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The Down and Dirty History of the Folsom Street Fair

Updated: Sep 22, 2021 19:00
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Folsom Street Fair was not always welcomed in SF with city-sponsored banners all over Market St. The Folsom Street Fair didn’t used to be called the Folsom Street Fair, it used to be an outlaw, anti-gentrification event and it was definitely not sanctioned by SF City Hall. The origins and backstory of what is now “the world’s largest leather event” deserve to be acknowledged for this year’s 34th annual Folsom Street Fair, expected to draw almost half a million leather and BDSM fetishists to San Francisco’s SoMA District on Sunday.

“The Folsom Fair did not start out as a leather event,” explains Dr. Gayle Rubin, UM professor and one of the world’s leading authorities on contemporary gender politics and sexual subcultures. Dr. Rubin presented The History of the Folsom Street Fair Wednesday night of Leather Week at a session presented by the SF Leathermen’s Discussion Group. Her findings were a rollicking ride through the kinky, politically charged and deeply perverted 30-year history of our beloved annual blow-jobs-and-assfucking street fair.

(NOTE: This write-up is just some half-ass Cliff’s Notes shit that I cranked out in the hours immediately following Dr. Rubin’s presentation. For a more immersive and historically accurate Ken Burns kind of experience, I’d recommend Mike Skriff’s documentary Folsom Forever which played at this year’s Frameline.)

The Folsom ‘Miracle Mile’ of Gay Leather Clubs (1964-1984)

To understand how the Folsom Street Fair was born, we first have to understand the political war SF City Hall was waging against the South of Market gay leather community in the mid-1980s at the height of the AIDS epidemic.

From the 1960s to the early 1980s, the Folsom “Miracle Mile” was unquestionably the hottest gay sex hook-up neighborhood on earth with more than 30 different gay leather sex bars. The Tool Box was the first established SF gay bar (Est. 1961, 4th & Harrison, now a Whole Foods). A few go-to gay bars from that era still survive, like The Stud (Est. 1966), The Endup (Est. 1973), and The Eagle (Est. 1981).

At the time, you also had The Bootcamp (a gay BDSM bathhouse), The Catacombs (an assfisting private club) and the Handball Express. Even our old friend 1015 Folsom used to be a gay bathhouse, the only one  open  to all sexes, called Sutro Baths.

And SF City Hall hated all of this. “SoMA was targeted both socially and politically by City Hall,” Dr. Rubin explains, describing SoMA’s role in the 1980s ‘Urban Renewal’ period. “It was ideal for renewal, redevelopment and what we would eventually call gentrification.”

“If you think of it in Monopoly terms, [SoMA] was Baltic Avenue, the cheapest one,” she said. “But it’s right next to Union Square, which is Park Avenue.”

And little mustachioed men in top hats will not be denied their bags of money for long. The HIV/AIDS crisis gave the SF Planning Commission the hammer it needed to bring all this bathhousing and assfisting to a complete halt.

But they underestimated the community’s response.

The first Folsom Street Fair (1984)

Here we see the last existing original-print flyer for Megahood ’84, now acknowledged as the first incarnation of the Folsom Street Fair. (The Fair will be selling replicas of this original poster Sunday, for you memorabilia buffs.)

Megahood was organized by Kathleen Connell and Michael Valerio , two neighborhood activists who cared a lot more about protesting gentrification than they did about promoting the BDSM lifestyle. (Ms. Connell’s history of the Folsom Street Fair should also be considered required reading.)

“The first fair was leather-friendly, but it was not a leather event,” Dr. Rubin said. The largest attraction at the fair was a 200-foot line-up of restored vintage muscle cars. Other booths offered handmade pottery, crystal renderings and ceramic ware.

The musical headliners were Jane Dornacker and the Geraldine Ferraro All-Star Emancipated Blues Band. Marga Gomez performed at Megahood on the Folsom Stage. Even someone called the Concerned Republicans had a registered booth at the first Folsom Street Fair.

“Only 3 booths were identifiable as kink or kink-related” at Megahood, Dr. Rubin reports. Those were the Society of Janus, the Golden Gate Motorcycle Club and a now-defunct retail store called Sunset Leather.

The crowd at Megahood ’84 was described by Drummer magazine as “several hundred SoMa leathermen sticking their skeptical heads out of the bars to jaywalk, drink, and piss-play with attitude.”

They renamed the early Folsom Street Fairs every year. In 1985, it would be called “Attack of the Street Faire”. Subsequent years had tacky 1980s names like “Dancin’ in the Street” and “Hot 6 in the City”. The fair would not be properly named the Folsom Street Fair until 1991.

The Leatherization of the Folsom Street Fair (1988)

Kink educator and BDSM coach Cleo Dubois marched with the Outcasts Drill Whip Team at the 1988 Folsom Street Fair (seen above). “We leather folks were on the fringe in the 80s,” she says. Cleo Dubois has been to nearly every Folsom Street Fair ever, so I asked her what it was like in the early days.

“I am surprised you did not ask earlier. I gave that very program last night at The Citadel,” she responded sternly. “You forgetful slut. You should have come.” (NOTE: This is just how we talk.)

1988 was the year the leather crowd really took over the fair. “The leather community took the Fair, because it needed the Fair,” Dr. Rubin said. Consider the context: 62,000 people died of HIV/AIDS that year. California’s Prop. 64 had just proposed quarantining people living with HIV. Lyndon LaRouche was a legitimate and serious player in American politics.

So the SF Leather community consolidated its dwindling political and economic power around the fair. “Mr. S” Alan Selby moved the annual Alan Selby’s Fetish & Fantasy party to that weekend, and Drummer magazine publisher Tony DeBlase also moved his celebrated International Mr. Drummer contest to the weekend of the fair (DeBlase went on to design the Leather Pride Flag). And they called the whole thing “Leather Pride Weekend”.

“It was really leathery,” Cleo Dubois remembers. “It was not a bunch of college boys in gym shorts. It wasn’t a tourist attraction. It was really leathermen.”

Increased Legitimacy and Big Bucks (1997-2000s)

Image courtesy Steven Damron via Flickr

The Folsom Street Fair aligned organizationally with the Up Your Alley Fair, but would still struggle. “Both fairs had near-death experiences in the mid-1990s,” Dr. Rubin notes. Folsom wouldn’t get it together with Up Your Alley, who wouldn’t get it together with SF Pride, who wouldn’t get it together with LA Pride, who wouldn’t get it together with the Castro Street Fair. “Their scheduling was all over the place.”

The 5 fairs worked out recurring annual schedules that more or less remain in place today. The consistent schedules attracted more gay male tourists, suddenly a hot demographic as technological and pharmaceutical developments led to them making way more money and dying a whole lot less.

The Folsom Street Fair’s relationship with City Hall improved drastically. They snagged big-money sponsors like Miller beer and American Airlines. The Folsom Street Fair was raising a ton of money for both charity and City Hall. The fair was allowed to get crazier and crazier in its conduct and marketing, all in the name of making San Francisco the home of a world class leather and kink party. What could possibly go wrong?

Poster Controversy (2007)

Shit hit the fan when the fair’s official poster was released in 2007, a leather culture parody of Da Vinci’s “Last Supper”. The Catholic League went berserk, and Miller Lite demanded to have their logo removed from the poster.

The poster art had been getting increasingly kinky and beefcakey over the years, but in the mid-2000s tried to incorporate more gender and body type variety. The posters evolved into ‘group shots’ that reflected the diversity of the fair’s attendees. A gay leather “Last Supper” with rubber fists and buttplugs strewn about the dinner table just seemed a logical extension of this.

Various Catholic organizations boycotted Miller beer, but with no financial effect. Protesting the poster every year no matter what turned into a reliable fundraising mechanism for conservative organizations.

Paradoxically, the Folsom Street Fair was now raising money for diametrically opposed kinky sex-positive groups and radical conservative religious groups.

Folsom St. Fair As We Now Know It (2008 – Current)

The Folsom Street Fair now raises about $358,000 for its affiliate charities each year, and has raised about $5 million for charity to date. The event attracts more than 400,000 attendees and is almost certainly the biggest ‘visible dick’ show on earth. Yet many people feel the fair has grown ‘too tame’, ‘too straight’ or ‘too corporate’.

“It didn’t start as a gay event,” Dr. Rubin reminds us. “People have been complaining about it becoming a straight event since 1986. But it’s always been a mixed event. I mean, where else can you see ponies and pony carts?”

But the shift is an unfortunate parallel to the very gentrification that the fair was born to protest 30 years ago. “I can only hope that the sense of ritual and sex magic does not get lost,” Cleo Dubois said. “As for Folsom Street Fair, it is a huge happy fundraiser for many charities and an eye candy feast. I applaud that.”

The fair has now moved up to the third weekend in September in a mutual non-aggression pact with annual SalesForce and Oracle conferences. I suppose you might call that “selling out”. But this fair has been mutating, evolving and doing whatever it needs to do to survive for three decades now. Compared to some of the urgent and drastic issues this fair and the South of Market community have confronted over 30 years, a hotel room conflict with a trade show is not a significant crisis.

But the Folsom Street Fair is a significant influence, and has become part of the DNA of who we all are as Bay Area residents or as kinky people. Like Dr. Rubin says, “The Folsom Fair, in particular, has become something the world has never seen before — a celebration of sexual perversion.”

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Joe Kukura- Millionaire in Training

Joe Kukura is a two-bit marketing writer who excels at the homoerotic double-entendre. He is training to run a full marathon completely drunk and high, and his work has appeared in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal on days when their editors made particularly curious decisions.