September 2, 2008

Feeling Under the Leather

If you think all gay men are lisping, fashion-conscious, and limp-wristed, you'd be sorely mistaken. There are entire subcultures dedicated to expressions of masculinity and the body 'anti-image.' Take, for example, the leather culture. If you're unfamiliar with this scene, think of the stereotypical biker bar. (In fact, many conjecture that the leather world emerged from the biker culture in the late 1940s.) There are no Harleys involved here though. Just leather in all shapes and sizes: everything from a simple leather jacket to a full-on leather outfit.

leather bearOne of Chicago's well-known leather bars is the Cell Block. With its dark fa'ade and daunting name, you might hesitate going in. However, the Cell Block is probably the softest approach to the leather world. Located on Halsted Street, the bartenders here have seen people of all kinds walk through the door, from the macho mustaches to the giggling girls wandering in from next door Kit Kat. The room is dark and perhaps intimidating, and men in chaps sit on stools around a bar with a friendly (and usually shirtless) guy slings drinks. Dance music is heard occasionally, but the guys here just subtly bob their head to the beat.

Another light-hearted approach to the subculture is Jackhammer in Rogers Park (north of Pressure Billiards). This recently renovated bar now has a brightly lit back area with a pool table and old-school arcade games, as well as a smoker-friendly patio. On the weekends, guys (and a few gals) fill the tiny dance floor in the front room. While the bar still touts itself a 'leather bar,' you'll find people from all walks of life here. There are a variety of events and drinks specials throughout the week, but don't come if you're overly modest. The bartenders might be shirtless, the dancer on stage will be pants-less, and the men on the TV screens will be… well, you get the idea.

leather flagIf you're ready for a heavier leather scene, just two doors north of Jackhammer is Touch'. Everyone is familiar with the concept of a dive bar; this is just the gay version. Dark and windowless, the bar caters to a typically older and weathered crowd, except on theme nights (which there are plenty of). Touch' hosts benefits, fetish parties, beer busts, and cookouts. It also is the meeting place for several clubs, including the Great Lakes Bears (hairy, husky men), Windy City Gay Naturists (nudists), and M.A.F.I.A. (don't ask).

The pinnacle of Chicago's leather scene can be found at the Eagle. This bar probably deserves a post by itself because it's not just a bar, it's an institution. The 'Eagle' can be found in New York City, DC, Atlanta, Phoenix, Denver, Minneapolis, and more. Founded in 1958 as the 'Gold Coast,' the city's first leather bar, it is truly a piece of Chicago history.

leather tattoosThe signature steel truck bed of an entrance has been removed recently to allow bar patrons to step outside for a smoke. Inside, the front bar is huge and provides plenty of seating. The walls are adorned with paintings akin to Tom of Finland, and motorcycle boots sit atop the bar to collect the bartenders' tips. There is a second bar located in the 'club room,' where a dress code is in place on Tuesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, filtering the leather veterans from the novices.

Every one of these bars has a back room (or in Jackhammer's case, a basement) where the clientele takes 'friendly' to a whole new level. Unless you have the inclination to see (or participate in) more 'adult' behaviors, you'll want to steer clear of these areas and stick to the main bar.

international mister leather chicagoFinally, as proof of the leather culture's significance, the International Mister Leather is a conference and contest held annually since 1979 right here in Chicago. The contest began as a promotion at the Gold Coast, but it soon became so popular, it had to move out of the bar and into a Michigan Avenue hotel. Now, the event attracts thousands of attendees of every age, race, and gender, from the 'hardcore' well-practiced to the curious novice.

While the leather subculture invites people of all labels and backgrounds, it is probably most visible and associated with the gay community. This just goes to show that the gay population is so much more than disco balls and feather boas.

Photo credit: (c/o Flickr) SSCusp, davco9200, (c/o IML Press Center) BULLmanX

Cell Block: 3702 N Halsted St; 773-665-8064
Mon ' Fri: 4:00 p.m. ' 2:00 a.m.
Sat: 2:00 p.m. ' 3:00 a.m.
Sun: 2:00 p.m. ' 2:00 a.m.
Street parking difficult
Public trans: Bus # 8, 152 or Red Line train (Addison)

Jackhammer: 6406 N Clark St; 773-743-5772
Mon ' Fri: 4:00 p.m. ' 4:00 a.m.
Sat: 2:00 p.m. ' 5:00 a.m.
Sun: 2:00 p.m. ' 4:00 a.m.
Street parking difficult, lot across the street fills quickly
Public trans: Bus # 22, 36, 151, 155

Touch': 6412 N Clark St; 773-465-7400
Mon ' Fri: 5:00 p.m. ' 4:00 a.m.
Sat: 3:00 p.m. ' 5:00 a.m.
Sun: 12 noon ' 4:00 a.m.
Street parking difficult, lot across the street fills quickly
Public trans: Bus # 22, 36, 151, 155

Chicago Eagle: 5015 N Clark St; 773-728-0050
Sun ' Fri: 8:00 p.m. ' 4:00 a.m.
Sat: 8:00 p.m. ' 5:00 a.m.
Street parking difficult, lot across the street fills quickly
Public trans: Bus # 22


2 comments to Feeling Under the Leather

  1. Alicia
    September 6th, 2008 at 10:40 pm

    I didn’t know about the Eagle here in Denver. I’m not into the leather scene, but I’m glad you wrote about it!

  2. Lee Newton
    September 8th, 2008 at 3:48 pm

    Great post Matt :)
    I was in Chicago this year for IML and got a chance to check out most of the bars you mention. Was my first but definitely not last time in Chicago!

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