Folsom Street Fair's fascinating history
by Race Bannon
The highest of holy days for San Francisco's leather and kink crowd is upon us. On Sunday, September 21, from 11:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m., the folks at Folsom Street Events, along with countless volunteers, will mount the granddaddy of all leather events, Folsom Street Fair, now in its 31st year. The fair spans many blocks in San Francisco's South of Market neighborhood on Folsom Street from 8th to 13th Streets, spilling over onto side streets to accommodate the hundreds of thousands of people who attend each year.
Unlike its small and more local brother, the Up Your Alley street fair, Folsom Street Fair caters to and welcomes a broad range of men and women of all orientations and kinky persuasions. People travel from around the world to attend the Fair. If you have any kinky sexual interests, and you've never been to Folsom Street Fair before, treat yourself. There's nothing else in the world quite like it.
I asked Demetri Moshoyannis, Executive Director of Folsom Street Events, if his organization is guided by any particular mission or objective when producing the Fair.
He said, "Our mission statement is to unite the adult alternative lifestyle communities with safe spaces for self-expression and exciting entertainment. We raise funds to help sustain San Francisco-based and national charities."
I think that sums up nicely the fun you can expect at the Fair while your support also contributes to raising money for some worthwhile charities.
Many assume that Folsom Street Fair began as a gay leather event. That's not quite accurate. Yes, leatherfolk were certainly at the first Fair and some were integral to its organization, but the Fair was birthed by a much more wide cross section of people and not necessarily as the celebration of leather and kink that it's become today.
The first Folsom Street Fair was actually an attempt by two community activists and organizers, Kathleen Connell and Michael Valerio, to preserve the South of Market neighborhood that was being threatened by aggressive gentrification and commercial development. Developers had their sights set on a large section of South of Market from which they intended to displace many businesses and residents.
Amid the background of aggressive South of Market gentrification that was displacing an entire community, Connell and Valerio started to work under an umbrella of the activist organizations in place at the time that were attempting to resist and mitigate such gentrification. Their collaborative community-organization work eventually led to the first Folsom Street Fair in 1984 and they named it "Megahood."
In Gayle Rubin's superb essay, Elegy for the Valley of the Kings: AIDS and the Leather Community in San Francisco, 1981-1996, Rubin gives a beautiful accounting of the Fair's start.
Street Fair. photo: Rich Stadtmiller
"In 1984 a group of community organizers and housing activists decided to start a South of Market street fair. The Folsom Street Fair was intended to make a political statement that South of Market, far from being an empty slum in need of urban renewal, was already occupied. The fair, it was thought, would bring together and display all the disparate elements of a vital and viable neighborhood. Thus the fair has never been an exclusively gay event or leather event. Nonetheless, the founders included leathermen, and given the strong presence of leather in the area, it has always had substantial participation."
For a thorough and detailed history of the origins of the Fair, I highly recommend you check out an article on the Folsom Street Events website titled The Power of Broken Hearts: The Origin and Evolution of the Folsom Street by Kathleen Connell and Paul Gabriel (www.folsomstreetevents.org/heritage ).
Since its initial community activist origins, Folsom Street Fair has morphed over time from a celebration of the South of Market neighborhood and its inhabitants to one that has come to be known as perhaps the world's most famous celebration of the many manifestations of leather and kink.
For those reading this column who have never attended Folsom Street Fair, I think Moshoyannis can give you a glimpse into what to expect. He hopes that the main thing Fair attendees come away with is "...a sense of community and a safe space for BDSM exploration. Each year, I'm always amazed by the feeling of a little fetish village being erected in the streets. There are vendors, stages, food and liquor stands and so much more. But everyone is there for the same reason. I hope that each time someone comes to the fair they can experience or see something new and interesting and entertaining."
Street Fair. photo: Rich Stadtmiller
Of course, the main attraction at Folsom Street Fair is the people. People from all walks of the leather and kink realms, as well as the curious and potential kink newcomers, meander down the street, often dressed (or in some cases, undressed) in their finest fetish gear. The sights and spectacles are truly something to behold.
One of the things that makes the Fair a unique event is the intense focus on providing those attending with some of the finest entertainment anywhere. This year there is an exciting lineup of DJs and live performances. Many of the acts are queer-identified or speak to our community's varied sexual identities.
The main stage features Zbornak, MicahTron, The Younger Lovers, Double Duchess, Bright Light Bright Light, MNDR, Monarchy and Austra. If you are attending the Magnitude dance party, headliners on that dance stage are Tracy Young and Tony Moran. If you're attending the Deviants dance party, headliners are Stereogamous from Australia, DJs Pareja from Argentina, and The Cucarachas from London, UK. To see the full lineup of entertainment, go to the Folsom Street Fair section on the Folsom Street Events website for times, bios and much more.
While the Fair is an event for the world, drawing people from a multitude of cities and countries, us locals are lucky that we get to enjoy it too. After all, the Fair did start out as a celebration of our South of Market neighborhood, and in many ways it still pays homage to that neighborhood.
One of our esteemed locals, Deborah Hoffman-Wade, a well-known community leader and this year's female Leather Marshal in the Pride Parade, said this about her favorite aspect of the Fair.
"My favorite part of Folsom is participating with the entire local community in providing a fun, safe, wild, sexy party for the world. As the Bootblack concierge (pimp), I meet people from all over the world. I look forward to it every year!"
Another well-known local, Beatrice Stonebanks, Coordinator for the Society of Janus, offered this about why the Fair is so important to her.
"Folsom Street Fair is the biggest day of the year for me," she said. "I start early, end late, and ride the afterglow for days. Who I am privately is publicly welcomed into the sunlight; where being a Femdom is an intimate feeling I get to share with hundreds of thousands of other kinky people. Powerful enough to bring tears to my eyes, kinky enough to take my breath away and lewd enough to be a cause for pause, while enjoying an appreciation of the myriad kinky archetypes around me."
If I were to ask each local, or out of town visitor, who has attended the Fair in the past, I'm sure I would get a vast assortment of impressions and memories that are as unique as the people who attend. I hope you attend and create your own memories.
So what might we see at future Folsom Street Fairs? It's hard to say. Over the years Folsom Street Fair has certainly changed. The most striking changes have been the demographic shifts and the growing expressions of kink and fetish.
photo: Rich Stadtmiller
Demographically, the event is much more diverse than it ever has been and I see no sign of that diversity abating. It's more diverse with respect to gender expression, sexuality/sexual orientation, race/ethnicity, and place of origin. With respect to fetish expression, the Fair is now seeing some kink and fetishes that weren't very present even a few years ago. As an example, puppy play is huge now. You probably wouldn't have seen that at the Fair back in the '90s.
Leading up to the street fair itself is what has become known as Leather Pride Week. Leather Pride Week is comprised of a number of events, dances, bar happenings and other fun things for kinky locals, and visitors who come to town for the Fair, to do as the day of the fair approaches. But Leather Pride Week wasn't part of the original Folsom Street Fair plan. Here's how Rubin explains in her same essay the origins of Leather Pride Week.
"Leather Pride Week began almost accidentally, when Drummer publisher Tony DeBlase decided to upgrade the Mr. Drummer title. Previously the Mr. Drummer contest had been considerably less prestigious than the International Mr. Leather Contest in Chicago. In 1988 DeBlase decided to move the date of the Mr. Drummer contest to coincide with the Folsom Street Fair, held on the last Sunday of September."
Rubin includes DeBlase's recounting of how he came to create what's now called Leather Pride Week.
"I decided to move the contest," said DeBlase. "I looked around for where else to put the contest, to put it with another event, so that people would have more than just the contest to come to San Francisco for. You know, IML has made its name, not because it's a Chicago contest, but because it attracts people from all over the world. I wanted to be able to try and do the same thing, to make a major event to bring people in for. It seemed to me the other thing I could tie to was the Folsom Street Fair. Since the contestants arrived on Wednesday night, and they had things going Wednesday night, Thursday night, and Friday night, I started calling it Leather Pride Week in San Francisco at that time it consisted of the Mr. Drummer events, Alan Selby's Fetish and Fantasy and the Folsom Street Fair. People saw the name, and people said, Well, I'm going to do something for Leather Pride Week too."
And do something they most certainly have. Leather Pride Week now has a packed calendar with many days containing so many events, one can't possibly do them all. You have to pick and choose. With that said, please check out the calendar entries that accompany this column. Each year the selection of events grows. You really do need to plan your week in advance if you're not to become overwhelmed with the sheer volume of decisions you need to make about where to be, and when.
To everyone who resides in the Bay Area, as well as to everyone who comes to San Francisco for Folsom Street Fair and Leather Pride Week, let me welcome you to our wonderful city. Have a great –and kinky– time!
Race Bannon is a local author, blogger and activist. You can reach him through his website www.bannon.com