By Gregg Shapiro
Prolific gay writer Owen Keehnen is a Chicago history buff. He is the co-author of biographies about significant names in the city’s LGBTQ+ community, including Chuck Renslow, Vernita Gray, and Jim Flint, helping to bring attention to people who might have been otherwise overlooked. More recently, in books such as 2018’s “Dugan’s Bistro and the Legend of the Bearded Lady” and his latest, “Man’s Country: More Than a Bathhouse” (Rattling Good Yarns Press, 2023), Keehnen has turned his attention to noteworthy brick and mortar venues where LGBTQ+ history was being made, along with all sorts of whoopee. Owen was generous enough to make time for an interview in the autumn of 2023.
Gregg Shapiro: Owen, the first time I interviewed you in 2006 was for one of your gay porn star interview books. In what ways would you say you’ve evolved as a writer since then?
Owen Keehnen: I’ve become a much better writer. That just comes from practice and from years of making mistakes. Some things are consistent though. When I did the “Starz” books, I was having a ball. I was exploring something I wanted to cover. I was a gay porn connoisseur. I was interested in sex and the industry and wanted a peek inside it. Plus, doing those four books, I got to ask dozens of gay porn stars all sorts of questions, and they answered me. The “Starz” books gave me an appreciation for chronicling things considered less than proper. When I did the “Starz” books I didn’t see them as a time capsule but the world of gay porn has completely changed in the last 20 years so in the end they ended up being history after all.
GS: Did 2023 being the 50th anniversary of the opening of Man’s Country have anything to do with your desire to write the book “Man’s Country: More Than a Bathhouse”?
OK: With the “Leatherman” book, I spent hours interviewing Chuck (Renslow). I knew him socially and interviewed him a couple more times about Man’s Country anniversaries or redesigning the place. Man’s Country was forever being redesigned, restructured, and renovated. Chuck told me, “Someday when they tear this place down, they’ll be surprised by what they find.” Nothing crazy was found in the demolition, but Chuck was still right because seeing that building torn down, I realized just how much was being lost – and I figured I wasn’t alone in feeling that way. With the building gone, the time was right to tell that incomparable story, and what a story!
GS: You mentioned the 2011 Chuck Renslow bio “Leatherman,” which you co-authored. Was the idea for “Man’s Country: More Than a Bathhouse” something that was always in the back of your mind to do?
OK: I wanted to, but I wasn’t sure I had enough content. The deciding factor came in the summer of 2022. I was at the Leather Archives and Museum (in Chicago) and saw the Man’s Country exhibit in the Etienne Theatre. As part of the exhibit, there were a couple of framed pages from the shift journal at Man’s Country. The front desk had a shift diary! That was when I realized there was enough for a book. However, I later discovered that much of the incident journal was from Bistro Too and primarily chronicled drunken shouting matches in the alley and other incidents best forgotten. But by then I’d taken the plunge. I’d started conducting interviews and realized there was plenty for a book even without the shift diary.
GS: The book is full of interviews with former patrons and staff of Man’s County. How did you go about locating these interview subjects?
OK: I knew many of the key folks from the “Leatherman” book, other projects, and social as well. People recommended other people and afterI posted on my Instagram account, dozens of folks came forward with stories and memories. The final count for interviews was well over 100. GS: I was surprised that some of the interview subjects only wanted to be identified by initials or not by their last names. Did that surprise you too? OK: Not really. There is no denying this country’s deep Puritanical roots. Bathhouses still carry a stigma. Plus, these are uncertain times. If people were unsure, I recommended it to be an anonymous interview or to use initials. Some became anxious as the book neared publication and contacted me to have their names changed to initials.
GS: What do you think Renslow would think of the book?
OK: I am pretty sure he would love it. “Man’s Country: More Than a Bathhouse” is a love letter to the bathhouse as well as to Chuck. He always said, “Most people do not come to Man’s Country just for sex.” The role of bathhouses in gay history was hijacked by AIDS. At that point, the bathhouse narrative was reduced to sex dens and places of disease. However, my interviews proved otherwise. Sex was typically a good portion of the story, but not the story itself. Some considered Man’s Country a men’s club, a place for prime entertainment, and a showcase for LGBTQ+ talent. Some considered it a getaway place with friends, a place to dance, a place for music, and an erotic art gallery. It was a voyeur’s delight with lots of obliging exhibitionists. It was a place of men’s sexual health and education, a lover’s retreat, a place to fuck beneath the stars, a place for romance, or a sex show. Man’s Country was a place to let your freak flag fly, a place to feel desired, or to watch TV when you’re feeling alone. It was a place to keep the party going, a place with a history, and a place with ghosts. It was a benefit venue and a private club for kink conventions and contests. Man’s Country was a place to go when you were too drunk to go home, a place to go when you were afraid to go elsewhere, a place to go when you didn’t have a home, and a place to be where you did not feel judged. All those reasons and plenty more. I wanted to capture the importance this grand gay bathhouse, and others had in the social landscape and how that changed over time. I wanted to collect the stories and adventures of the place as well as capture the feel of being buzzed inside. I wanted the book to be a little bit of time travel. I’ve got to think Chuck would love the book. GS: Are you aware of other nonfiction books about the history of a bathhouse or is yours the first? OK: I’ve read things – essays and a couple books. Plenty of authors have included things. Edmund White covered Man’s Country in his book “States of Desire.” That’s an exception. Most books, especially about LGBTQ+ history, tend to be about New York, San Francisco, and L.A. The Midwest is still treated as an afterthought. Screw that! I had read about bathhouses in New York, L.A., and San Francisco, but ironically, in those places, the bathhouses closed during the AIDS pandemic – but Chicago bathhouses remained open as centers for condom and HIV information and testing. Man’s Country survived because it had a history as a place that promoted gay men’s health and STD awareness. The Chicago bathhouse story is unique and I’m glad to have gotten it down. However, many large cities had at least one great gay bathhouse – Denver, Houston, Miami. There is so much cool regional history for LGBTQ+ people to do. That sort of grassroots reclaiming of our past is so necessary. If we don’t write our history, someone else will. And that scares me.
GS: Would it be fair to say that since writer and historian St Sukie de la Croix moved to California you have taken on the mantle of Chicago's LGBTQ+ historian?
OK: That will always be Sukie. What I love about Sukie’s work is that it’s the history of LGBTQ+ bars, events, and venues. His work definitely influenced me. My LGBTQ+ history work is also focused on social history. That’s a vague term. What I mean is I love things not extensively newsworthy or much covered by the press but that attain importance because of the role they play in people’s lives. Those are cultural legacies. Those are community legends.
GS: As someone who saw concerts by Boy George, Kinsey Sicks, and Super 8 Cum Shot at the Music Hall, one of the most enlightening things I learned while reading your book is that singer/songwriter Franne Golde was also a regular performer at Man’s Country. Do you know if Franne is aware that she’s in the book?
OK: I believe so. She is in touch with (former Man’s Country staff member) Gary Chichester, so when I was working on the book I emailed her, but I suspect the timing was off for an interview. The time crunch for “Man’s Country: More Than a Bathhouse” was pretty quick; probably six to eight weeks. So yes, I believe she is aware of the book, but I’m not sure.
GS: Because music is such a presence in the book, have you thought about making a playlist or mixtape to accompany the book?
OK: That’s a great idea, but I am not the one to make it. That would be quite a selection of music to choose from. The talent that was booked at Man’s Country was phenomenal, and an enormous part of bathhouse culture, especially in the early days.
GS: A large section of “Man’s Country: More Than a Bathhouse” is dedicated to the bars that shared space on the Man’s Country grounds, including Bistro Too and Eagle. In recent years, a number of books about queer bars have been published, including Jeremy Atherton Lin’s “Gay Bar,” Greggor Mattson’s “Who Needs Gay Bars?,” Rick Karlin and St Sukie de la Croix’s “Last Call Chicago,” Krista Burton’s “Moby Dyke,” and Lucas Hildebrand’s “The Bars Are Ours.” Why do you think that this subject has become so popular?
OK: I think LGBTQ+ history is unique. Growing up with feelings of not belonging, as many LGBTQ+ folks often do, means that when we do find places where we belong those places gain a heightened importance. There is connection and emotional attachment. That feeling of belonging is important to capture because that is such a big part of the LGBTQ+ social experience. I think personal connection is the most effective way to pass on the history of the community – at least for me. Not everyone can relate to winning a court case or changing legislation, but most people can relate to looking for love or sex, hanging out with friends, and having good times. That’s the emotional connection right there. People who claim history is boring are exploring the wrong kind of history. LGBTQ+ history isn’t some distant thing. This is our story.
GS: Finally, have you started working on or thinking about your next book project?
OK: I have a number of ideas and a few things underway. No decision yet, but I am leaning toward a book of essays.