What is the history of the Folsom Street Fair?

Liz Highleyman | January 7, 2004

The evolution of the Folsom Street Fair - the world's largest leather/SM/fetish event - reflects the history of both an urban neighborhood facing development pressures and a gay community confronting a devastating epidemic.

San Francisco's South of Market district, or SoMa, was long a mixed-use, working-class neighborhood of warehouses, service businesses, and residential hotels, populated by seamen, longshore workers, bohemian artists, and immigrant families. By the 1960s it was home to some of the city's earliest LGBT institutions, including the country's first gay community center (opened by the Society for Individual Rights in 1966) and the office of the Daughters of Bilitis.

The area's cheap rents and deserted nighttime streets also attracted a burgeoning gay male leather community, whose members eschewed stereotypical queer effeminacy for a more masculine style. The first SoMa leather bar, the Tool Box, opened in 1962; it gained renown when a photo of the bar, with its mural by Chuck Arnett, appeared in a 1964 Life magazine article entitled "Homosexuality in America."

For the next two decades, leather bars and bathhouses proliferated around Folsom Street, while the neighborhood's narrow alleys proved ideal for cruising. Among the most popular haunts were the Ambush (which boasted its own brand of poppers), the Barracks (described by author and former Drummer editor Jack Fritscher as "a four-story maze of fantasy sex"), the Brig, Febe's (with its trademark mascot, Michelangelo's David dressed as a leatherman), and the Slot.

During this golden age, according to Fritscher, "peace, love, and granola would mix with hard leather, hard drugs, and hard sex," and the streets of SoMa hummed with sexual excitement and camaraderie.

But all was not well along the so-called "Miracle Mile." SoMa had been eyed for urban renewal since the late 1940s, but redevelopment pressure increased in the late '60s and again in the late '70s - aided by a new pro-development mayor, Dianne Feinstein, who had assumed the position following the 1978 assassination of Mayor George Moscone and gay Supervisor Harvey Milk. In 1981, a large fire at the site of the Barracks bathhouse (by then closed and under renovation as a hotel) consumed more than 20 buildings and left many residents homeless. And in the early 1980s, AIDS hit SoMa hard, decimating the leather community. The resulting hysteria led the health department to close the city's bathhouses and sex clubs in 1984, striking a further blow to the area's economic and cultural institutions.

To combat the threats facing the neighborhood, a coalition came together that included progressive ministers, social-service providers, old-time labor organizers, small-business owners, affordable-housing advocates, and LGBT activists. Among them were Michael Valerio, an openly gay man of Filipino/Hispanic heritage, and Kathleen Connell, an out lesbian with a long history of activism. Valerio and Connell were impressed with how Milk had used the Castro Street Fair (a street party celebrating the city's gayest neighborhood) as a platform for political organizing and community building, and Milk's successor, gay Supervisor Harry Britt, urged them to follow suit.

The first Folsom Street Fair - dubbed "Megahood" - took place in 1984 on the autumnal equinox. The event, featuring local craftspeople, a dance stage, and a variety of performers, brought together the diverse elements of the neighborhood and demonstrated that, far from being a blighted slum, SoMa was a vital part of the city. "As a neighborhood or place of work, South of Market magnetically attracts the pioneers, the changelings, the cutting edge of industry, arts, entertainment, human and social relationships," read the fair's first invitation. "Not too far behind the concrete facades, a pulsating, living mosaic-like community is alive and well."

Around the same time, another group was organizing to help the leather community cope with the impact of AIDS. To raise both funds and community spirits, Jerry Vallaire and International Mr. Leather Patrick Toner launched a second street fair in August 1985 on Ringold Alley, an infamous SoMa cruising strip. Two years later, under pressure from residents, this fair moved to nearby Dore Alley. In 1990, facing volunteer burnout, the organizers of the Folsom Street and "Up Your Alley" fairs decided to combine their efforts and create South of Market Merchants' and Individuals' Lifestyle Events (SMMILE), which now produces both events and puts out an annual Bare Chest Calendar.

In the late 1990s, the Folsom Street Fair experienced a revival as it increasingly drew leather and fetish aficionados from across the country and around the world - and spanning the spectrum of sexual orientations. Dressed in their fetish finery - or sometimes nothing at all - fairgoers can purchase wares from internationally known leather craftspeople, listen to bands, give or receive a spanking for charity, or simply see and be seen. Many organizations began holding events in conjunction with the one-day fair, during what is now known as Leather Week. Today, the Folsom Street Fair is California's third largest public event, drawing hundreds of thousands of participants each year and raising a similar amount of money for community organizations. -QSyndicate

Liz Highleyman is a freelance writer and editor who has written widely on health, sexuality, and politics.

Further Reading
  • Connell, Kathleen, and Paul Gabriel. 2001. "The Power of Broken Hearts: The Origin and Evolution of the Folsom Street Fair" (GLBT Historical Society).
  • Fritscher, Jack. 1990. Some Dance to Remember (Palm Drive Publications).
  • Rubin, Gayle. 1998. "The Miracle Mile: South of Market and Gay Male Leather, 1962-1997." In Reclaiming San Francisco: History, Politics, Culture: A City Lights Anthology, ed. James Brook et al. (City Lights).

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