While mainstream tourism websites boast any number of cultural epicenters in their appeals to tourists to "Find it all in Chicago," missing from most lists is the Leather Archives & Museum ( LA&M ) on the city's North Side.
If the goal of Chicago tourism is to paint the city as a one-of-a-kind destination, the omission of LA&M from the body of that message is glaring.
As Windy City Times reporter Owen Keehnen wrote in May, 2016, "To this day [LA&M] remains the only institution in the United States dedicated to the compilation, preservation, maintenance and access to alternative sex culture."
The weekend of Sept. 16-18 ushers in the 25th anniversary celebration of that institution and everyone is invited to attend free-of-charge events that include a rare look at never-before-seen collections garnered from decades of leather history while guided by the encyclopedic knowledge of LA&M archivist and collections librarian Jakob VanLammeren.
There is also a slate of open discussions scheduled with filmmaker Christina K. Court, museum co-founder Chuck Renslow, Executive Director Rick Storer, venerated community figures such as author and educator Guy Baldwin and author, journalist, educator and activist Gayle Rubin along with film premieres and screenings and after parties.
Like the museum itself, the weekend offers a singular opportunity to delve into and gain a more profound understanding of the leather, BDSM, fetish and kink cultureone that is as vast as the human imagination, as beautifully landscaped as the human body and as perversely labeled and misconstrued by American society in particular which exhibits an unfathomable terror of the female nipple yet exalts the human capacity to portray graphic violence.
Perhaps there, in part, lies the explanation why the LA&M can't be found on choosechicago.com .
The organization's mission to present educational and historical material relevant to the culture of leather and its quintessential role in changing perceptions of sex and identity faces a society which increasingly embraces broadly painted racial and cultural stereotypes: the violent anti-American Muslim, the aggressive young Black male, the uptight British villain, the ill-educated and job-pilfering immigrant or the leather-clad gay man who occasionally shows up in mainstream movies as an object of comedy or fear.
As always, accepting the opposing and multi-faceted reality means opening up the mind to more work than the need for instantaneous explanation or gratification will permit.
Leather, BDSM, fetish and kink culture, now under the umbrella of alternative sex, is one that encapsulates a far wider range of people than gay or heterosexual cisgender men. Its communities and their histories have been driven by the entire LGBTQ and ally spectrum.
VanLammeren began work at the LA&M in 2012 as an intern transcribing oral history and processing a small collection. By Nov. 1 of that year, he had been hired as project archivist. In July 2013, he became the organization's full-time archivist and collections librarian.
"In traditional repositories, people are represented through materials, objects and artifacts that speak to whatever subject matter that institution represents," he told Windy City Times. "In this case, [LA&M] represents alternative sex and culture. That's something I really think is important to articulate to the public. It's not just about practitioners or alternative sex. It's about the cultural development around alternative sexuality, the physical materials created from that culture and the historical value of those materials as it relates to a larger conversation about individual and collective histories."
In her documentation of one such history ( that of the LA&M ), Court was painstakingly detailed in making the 37-minute film By The People: 25 Years of Community Archiving at the Leather Archives & Museum Doors which premieres at the LA&M celebration Sept. 16.
"Rick [Storer] asked me if I'd be willing to make a film about LA&M," she said. "He and Jakob helped write it. As we enter our 25th year, we are seeing this institution develop into this very professional and academic museum and library. It is starting to show that alternative sex and culture is a respectable topic, subject and discipline that needs to be explored in order for us to further understand larger society."
"The documentary shows that extraordinary trajectory," Court added. "It goes to the heart of the archives. There's a thought that LA&M is just a sex museum or a place where we put our porn. But it is a place where archival material is preserved and maintained. How that is done is a different and fascinating story."
Court serves as vice-president of the LA&M board of directors and has been involved in alternative sex culture for over 20 years but specifically as a part of the leather community for the past six.
"Chicago has this enormous kink community that engages in BDSM and power exchange all the time," she said. "It has all these wonderful, creative people of all different sexual identities who don't necessarily identify as leather at all."
"We don't just collect LGBT leather histories. We collect all gender expressions, sexualities and identities related to alternative sex and culture," VanLammeren said.
"Alternative sexuality has replaced leather as an umbrella term because we realize just how many more identifiers are out there," Court explained. "It's really cool to see this transformation and the revolution that is occurring in sexual exploration."
According to VanLammeren, it is a cultural development that has taken place over a number of decades through groups of people engaged in alternative sex seeking a more formalized approach and education around it.
"Cultural development and cultural heritage is really the preservation of both the actions and the thought processes behind individuals coming together for a common theme," he noted. "They create a way of being in the world. For example, American culture particularly after World War II, was starting to gain access to physical spaces, iconographies, even outfits that they hadn't been able to access. That's when we really start to see the development of culture around alternative sexuality. That development begins with things like spoken and unspoken languages, organization of groups of people through policies and systems to operate under, governance, purpose and mission."
Yet within the stagnant waters that comprise the mainstream of society, alternative sex is still a subject regarded as outside the spoken language of acceptable norms.
In 2003, the Indianapolis ABC News affiliate WRTV-6 aired a story about a private dungeon that it claimed was in operation within blocks of a local school. The story was designed to instill shock, fear and morbid fascination in its viewers.
Video included sinister music, shadowy figures going in and out of the dungeon, blurred images of people engaged in alternative sex play and even the sound of a whip lash intercut over interviews.
Two years later, the dungeon's owner Miss Ann was forced to file a lawsuit in order to stop the city from arbitrarily closing her business by claiming it was in violation of zoning ordinances.
A far cry from the kind of prestige, indelible place in alternative sex history and the extraordinary amount of charitable work synonymous with the North Side leather bar Touche or the importance of the LA&M in articulating the narrative and culture of alternative sex communities through its exponentially growing array of source materials.
"I feel lucky to be part of the Chicago leather and BDSM community for that reason," Court said. "It's not perfect because the [Galleria Domain] GD2 recently tried to relocate and, once it was found out that their proposed new space was going to be a dungeon, the neighborhood went crazy."
That location was River North. In a stylistically written replication of the WRTV6 segment, the DNAinfo article about the ensuing "alarm from some neighbors" was headlined "BDSM Club Whips River North Neighbors Into Frenzy."
"There is still a stigma out there," Court said. "I find it really funny that, when people hear the word 'leather', they not only think 'pervert' but of violence as well. My parents are in their 70s now and I've watched my dad swat my mom on the butt in the kitchen as an act of love. Why is that acceptable but someone enjoying an over-the-knee spanking is considered 'perverted'? Many leather people I know really don't engage in S/M but, if you need a group to mobilize for a fundraiser, they'll raise money like no one I've ever seen."
"I think a lot of people in this world are adrenalin and endorphin junkies," she added. "You think about runners and some of the things they do are pretty hard on the body. Yet engaging in an intimate and consensual act that brings an endorphin or adrenalin high is looked upon negatively. Mainstream society draws a line and then they don't want to hear anything more about it."
In thinking about the LA&M's future, VanLammeren has seen a shift in that perception.
"We are just starting to experience and witness the public's engagement with LA&M," he said. "They realize the value of our collections and more people are accessing the materials that we house here. So I see us continuing to diversify our collections by actively seeking to fill the archival gaps that create a silence within the historical narrative. I think a lot about intersectionalities when I think about those silencespeople of color, women, gender variant individuals are all underrepresented communities within archival repositories at large. Oral histories are a great way to capture the stories of underrepresented communities particularly when physical materials are not available."
There are also transgender individuals who found and still find safety in alternative sex spaces and communities.
"A lot of people have no idea how many leather women are out there," Court said. "I know many trans male friends who found their home and themselves in the leather community more than in their day-to-day lives. There is still a stigma with regards to anatomy but we are seeing an interesting transition because there is amazing support at IML [International Mr. Leather] for the out trans men there. The alternative sex communities are way ahead of the game when it comes to progress. They celebrate authenticity in all of us."
If the alternative sex culture in the archives of the LA&M are indeed where people can "find it all," perhaps by the time the institution turns 50, Chicago tourism will recognize the indispensable asset to the city and the questions posed by academics looking at sexuality as part of the human condition that it represents.
"My hope would be that the mainstream acknowledges the fact that all of us enjoy pleasure in a variety of different ways," Court said. "So that alternative sex is not so alternative anymore."
For more information on the LA&M's 25th anniversary, Sept. 16-18, visit LeatherArchives.org/anniversary .