Rainbow Rant: Queer kinksters belong at Pride

A history lesson

Joy Ellison
James Lee, the International and Kentucky Mr. Leather winner, rides in the back of a truck during the 2018 Kentuckiana Pride Fest Parade on Friday evening in downtown Louisville. June 15, 2018

Every June, it seems, the queer and transgender community debates who belongs at Pride. Asexual people. Transgender people. Bisexual people. Pansexual people. Queer couples who “look straight,” whatever that means. All of these communities have found themselves the subject of painful conversations, think pieces, Facebook fights and worse. These annual attempts to vote a group off LGBT island are practically a Pride tradition. 

This year, the debate has centered on whether kink belongs at Pride and I have tried to keep my mouth shut. Since these attempts to exclude parts of our community from our celebrations are toxic, but largely toothless, refusing to entertain the question is the best response. But as a historian, I find the conversation about kink particularly galling. Kink, leather and BDSM clubs have long been key institutions in our community, especially in Columbus. 

In the United States, organized kink and leather clubs date back to the 1940s, booming following World War II. One of the first leather bars in the world was founded in Chicago by a largely unsung queer hero named Chuck Renslow. Renslow had a keen head for business, politics and community-building. In 1952, he and his partner, Dom Orejudos, started a men’s physique photography studio. They called it Kris Studios to honor transgender icon Christine Jorgensen, and their magazine functioned as a safe and discreet way for gay men to find community in an era of intense homophobia. 

In 1958, the two started a gay gym and the country’s first gay leather bar, the Gold Coast bar. Until his death at 87, Renslow created places where the queer and transgender community could congregate, even during times of political repression. Renslow fought against police bar raids and in favor of non-discrimination ordinances. Helped by his fellow leather enthusiasts, he donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to LGBT causes. Without him and the leather community he supported, the LGBT Midwest would look very different. 

In Columbus, leather clubs have long been an important part of the fabric of our community, especially in times of crisis. During the height of the AIDS epidemic, the Columbus Centurions, a leather back patch club, dedicated itself to the fight against the virus. As with many leather clubs, membership in the Centurions was an honor that came with responsibilities; the club was as focused on charity as on camaraderie. The group held monthly bar nights and drag shows in which it raised money for AIDS care, along with hygiene supplies desperately needed in hospitals and homes where caregivers were supporting people living with AIDS. 

Leather and kink clubs are a part of queer history. They deserve a place of honor at Pride, among the pantheon that has fought for our collective liberation.