Chicago leather club welcomes trans men

The Chicago Hellfire Club has opened its doors to trans leathermen after more than a decade-long battle for inclusion that shook up the leather community throughout the U.S.

Members of the Windy City's SM club on October 8 voted 31-1, with one abstention, to allow trans leathermen full membership into one of the oldest leather clubs in the U.S., trans leathermen and supporters told the Bay Area Reporter.

The B.A.R. obtained a document sent by the club's outgoing president and emeritus member, David Katzenberg, to Hellfire members earlier this month announcing the results of the board election to end its anti-trans policy.

The new policy is inclusive of trans and intersex men living full-time as men and who hold government issued identification reflecting their male gender.

Furthermore, trans men were included in the development of the new policy, according to the announcement.

The Chicago Hellfire Club was started 45 years ago in 1971, according to the Leather Hall of Fame. In 2007, the club boasted a 400-member roster. It is unclear how many members the club has currently.

Trans men and their supporters hailed the vote as a victory. The battle went well beyond Hellfire, which is viewed as the "father" of leather clubs across the U.S., splitting the community in a contentious and divisive debate.

"It's a milestone and I'm proud of it. I'm proud of everybody who made it happen. It was certainly not just Billy and myself," said Peter Fiske, noting that there was a coalition of leaders working on the issue. He was referring to another man who requested his last name not be used.

Fiske, a 71-year-old gay leatherman, is a former chairman of the 15 Association and has been a member since 1980.

Certain clubs upheld the anti-trans policy. Others were welcoming of trans men. Slowly, as trans men and transgender issues became more visible, attitudes started to change, said Fiske.

In 2010, Tyler McCormick became the first trans man to win the prestigious International Mr. Leather title.

Clubs also evolved in understanding trans men and overturned anti-trans policies, including Hellfire. In 2011, Hellfire club members voted to allow trans leathermen to attend events and play parties as guests, trans men and their supporters told the B.A.R.

In 2015, Katzenberg told the Windy City Times , Chicago's LGBT newspaper, the issue of trans men and Hellfire was changing.

"We are an evolving group," he stressed to the newspaper, pointing out that the club allowing trans men to participate as guests at parties wasn't even allowed "as recently as three years ago."

Katzenberg declined to comment for this article.

Other leather clubs, such as the Discipline Corps in Dallas, also declined to comment, citing that they are private clubs and have strict policies regarding commenting about club business to the media.

San Francisco's 15 Association applauded Hellfire's decision. The progressive leather club has allowed trans men full membership since 2002, said Fiske.

"Myself and the rest of the 15 Association club members are absolutely thrilled by the Chicago Hellfire Club's decision a few weeks ago to allow trans men to attend events and become members of the club," said Eric See, 44, a gay leatherman who is chairman of the 15 Association.

See pointed out that the Hellfire Club and other leather clubs' policies, and a misunderstanding between gay men and trans men, led to a deep division within the two communities.

"Now that they have changed their policy, our club, and I imagine others, will work to repair the bridges between us," said See, who has been a member of the 15 Association since 2008.

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