including Frank Olson and Don Morrison (LHOF 2010), were in the audience. The program was recorded and transcribed, and remains an invaluable document of early leather life in the US. That same year, a GMSMA program featured Louis Weingarden speaking on the history of SM art and leather artists. From 1976-1980, Weingarden ran Stompers, a boot store and leather art gallery in New York’s Greenwich Village. Weingarden’s knowledge of leather art was encyclopedic, and the gallery was leading a resurgence of interest and visibility of gay male leather art in the late 1970s. Stompers hosted some of the earliest exhibits of artists such as Tom of Finland (LHOF 2009), Steve Masters, Kenneth Anger, Quaintance, Blade, Colt, Brick, Rex, Olaf, Domino, Brick, Lou Rudolph, and Etienne (LHOF 2013).
Despite these few programs and exhibits such as those at Stompers, the primary source material for knowledge of the leather past – documents, art, and artifacts - was sparse and largely inaccessible. Most of what did exist was in private hands. Although some art graced the walls of private homes, much documentation was stored away in garages, attics, trunks, and dresser drawers. And that was just what people had kept. A lot of irreplaceable documentation had already been discarded, or was considered an embarrassment to be kept out of sight.
This situation was not an unfamiliar one for researchers working on gay and lesbian histories. Like sadomasochism and fetishism, lesbianism and male homosexuality had long been classified as psychiatric problems, so most of the scholarly literature consisted of medical texts on the diagnosis and treatment of these ostensible “diseases.” There were also pornography, pulp fiction, and some serious literature. The homophile, gay liberation, and lesbian feminist movements had all engaged in major efforts to assemble libraries and archival source materials. By the 1970s, activists began to establish rudimentary institutions in which to house such community-based collections of documents, art, and artifacts. One of the first was the Lesbian Herstory Archives (LHA), inaugurated in 1974, and housed for many years in the New York City apartment of Joan Nestle and Deb Edel. In 1985, the Gay Lesbian Bisexual Transgender Historical Society (GLBTHS) was founded in San Francisco by local researchers who had been accumulating source material founded — including one who was doing dissertation research on gay male leather in San Francisco and is a co-author of this biography.
Research on leather histories was even more challenging than work on gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered populations. SM was severely stigmatized and extremely controversial even in GLBT contexts. There were fewer collections of primary documentation. Moreover, much of the history of leather social events then was recorded in objects, such as commemorative pins from motorcycle runs, matchbooks from leather bars, and, during the early heyday of fisting, emery boards advertising events, places, and publications. There were important publications, such as Drummer, DungeonMaster and PFIQ, but these were not generally available in libraries.
Although the early GLBT archival institutions were underfunded, poorly housed, and extremely unstable, they provided a role model for the embryonic collections of leather and SM research materials. It was clear that if these communities did not collect and preserve their own source materials, no one else would. It was equally clear that it was not enough for individuals to undertake the work of accumulation. Durable institutions were required to guarantee the long-term survival, preservation, and usability of such collections. Furthermore, such institutions would require money: for operating funds, buildings, supplies, and staff. It became increasingly apparent that Leather needed its own community-based archives, similar to those that had begun to spring up for LGBT collections. Among the early agitators were Tony (Anthony F.) DeBlase (LHOF 2010), who was the publisher and editor of Drummer, and Gayle Rubin.
Tony DeBlase was a leather visionary, whose many accomplishments included the introduction of the leather pride flag and the establishment of leather pride week in San Francisco. Tony had a PhD in mammalogy, with a specialty in bats. He had co-authored A Manual of Mammalogy, and his book The Bats of Iran was published by the Field Museum of Natural History. Tony had worked in natural history museums as a graduate student and was employed by the Field Museum in Chicago after acquiring his doctorate. He understood the importance of research collections as well as the practical aspects of their management: cataloguing, storage, and access. He also thought deeply about leather knowledge and its transmission.
When Tony began to actively pursue his interests in SM and leather, he turned his well-honed scholarly habits to an intensive study of SM practice, ethics, and technique. And once he acquired considerable expertise, he began a long career of teaching those skills. He came up with the idea of the “SandMutopia University,” a fantasy college of all things kinky. He conducted and organized countless workshops and classes, and began to publish DungeonMaster, envisioned as a kind of professional technical journal of sadomasochism. In 1986, Tony and his partner Andy Charles bought Drummer Magazine.
That same year, a feisty group of activists in Seattle founded the National Leather Association (NLA). The NLA kicked off a new era of national leather political and social mobilization. Through its “Living in Leather” weekends, the NLA pioneered the format of the “leather conference,” with workshops, plenary sessions, and dungeon parties. Such conferences – later dubbed “leatherathons”– were something new. There were of course SM educational groups, but these were mostly local and generally held meetings once or twice a month. The gay motorcycle clubs sponsored weekend bike runs featuring socializing, entertainment, and plenty of partying. And there was the Chicago Hellfire Club (LHOF 2014)’s legendary annual Inferno. But Inferno was by invitation only, was restricted to men, and the educational workshops (of which DeBlase was also a major organizer) were adjuncts to the main event, the elaborate dungeon party. By contrast, anyone could register for Living in Leather, which was open to both men and women, and whose workshops were as important as the parties.
DeBlase began to actively promote the NLA in the pages of Drummer and to actively participate in the organization. At the third Living in Leather (Portland, 1988), he joined Geoff Mains, Sheree Rose and Rubin for a panel on the “History of Leather/SM Organizations. The description read: “What are the historic roots of our current organizations? Who were the founders, what were the goals then, and have they been achieved?”
The emergence of the NLA did not go unchallenged. Regional rivalries quickly surfaced, and the competition for leadership of the emerging national leather constituency led to the acrimonious meeting in Dallas, Texas, in the winter of 1988. Much of the conflict in Dallas consisted of a debate over what entity could represent the national leather population: the already existing NLA, or a new organization proposed by GMSMA (LHOF 2022). Instead of supporting either the NLA or the GMSMA plan, the Dallas meeting produced another organization, dubbed SSCA (Safe Sane Consensual Adults). The SSCA was doomed from the outset. Its structure was an attempt at a compromise of the competing visions, but the result was a clumsy hybrid that pleased no one. With the eventual collapse of the compromise, SSCA was absorbed into the NLA.
However, SSCA had formalized a statement of purpose that included an explicit commitment to leather history, and this goal was injected into the official program of the NLA. Back in Dallas, when it became evident that a new leather organization was going to be formed, a group including Rubin and DeBlase was sitting in a Denny’s trying to salvage the situation and preserve the hope of national leather political unity. They drafted a statement of principles for what became SSCA, and it read as follows:
This organization is dedicated to the following purposes: To help build, strengthen and defend those groups and individuals involved in SM, Leather, and other fetishes; to promote the right of adults to engage in all safe, sane, and consensual erotic activities; to promote increased communication and cooperation among our organizations, individuals, and businesses everywhere; to promote education about safe, sane, and consensual behavior within our own communities; to convey an accurate, positive image of our interests and lifestyles; to unite against threats to our freedom of expression, our right to free association, and our right to equal protection under the law; and to preserve a record of our history, traditions, and culture (emphasis added).
When SSCA was incorporated into the NLA, so was much of this language. The clause on leather history was included verbatim in the NLA International statement of purpose, and so the preservation of leather history had become a formal item on the national leather agenda. By 1991, DeBlase and Rubin had been elected to the Executive Committee of the NLA where they attempted to operationalize that history clause. And although the NLA did not ultimately form an archival institution, it did play a critical role in the process that led to the Leather Archives & Museum.
Tony DeBlase coordinated the educational programs for NLA’s Living in Leather VI, held in Chicago in October 1991. He arranged a workshop called “Preserving Our Leather Past,” appointing Rubin as chair and rounding out the panel with Woody Bebout, that year’s Mr. Drummer, and Chuck Renslow (LHOF 2009), whose own career made him one of the most consequential leather figures in the 20th century. The workshop description read: “A report on the need for, and the movement towards, preserving a record of our past and the establishment of a national Leather Archive. Thoughts on the preparation of wills and other methods of seeing that historically important documents, works of art, and other items are preserved.”
Tony must have known that Renslow had, two months earlier in August 1991, quietly filed incorporation papers for a “National Gay and Lesbian Archives” in the state of Illinois. Tony undoubtedly favored a more focused “leather archives” and used the occasion of that workshop panel to shift Renslow’s objectives. So it was that Renslow announced, from the stage of IML (LHOF 2018), in 1992, the formation of the Leather Archives and Museum. By July of 1992, the incorporation papers were amended to reflect the new name and new scope of the institution. Renslow and DeBlase began to assemble the first Board of Directors, which included Gayle Rubin, Barry Johnson, Albert Kraus, Gary Chichester, and Judy Tallwing-McCarthy.
During the early 1990s the LA&M was still an “idea struggling to take form.” In the decades since, that struggle has produced a permanent building, a stable operating budget, and paid staff. Many people have made these accomplishments possible: countless staff, volunteers, donors, board members, and fundraisers. Initially, Renslow and DeBlase kept the idea afloat and helped the LA&M grow. Renslow provided most of the organizational stability, operational funding, and the first physical location: a storefront adjoining his bathhouse, Man’s Country. DeBlase applied his professorial background to developing the collections, and used his publications and considerable reputation to cultivate community support. In addition, he ultimately brought Joseph Bean to the organization.
Bean was an accomplished artist and writer when Tony hired him in 1989 to edit Drummer and its affiliated leather publications. After Drummer was sold, Bean became the manager of Mr. S Leather in San Francisco. Joseph subsequently edited International Leatherman and its group of leather and bear magazines. When that business foundered and Joseph became available, Tony and Chuck jumped on the chance to hire him as the LA&M’s first executive director in 1997. Bean brought to the Archives a formidable set of skills and a reservoir of contacts developed through nearly a decade in high-level leather managerialpositions. In 1999, along with Renslow and DeBlase, Bean was instrumental in moving the LA&M to its current home in the Rogers Park neighborhood of Chicago.
After Bean retired in 2002, longtime volunteer Rick Storer became the second executive director. The LA&M continued to grow under his leadership. Its budget increased, as did its visibility. The gallery space was enlarged and more exhibits were installed. Storer worked to professionalize the LA&M as a research institution by cultivating relationships with academics, and by making the collections more accessible. During his tenure, a program to fund visiting scholars was inaugurated. There were many milestones during Storer’s administration, but two deserve special mention. Renslow had often talked about the importance of owning your own space in order to be sustainable, and in 2004 he and Storer led a fundraising campaign to pay off the building’s mortgage. In 2013, Jakob VanLammeren became the first full-time professional archivist hired to manage the expanding and increasingly significant collections of documents, art, and artifacts.
2017 was a year of significant changes for the Leather Archives & Museum. In the spring, Storer announced his departure from the LA&M, after 15 successful years of significant growth in the organization. Renslow passed away in June of that same year. The loss of Renslow, while not unexpected, was a big adjustment for the LA&M as Renslow had been its fiercest champion since its beginning. His business acumen and sheer determination had been a driving force in bringing the Archives into existence and sustaining it for over a quarter of a century. However, Renslow did his best to assure that the organization would continue to thrive by assembling a Board of Directors who were dedicated to the LA&M’s future, and by the creation of the Renslow Charitable Trust, which would ensure that the annual International Mr. Leather contest would continue to support the work of the archives well into the future.
The LA&M continues to develop as a professional research organization. VanLammeren did major work to process and professionalize the collections, improving access and setting new standards for storage and care. After his departure in 2016, archivist Mel Leverich joined the LA&M. Leverich has continued the critical work of professionalizing practices, putting the collections catalog online, and making the holdings more accessible to artists and researchers. In addition, Leslie Anderson was hired, bringing her skills in museum conservation to care for and preserve the leather collections. In late 2017, the board conducted a national search to find a new Executive Director and selected Gary Wasdin, a co-author of this piece, to lead the organization. Gary brought a formidable portfolio and new perspectives as a librarian and library administrator. He has also been active in fundraising, outreach, identifying potential areas for growth, and continuing the great work of his predecessors.
No one should underestimate what a stunning achievement the LA&M is, and how much effort has gone into establishing it. Building institutions is no small task, and building stable institutions out of marginal sexual communities is nearly impossible. Due to the commitment and hard work of countless individuals and organizations, the LA&M houses irreplaceable records of leather histories and cultures. A small sample of the notable collections includes individuals such as Tony DeBlase, Chuck Renslow, Coulter Thomas, Fakir Musafar (LHOF 2019), Glenda Rider, Sarah Humble, Guy Baldwin (LHOF 2013), Jack McGeorge (LHOF 2021), Jan Hall, Jim Kane, Joseph Bean, Justin Tanis, Leonard Dworkin, Michele Buchanan, Midori, Joanne Gaddy, Peter Fiske (LHOF 2016), Philip Rubin, Robert Davolt, Robert Guenther, Sailor Syd, Spencer Bergstedt, Susan Wright, Vi Johnson, and Wally Wallace. There are key organizations such as the Tar Heel Leather Club, Conversio Virium, the Chicago Hellfire Club (CHC), Folsom Street Events, Gay Male SM Activists (GMSMA), the National Leather Association (NLA), International Mr. Leather, International Ms. Leather, the Lure, the Society of Janus (LHOF 2018), the Exiles, the Empire City Motorcycle Club, the Thunderbolts MC, and Womanlink. There are many publications and artists represented, including Drummer, Bound and Gagged, Black Leather in Color (LHOF 2018), Chuck Arnett, Dom Orejudos aka Etienne, Steve Masters, and David Levinthal. There is an irreplaceable collection of oral histories instigated by Chuck Renslow and conducted by Jack Rinella. The LA&M maintains a library of over 7000 books and periodicals related to leather, kink and fetishism. It has a large auditorium for events and meetings, and hosts year-round exhibits that display many aspects of BDSM and leather life.
The LA&M has become a central institution of the leather and kink populations. It is an indispensable resource for all of those who share common experiences of leather, kink, and BDSM, despite the many different ways of naming them. The Leather Archives & Museum provides a permanent repository for the kinds of materials that would once have deteriorated in garages, been forgotten in attics, or would be consigned to dumpsters for lack of awareness of their historical and cultural significance. As these collections accumulate, they form the foundations necessary for in-depth, reliable, and detailed research into leather histories, cultures, individuals, and institutions. Without documentary and artifactual evidence, leather history would mostly consist of leather legends: sometimes satisfying narratives, but unverifiable and often misleading. Communities that fail to preserve their records cannot even know what they have lost. The LA&M is a crucial institution for safeguarding leather pasts, providing knowledge of the leather present, and for anticipating leather futures.
Gayle Rubin & Gary Wasdin
For inquiring minds...
VanLammeren, Jakob and Jose Santiago Perez. Leather Archives & Museum: 25 Years 1991-2016. Chicago: Leather Archives & Museum. 2016