Through his businesses, Renslow helped to build a community for many gay and lesbian Chicagoans, said Chicago journalist Tracy Baim, who began her career working for Renslow’s Gay Life newspaper.
“He really was an incredible forebear of our movement, starting in the 1950s as an openly gay man and entrepreneur,” Baim said. “He was one of five or six people from the pre-Stonewall gay movement who were the bedrock of the Chicago gay movement.”
Renslow, 87, died of congestive heart failure and pneumonia on June 29 at Weiss Memorial Hospital in Chicago, said his partner of 36 years, Ron Ehemann. A North Side resident, Renslow had been battling chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder, Ehemann said.
Born in Chicago, Renslow grew up in Logan Square and was raised by his grandmother, Ehemann said. His first job after high school was working at a lunch counter at a Walgreens. In the early 1950s, Renslow opened his first business, a bodybuilding gym called Triumph Gym, Ehemann said.
From there, Renslow and his partner at the time, noted ballet dancer and artist Dom Orejudos, opened a photo studio, called Kris Studios, where they shot beefcake photos for mail-order magazines they published for gay audiences.
The magazines had names like Triumph and Rawhide Male. The studio was located near the corner of Larrabee Street and Armitage Avenue. Renslow and several colleagues faced obscenity charges in the 1966 but the charges were later dropped.
In the late 1950s, Renslow took over a bar in River North and converted it to a nightclub whose audience was the growing leather subsegment of the gay community. The bar, Gold Coast, operated for almost 30 years and was believed to be one of the first leather bars in the U.S.
Renslow also went on to open other bars, including Bistro Too in Uptown. His primary base of operations was his gay bathhouse and entertainment complex, Man’s Country, which Renslow opened on North Clark Street in Uptown in 1973.
In the late 1970s, a Mr. Gold Coast contest Renslow sponsored at Gold Coast grew to the point that it was too large for his bar. He instead decided to hold it at the Radisson Hotel instead, and it quickly morphed into the International Mr. Leather contest, which started in 1979 and continues to this day as an internationally known conference and contest of leather enthusiasts.
Renslow also took over a failing gay newspaper, Gay Life, which he published and owned from sometime in the 1970s until it shuttered in 1986. In addition, Renslow was active in local politics, serving for eight years as a Democratic precinct captain in the 1970s and 1980s and also as a delegate to the 1980 Democratic National Convention.
In 1991, Renslow and Drummer magazine publisher Tony DeBlase co-founded the Leather Archives and Museum, which started out in a storefront on Clark Street in Rogers Park and now operates in a location paid for by private donations at 6418 N. Greenview in Rogers Park. In 2009, Renslow transferred ownership of the International Mister Leather competition to a charitable trust whose sole beneficiary is the Leather Archives and Museum.
“He was really proud of the archives,” Ehemann said.
Renslow continued working until his death, Ehemann said. He was inducted into the Chicago LGBT Hall of Fame in 1991.
Renslow also was known for throwing his annual “white parties,” ostensibly to commemorate his birthday in August. The white parties — at which everyone who attended was encouraged to wear white — were playfully created as a contrast to the all-black color scheme normally found among leather aficionados. Ehemann said he envisions one final white party being held in August.
In addition to Ehemann, Renslow is survived by two adopted sons, Robert Wilke and Patrick Corcoran. Services are being planned.«