June 2017 will be remembered as our LGBT community’s Pride Summer of Resistance; when the joyful celebrations of previous pride seasons were replaced by protest marches and rallies.
It was also a month when our community lost two of its most influential figures. On June 15 Jim French, the male physique artist and photographer who created his most famous work under the pseudonym “Rip Colt,” passed away at the age of 84. “Jim French’s contributions to the gay porn industry, to the art world, to generations of gay men, are immeasurable and too numerous to count,” said Dennis Bell, president and CEO of the Bob Mizer Foundation. “We at the Foundation are forever indebted to Jim for paving the way for other photographers, and today we pay tribute to the life of a brilliant artist who will live on in his work, which celebrates male beauty and masculinity throughout decades of changing social mores and trends.”
Jim French began to draw and photograph the male form during the 1960’s, following a successful career as a fashion illustrator. One of French’s early drawings, “Longhorns - Dance,” caused a sensation when Malcolm McLaren, fashion designer and manager of the punk rocking Sex Pistols, used the drawing on a t-shirt sold in McLaren’s London boutique, Sex. In 1967 French and his then-partner, Lou Thomas, founded Colt Studio to produce and sell male erotic drawings, photographs, publications, films and videos.
Soon the “Colt Man” became the epitome of the male masculine ideal. Generations of gay or bisexual men were inspired and stimulated by books, magazines, calendars, post cards, movies, and community events produced by French and his fantasy factory.
French ran Colt until 2003, when he sold the studio to John Rutherford, formerly of Falcon Studios.
Two weeks after Jim French died the LGBT community lost another icon, one whose contributions vastly surpassed those of the original Colt Man. Chuck Renslow, who died on June 29 at the age of 87, was more than a successful photographer, business owner, newspaper publisher and community leader. More than anyone else, Renslow created the LGBT leather/SM/BD/kink/fetish community as we know it today. Renslow was a larger than life leader, an alpha male in all senses of the word, both in his home town of Chicago and elsewhere in the U.S. and abroad.
Renslow’s eventful life is chronicled in “Leatherman: The Legend of Chuck Renslow,” by Tracy Baim and Owen Keehnen. In the 1950’s, Renslow founded Kris Studios, one of the earliest purveyors of male physique photography. Renslow’s greatest discovery was Dom Orejudos, who became Renslow’s life partner and, as “Etienne,” the greatest male erotic artist this side of Tom of Finland. In 1958 Renslow opened Gold Coast, the first gay leather bar in Chicago or anywhere else. This was the first of many Renslow-owned or operated bars and sex clubs, most famously including Man’s Country, a Chicago bathhouse Renslow and Orejudos bought in 1972 which continues to flourish today. Renslow was also the publisher of various publications, including Triumph, Mars, Rawhide and, later, Chicago Gay Life, which he bought from its founder Grant Ford (who later became a minister and pastor of the Sunshine Cathedral in Fort Lauderdale).
Chuck Renslow’s involvement in the gay leather scene went beyond his businesses. In 1965 Renslow was a founder of Second City Motorcycle Club, Chicago’s first gay bike club. In 1979 he founded International Mr. Leather, still the greatest LGBT leather title contest and the greatest gathering of LGBT leather folk in the world. After Renslow’s partner, like so many other gay or bisexual leathermen, died from AIDS complications, Renslow saw the need for an institution that would preserve the legacy of his endangered community.
In 1991, Renslow and Tony DeBlase founded the Leather Archives & Museum in Chicago, which continues to exist and flourish today. According to a statement issued by the LA&M staff and board, “Chuck gave deeply and worked with great passion for over 26 years to save the names and faces of Leather, kink, BDSM and fetish people, communities, and history, and he fought to ensure that Leatherfolk were the ones who would ‘tell’ their own stories so that they might better understand and bring enhanced visibility to ‘Leather history.’”
Chuck Renslow was active in Chicago LGBT politics during the 1970’s and 1980’s, when he founded the Prairie State Democratic Club and pushed for a lesbian and gay rights ordinance in the Windy City. He served on the board of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and was a U.S. representative to the International Lesbian and Gay Association.
Renslow was inducted into the Chicago LGBT Hall of Fame in 1991 and received many awards from the LGBT and leather communities, including the Leather Journal’s lifetime achievement award and a Centurion Award given to Renslow as Leatherman of the Century. Though such titles often invite hyperbole, in Renslow’s case it was no exaggeration. Chuck Renslow and Jim French were giants in the LGBT community; and though we mourn their passing, we celebrate their lives and vast contributions.