In 1958, Chuck Renslow, his friends and their group’s affinity for leather was too much for a Chicago gay bar called Omar’s.
Tossed out, Renslow decided to open his own nightspot, the Gold Coast Bar, a haven for people of all persuasions that was the country’s first leather bar.
“I was just trying to bring the leather community together,” said Renslow, 82. “It was a place where leather men could meet and know each other.”
A mural of Renslow and friends from the Gold Coast Bar is now a piece of Chicago history, part of a new exhibit “Out in Chicago” opening Saturday at the Chicago History Museum.
“We’re telling Chicago history through the lens of LGBT history,” said Jill Austin, a Chicago History Museum curator who co-curated the exhibit with Jennifer Brier, an associate dean and professor at University of Illinois at Chicago.
With brightly colored words “fairy” and “bleacher dyke” decorating the museum’s spaces, the history lesson starts in 1851 when the Chicago city council passed an ordinance with steep fines for dressing in the clothes of another gender. Joseph Piatkiewicz, a Polish carpenter, was nabbed. He was a married father of two who liked wearing women’s dresses.
There’s a replica of a living room with videos of current same-sex couples raising children in Chicago, a look at local “drugstore libraries” of the 1930s that sold books about same-sex relationships and a fake bar complete with disco ball, describing Chicago’s gay nightlife.
Gay political activism, music and publishing are also touched on through stories of notable gay Chicagoans, like James Darby, a gay veteran who organized an annual celebration in Chicago of gay and lesbian veterans. An audio booth lets people record personal stories for inclusion in the history museum’s archives.
“We’re trying to acknowledge the breadth of things and show the range of things,” Brier said. “We have really tried to show that (LGBT people) have been in Chicago a long time. This is not only a white story, this is not only a Boystown story.”
The exhibit is the culmination of an 8-year-old lecture series at the history museum.
“The goal over the course of many years was for the Chicago History Museum to become much more inclusive in telling stories,” Austin said. “This is the history of Chicago. I’m really thrilled to tell these stories.”
Renslow, whose bar closed in 1979, said it was “about time” such an exhibit opened.