Does Folsom Street Fair signal the death of leather?

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On September 21, San Francisco will host the 30th annual Folsom Street Fair, the world’s largest gathering of leather, S&M, and fetish enthusiasts. An estimated 400,000 people—many sporting provocative outfits or simply parading naked—will meander up Folsom celebrating consensual, age-appropriate perversions. The Sunday fair is the capstone gathering of Leather Pride Week, with every night featuring a special deviant-themed event. 

Does the mass popularity of Folsom signal the “mainstreaming” of radical sex? Have once-identified “perversions” like homosexuality and fetishism been tamed by the marketplace? Does the acceptance of gay marriage in nearly two-dozen states—along with the institutionalization of such conventions as International Leatherman (ILM, Chicago) and the Mid-Atlantic Leather Association (MLA, Washington D.C.)—mark a turning point in radical sexual expression and experimentation?

Gayle Rubin, a radical feminist and associate professor of anthropology and women’s studies at the University of Michigan, has written extensively on San Francisco’s early gay S&M, leather, and fetish scenes. Her collected essays, Deviations: A Gayle Rubin Reader (2011), is not only a scholarly and participant-observer’s account of the scenes’ formation, but a humane reflection of a remarkable moment in America’s sexual history. 

Looking at the evolution of the radical gay sex scene, Rubin argues, “I don’t agree with the premise that somehow same sex marriage is correlated with a decline in sexual radicalism in general or leather and S&M in particular.”  She adds, “Nor do I think that the Folsom Fair is a straightforward barometer of the changes and/or health of the leather communities.”

Over the last three decades, the radical sex scene in San Francisco, New York, and throughout the country has fundamentally, and perhaps irreversibly, changed. The ‘60’s sexual revolution came to an end in 1984 when the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) was identified as the cause of AIDS, the acquired immune deficiency syndrome. In a political struggle that bitterly divided San Francisco, city officials closed gay bathhouses as “menaces” to public health, facilitating unprotected sex. The fair started as the AIDS epidemic began to grip the city.

During the pre-AIDS days, the locus of gay sexual activity was the South of Market (SoMa) district, a down-on-its heels industrial neighborhood with working-class residents, dreary warehouses, and lots of gay bars and sex clubs.  Today, SoMa has been gentrified and, last year, the Mormon’s Marriott Hotels, along with American Airlines, were official sponsors of the Fair. 

In one of her most revealing essays, “The Catacombs: A Temple of the Butthole”, Rubin provides an illuminating analysis of the euphoric period of ecstatic hedonism that marked the pre-AIDS era. On March 21, 1980, a San Francisco sex club, the Catacombs, hosted what she found to be “the first time significant numbers of kinky gay men, lesbians, bisexuals, and heterosexuals partied together in the Bay Area.” It was principally a private male, gay, S&M leather sex club that gained an international reputation for fisting or “handballing.” The club was founded by Steve McEachern and opened in May 1975; it closed in August 1981 following McEachern’s sudden death from a heart attack. On that night, the ‘60’s sexual revolution reached its zenith—truly, anything was possible. 

Looking back, Rubin reflects, “While brick and mortar leather institutions have shrunk dramatically since the 1980s, I don’t think leather is dead or dying. Actually, it seems quite healthy.” She argues further, “Leather and gay institutions have faced many of the same challenges as have small local bookstores. Yet people aren’t reading less because so much of the brick and mortar retail book economy has disappeared.  Similarly, vanishing leather bars and loss of territory do not indicate a population collapse. Of course there have been many changes and there will continue to be.” 

If you attend this year’s Fair, you’ll be part of a “community” of (mostly) like-desiring, consenting adults. This community will be diverse, but will include a good number of middle-class, young, and middle-aged white women and men—gay, straight, and other. They’ll probably buy their fetish gear at retail outlets like Mr. S, hang out at semi-public clubs like the Citadel, and gather at private role-playing parties where almost anything goes.

Those strolling along Folsom Street will participate for a variety of reasons, but will likely do so without shame. Traditional forces of sexual repression, both legal and moral, are becoming a thing of the past.  

For those attending, as you wander through the mass of flesh, flirtations, and fetishes, try to assess whether the “mainstreaming” of the Folsom Fair is a sign of lessening moral repression or a sign of the further integration of sexual deviance into a marketplace indulgence. And does this signal a new phase of sexual freedom or repression?  

 


DAVID ROSEN regularly contributes to AlterNet, The Brooklyn Rail, Filmmaker, IndieWire and Salon. His website is DavidRosenWrites.com, and he can be reached at drosennyc@verizon.net.

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