museum aims to demystify leather and kink subculture – Chicago Tribune

Posted By on July 25, 2022

Under a canopy of trees along the boundary of Edgewater and Rogers Park is a former synagogue that houses what might be, for some, an unlikely occupant. Housing artwork, books, periodicals, personal letters and photographs, as well as a collection of flogs and whips, the Leather Archives and Museum maintains and preserves materials relating to the history and development of the leather and kink subculture.

Founded by Chuck Renslow and Tony DeBlase, LAM started in a garage more than 30 years ago at the height of the AIDS pandemic. Museum Executive Director Gary Wasdin said Renslow helped start the museum after he saw history being lost when gay men died and their families often threw away everything.

Most research institutions did not collect these kinds of materials, said board member Gayle Rubin, who has researched leather communities for more than 40 years and is associate professor of anthropology and womens and gender studies at the University of Michigan. Sadomasochism and kink were generally treated as psychological disorders rather than living communities and subcultures.

Today, LAM operates under a mission to make leather, kink, BDSM and fetish accessible through research, preservation, education and community engagement. BDSM stands for bondage, dominance, sadism and masochism.

Leather, in this context, is a culture that developed in gay bars and motorcycle clubs in the mid-20th century and, as a form of self-expression, is a style, an identity, a community, and a subculture that celebrates kink, fetish, BDSM and sex, according to LAMs website.

Kink is anything unconventional, which makes it entirely subjective. Everyone is doing something that other people think is kinky, said Wasdin. Although much of LAM is focused on the gay community, its collections pertain to straight, queer, pansexual, bi and other orientations.

Gary Wasdin is executive director of the Leather Archives and Museum, which focuses on the leather and kink subculture. (Victor Hilitski/for the Chicago Tribune)

The library at the Leather Archives and Museum. (Victor Hilitski/for the Chicago Tribune)

LAM is a research library; the only difference, said Wasdin, is its perhaps a little more exciting. Its 2,000 linear feet of collections include a library of more than 6,000 volumes, more than 14,000 issues of 1,900 periodicals, and a database of nearly 60,000 objects of artwork, photographs, personal correspondence, flyers, motorcycle club badges and more.

Archivist Mel Leverich notes that the collection includes records of nonsexual activities, spaces and events (like those from gay campgrounds) because, culturally, the majority often views those as perverted and lumps them with sex. This means research can expand into broader topics, like consent, activism and fundraising for leather clubs; how kink created spaces for trans women writers; and even fashion.

As a result, people from all over the world visit Chicago to research queer and gender studies, sexuality and more, whether for a dissertation, a documentary film project, art projects, or just personal curiosity. As part of its mission, LAM offers an annual fellowship for a visiting scholar to research at the archives. The museum and collections are open to everyone.

Its critical in telling the story and maintaining the historical relevance of the leather and kink community, especially as a subsection, radicalized, sexually-free portion of the LGBTQ community. We are a counterculture within the LGBTQ mainstream, said board member Dionne Choc-Trei Henderson.

Rubin sees LAMs capacity to shift conversation: Most of the scholarly literature on (leather and kink) tended to focus on individual psychopathologies, she said. (LAM) has been a key aspect of shifting research attention to histories and social organizations, as well as art and literature.

Leather jackets, vests and other clothing inside the Leather Archives and Museum. (Victor Hilitski/for the Chicago Tribune)

Pins of the leather pride flag, right, and the rainbow flag, a symbol of LGBTQ movement. (Victor Hilitski/for the Chicago Tribune)

Board member Heather Raquel Phillips sees additional value in this history when addressing diversity and inclusion. As a former LAM scholar and person of color, she uses her documentary project Margin Margin to shed light on a dire need of space for people of color and beyond in the leather and kink community along the mid-Atlantic region of the U.S.

Theres often a diminishing of what has come before this generation right now, Phillips said. If we dont look at the full history, we dont realize what has been done for us and what people have put in.

Choc-Trei Henderson, who identifies as a queer person of color, joined LAM because of its goal to ensure its collections are inclusive and accurately represent the community. Although it was founded by gay white men, Choc-Trei Henderson doesnt believe LAM intentionally omitted people of color. But its collections do show a historic lack of POC voices. Part of this imbalance, according to Choc-Trei Henderson, reflects societal wealth disparity. Not only is leather itself expensive, creating a class issue, but preserving that history also requires money.

If as a person of color, Im told my history isnt important and I dont keep it, that can create a catalyst that requires course correct, said Choc-Trei Henderson. Although she sees LAMs history as reflective of society at large, Choc-Trei Henderson notes that LAM has worked intentionally to balance the historical membership base with newer voices and actively look for those collections (from nonwhite groups).

Brendan Fernandes is a queer dancer who observed how both ballet and BDSM fetishize and challenge the body. Fernandes, born in Kenya and raised in Canada, attributes his sense of politics to punk rock and counterculture. I think a lot about post-colonial histories, he said. How do we dismantle systems? How do governments get challenged? Finding a space of community in counterculture and BDSM and kink as a queer POC, ... I still find a system of hierarchy.

LAM served as an important resource because it makes visible queer leather identity, which sometimes gets tabooed and hidden, Fernandes said, and it helped him research how, in BDSM, one finds freedom within restraint.

In ballet, Fernandes wanted to explore new ways to move and challenge a hierarchy that said theres only one way to do it. His projects The Master and Form, Restrain and Ballet and Kink stemmed from this research.

LAM offers significantly more than a peep show into a marginalized subculture. Its archives offer insight that extend beyond leather and kink, often in unexpected ways. Leather creates commonality out of our relationships in a way that popular culture hasnt done, Choc-Trei Henderson said. The bigger lesson that pop culture has to learn is how leather has built our culture from consent and intention.

Phillips sees how LAM offers tremendous potential in the removal of shame. If we demystified kink and removed shame from the conversation, then everything else is also able to be demystified and destigmatized, she said.

John W. Bateman is a freelance writer.

View original post here:

museum aims to demystify leather and kink subculture - Chicago Tribune

Related Post

Comments

Comments are closed.