The Leather Archives & Museum is a vital part of Chicago's GLBT scene, and will be celebrating its 15th birthday during International Mr. Leather weekend. LA&M's bash will be held May 27, 10 p.m., at the Palmer House Hilton.
Nightspots chatted with the Archive's executive director Rick Storer about the museum's evolution and his hopes for the community.
Nightspots: Coming up on 15 years. Quite a milestone.
Rick Storer: Oh, definitely.
NS: I know you started as a volunteer. When was that?
RS: I started as a volunteer in 1999.
NS: And how different was LA&M back then?
RS: Kind of in its upstart phase. We were, at that time, at the first space on Clark Street, right next to the Chicago Eagle. It was a small storefront, so there was very little room to do anything except to store the boxes. So, it was in 1999 that the new building was found and the move happened. All of that was kind of consuming all of the time of the archives at that point.
NS: Was it in 2005 that you all finally burned your mortgage?
RS: [ Laughs. ] Yeah, it was wonderful. The leather community managed to pay off the mortgage in five years, which is really phenomenal. So, the mortgage was paid off in August 2005, and then we threw a big 'ol party in 2005 to burn it.
NS: What has that meant for the Leather Archives. Did it give a sense of permanence?
RS: Oh, definitely a sense of permanence. I think it gives us a lot more credibility in the eyes of other archives and museums. Before, it was kind of like we were a grassroots institution and we weren't publicly funded. So, it was like, 'Oh, well they're just doing their little thing, and they're not a real institution.' When you have the power to pay off a $500,000 mortgage, it says a lot about you.
NS: What importance does LA&M hold in the larger LGBT community.
RS: It helps preserve a special part of the gay and lesbian lifestyle and culture, because there are a lot of great GLBT archives and libraries out there, and we have Gerber/Hart here in Chicago, which is a fantastic resource. When they're trying to preserve and provide access to everything and anything related to GLBT, that's a lot of stuff. So, this is kind of a niche in helping to and really kind of working right alongside what they're doing to preserve this part of the culture and lifestyle.
NS: What is your favorite item in the collection?
RS: My favorite item. That's hard! But there is a mural in the Etienne Auditorium, by the artist Etienne. The mural is called 'Car Wash,' and it's an erotic, sexually explicit representation of what a gay man's car wash might be. It's been my favorite piece since the first time I saw it in the museum. I love it.
NS: Do you have any goals or ideas for the Leather Archives? I mean, I know you guys have come a long way.
RS: Sure. I think generally speaking—maybe its an optimistic goal for society in general—but I hope that our society can come to terms with sexuality a little bit better and be able to talk about and think about people's sexuality in a little bit more public forum and not be so taboo. As that happens, I hope that the Leather Archives can become more of a resource for the general public.
NS: How much has the leather community in Chicago evolved over the years?
RS: I think that there are a couple things that have had a huge impact on the Leather community in Chicago. The first thing was AIDS, and I think that had a big impact about how everybody in general explored their sexuality. But certainly within the leather and and SM community, it made people think about sexuality very differently. That had a tremendous impact just on the way people practice their sexuality here in Chicago. And I think that the internet has had a huge impact here in Chicago as well. It's made a different role for how people meet each other, and what role the leather bars serve. So that's had a very phenomenal impact on the culture of the Leather community here in Chicago.
NS: Yeah, I'm sure it's had a big impact on drawing people out. You're able to be anonymous on the internet and kind of explore yourself.
RS: It's a safe way to kind of explore that in a very anonymous way, and it kind of leads you to get up the courage to go to a bar or to go to your first International Mr. Leather.
NS: Which is coming up!
RS: Yes! Woo hoo!
NS: Is that the most exciting time of year for you?
RS: Oh, it's definitely. I always tell people who live in warmer climates that in February of every year, I start thinking, 'Why do I live in Chicago? The weather here is awful, I can't stand it!' But by the time May comes around and it's International Mr. Leather, I'm like, 'How could I even think that? Chicago is the best place in the world to live!' How could I even think of living any other place than Chicago. It's a great, great time in the city.
NS: What all is going to be at the anniversary bash?
RS: We are going to have a raffle and a silent auction to help us raise a little bit of money. But mostly it's just a low-key reception for people to get together and wish the Leather Archives well and help us celebrate how far we've come in 15 years. So, it'll just be a good time to get together with people and to help celebrate and make a toast to the Leather Archives.
LA&M will have special hours during IML. It will be open 4-7 p.m., Thursday, and 11 a.m.-3 p.m., Friday-Monday. Special to the archives for IML will be an erotic artist from Florida. See leatherarchives.org .
During IML hours:
Thurs: 4-7 p.m.
Fri, Sat, Sun and Mon: 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Free shuttle buses from Palmer House Hilton up to the Leather Archives.