Nightlife » Music

Leather’s Burning Man

by Dr. Jack Fritscher .
Monday Sep 19, 2011

At the first Folsom Street Fair in 1984, leather culture changed. Leatherfolk fell out of dark bars and down Alice's rabbit hole toward transparent afternoon light. As an eyewitness videographer, and as Drummer editor chronicling the popular culture of "gay street life," I watched us leathermen blink when, for the first time outside of a bike run, we saw ourselves not mythic under the red bulbs of bars, but, like mad dogs and Englishmen, out in the noonday sun. It was as if Chuck Arnett's Platonic "shadow mural" in the cave of the Tool Box exploded from black and white into living color.

For creatures of the "bar-bath-and-beyond" night, a hot day on the pavement was a 180-degree spin as Folsom Fair goers claimed the SoMa streets as an "out" gay space by day as well as by night. Before that first Folsom Fair, who knew you could get the kind of public caning criminals get in Singapore? Who knew that leather-curious Castronauts would tiptoe down to twirl a little black-and-blue into their twinky vanilla?

Who knew that a weird diversity of non-ironic yuppies with strollers, and suburban Carquinez straights from the Carquinez Strait, and video-shooting Christian Fundamentalists shaking their fists at the sky, and moneyed Mormon election fixers would eventually crash the party? Who knew that white-faced Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence would become the muscular gatekeepers who set up checkpoints at all the entrances shaking their can-cans for cash donations?

Who knew that the 1984 Folsom Fair would encourage the 1986 founding of its cousin, the first Burning Man, on San Francisco's Baker Beach? Who knew that SoMa's first scurvy little neighborhood block party would turn into a destination for international sex tourists who think San Francisco feasts on street porncake like this all year long?

Dawn of AIDS:
Rebooting leather culture

In the contentious Folsom Fair origin story, leatherfolk's anxiety ran deep in the Orwellian dystopia of 1984, rightly suspicious of both the US government as the rumored inventor of the viral "final solution" of the homosexual question, and of event producers purposing leather for fund-raising the way that Harvey Milk started the Castro Street Fair to sign up voters. It's a huge irony of gay history that our romantic outlaw leather culture of the 1950-1980s was largely repellent to many mainstream gays and politically correct faddists until promoters figured how to package cowhide for consumers the way militants had tit-twisted the grassroots joy of 1970s gay liberation into the retail business of 1980s gay politics. In prejudice, many 1980s mainstream gays loudly accused leather culture of being the cause of AIDS.

By 1984, plague had made gay culture hysterical: AIDS was everywhere; its baffling cause seemed to be homosexuality itself; there was no cure; HIV testing had yet to be invented; we knew we were all going to die; all we needed to make the horror show complete, some bitched, was a counter-intuitive street party with light so bright it was like an X-ray exposing the privacy of one another's health status.

Additionally, the early 1980s rise of the Goth scene with its music, costumes, tattoos, and piercings greatly influenced gay culture and LGBTQ young bloods. That new dark gothicism was afoot when the first Folsom Fair debuted as street theater. In our "performance art," we seemed to be acting out Edgar Allan Poe's famous horror story "The Masque of the Red Death" in which the diversely costumed characters, threatened by an unnamed plague, retreat to party at a masquerade ball in rainbow-colored rooms, seizing the day, not knowing who of the masked guests is Death itself.

In our reactionary gay world, that was just one more death-defying reason to invent and embrace a leather street fair to party hard, cast our fates to the wind, and sing with that gay-icon Miss Peggy Lee: "Is that all there is to a plague? If that's all there is, keep on dancing."

Drummer magazine
champions Folsom Fair

As pop-up events go, Folsom Fair became San Francisco's biggest no-host bar because it spilled tiny Folsom bars out into a sidewalk "penny barcade." However, historically, because grassroots leather culture was built on a discreet circuit of bike runs, bars, back rooms, and the annual autumn orgy of the CMC Carnival, a public leather street fair seemed redundant and invasive to the secrecy of the cult of leather. Consequently, the crowd at that first Folsom Fair was pretty much several hundred SoMa leathermen sticking their skeptical heads out of the bars to jaywalk, drink, and piss-play with attitude about any "Leather 'A Go-Go'" in the street. Almost immediately, jitters turned to enthusiasm.

In 1984, Drummer was, in its ninth year, the magazine of record for leather culture. We quickly endorsed the potential of Folsom Fair, anchoring the infant neighborhood fete with our legendary "Mr Drummer Contest" as a focal leather event that we had started at the 1979 CMC Carnival. As the sole international media voice of leather identity, Drummer helped create the very culture it reported on. In fact, Drummer publisher Anthony DeBlase conceived and designed the Leather Flag that flies its black-and-blue stripes and big red heart over Folsom Fair.

Our Drummer endorsement, in that world before the Internet and Twitter, immediately created buzz, and single-handedly introduced our local fair to hundreds of thousands of globe-trotting sex tourists who from 1984 to 1999 looked forward to the increasingly sexy coverage Drummer gave to promote the fair annually. Drummer's careful eyewitness of that first Folsom Fair, illustrated with photos by Robert Pruzan, reported in issue 79:

"This year saw the first-ever Folsom Street Fair, held September 23 over several blocks of leather's Main Street USA. Crowds were bigger than most observers expected, and curiously mixed. There was certainly more leather in evidence than at this year's Castro Street Fair-and maybe more straights as well. The Fair was, after all, a neighborhood effort, not just a leather festival.

As one spokeswoman [Folsom Fair founders Kathleen Connell with Michael Valerio of TOOR, "Tenants and Owners in Opposition to Redevelopment"] noted, Folsom Street and the South of Market is a neighborhood of minorities, the elderly, and gay men-so on the same block, visitors could shop at a booth of a novelty emporium selling 'naughty' party items, talk seriously about SM to members of the Janus Society, and view artwork in crayon by children from a local grade school. 'Only in San Francisco,' as the saying goes.

"There were fewer politicians, craftsmen, organization booths, and stops for food-and-beer than at the city's more established street fairs-which left more elbowroom for the crowd, most of whom came mainly to look at each other anyway. The weather was terrific, spirits were high, and leather was everywhere, gleaming in the sunlight."

Cameras document evolving BDSM "look"

Cameras have come to define Folsom Fair as a giant photo op where the more outrageous you are in public, the more legal right paparazzi have to shoot you and publish your newsworthy image anywhere, so long as they don't ridicule you or use you for advertising. As a journalist and videographer shooting documentaries of many Folsom Fairs beginning with footage in 1984, I have observed in the history Gay San Francisco: Eyewitness Drummer (pp 635-637) that, like an ever-changing college campus, the leather "look" changes every three or four years.

Think of Marlon Brando's World-War-II veteran bikers in The Wild One (1953), and Kenneth Anger's psychedelic bikers in Scorpio Rising (1964), and leather clones (1974), followed by Drummer's invention of Daddies (1979), and then of Richard Bulger's Bear magazine (1986) identifying the new generation of Leather Muscle Bears, and finally of the queer-theory influx of multiple morphing genders (1990).

In the Darwinian illustration, "The Ascent of (Leather) Man," marching out of Arnett's archetypal 1963 Tool Box mural, 1980s leatherfolk look primally different from our binary 1950s past, as well as from postmodern leatherfolk today believing realities to be plural and relative in gender, gear, grooming, and girth. In terms of evolutionary documentary, the Folsom Fair as an event is a fun sex comedy in the streets, on the screen, and on the Internet.

Snap go the lusting curbside photographers harvesting fresh jerk-off images: "He's a JPEG. He's a JPEG. He's not a JPEG. Wow! Over there! He's a screensaver!"

In memory, the most dramatic Folsom Fair video documentary I shot was in 2001 when the terrorist attacks of 9/11, less than three weeks before Folsom Fair, shook the mood of the fair back to its roots as a local event because air-travel and national PTSD issues shrank the attendance of the incoming tourist crowd. That year, the SFPD stationed somber lookouts on rooftops up and down Folsom Street, but only out-of-towners thought twice about public sex and nudity.

Knowing I'm on the street where you walk

Pounding city pavement as an author and photographer since the 1960s, I have found the streets and street fairs of San Francisco to be stories telling themselves because Castro, Folsom, and Polkstrasse invite and shape discrete identities, cruising styles, fashions, and bars. Anthropologist Les K. Wright mentions in Queer Sites: Gay Urban Histories, that in the memoir-novel Some Dance to Remember, I wrote about these public "street" evolutions "detailing," Wright says, "many personalities, characters and institutions from the pioneering days to the advent of AIDS...which captured the sexually obsessive environment" of street fairs because, indebted to Walt Whitman's love of the streets, I turned San Francisco streets themselves into "characters" in Some Dance to Remember (focused on 18th and Castro) and Gay San Francisco (focused on Folsom), making both books virtual "walking tours" of San Francisco.

The transformative power of Folsom Fair

Like Fashion Week, Folsom Fair, with its runway trunk show of leather fetish clothing, is continually evolving as a kind of Fellini "SoMa Satyricon," marking another year of gay Magical Thinking about BDSM sexuality and, as known to anyone who has ever jerked off into a mirror, the transformative power of bespoke fetish clothing.

On Halloween, folks dress to conceal themselves. At Folsom Fair, folks dress to reveal themselves. For all its fetishwear, the Folsom Fair is really about openness, tolerance, and acceptance. What Folsom Fair reveals about human nature is that sadomasochism is nearly everyone's secret guilty pleasure, and the opportunity for BDSM voyeurism is the siren call for the Twittering international crowd now recruited on the Internet. The perennial Folsom Fair is leather culture stepping forward into its own future. That's one reason why Herb Caen, the San Francisco Chronicle's beloved and gay-friendly three-dot gossip columnist, dubbed Folsom Street "the Miracle Mile."

Peter Shapiro in his remarkable book Turn the Beat Around writes about the "collective power" of disco crowds as a mass "pleasure machine," but he might also have included the Folsom Fair mob collective. There is, he writes:

"...a new kind of political resistance, of what French theorists and psychoanalysts Felix Guattari, Gilles Deleuze, and Guy Hocquenghem call a 'revolution machine.' As opposed to the individual expressions of desire in capitalist societies that necessarily force one to view the world in either/or structures, Guattari and Delueze proposed a collective linking of libidos and desires that would open up innumerable possibilities for sexuality other than the oedipal death drive of capitalism. Liberated from social, economic, and political forces, desire is set free and humans become pure 'desiring machines" that interface with any and every other 'machine' with no hang-ups, no repression, no constraints. The group grope of the disco dance floor, the anonymous antics of the back room, and the heedless hedonism of the bathhouse [and, he may as well have added, the mass mob of the Folsom Street Fair] were [are] probably as close to such a polymorphously perverse paradise as humans will ever get." (p. 65)

Benefits of Leather's High Holiday

The folk truth may be that people massed together in Deleuze's "pleasure machine" gain individual erotic strength that can help sustain them in their personal lives, their sex play, and their community. What happens on Folsom doesn't stay on Folsom.

So! You will learn your lesson! After the fair is over, and when you, back at home, are being whipped or fisted or water-boarded, and you think you can't take anymore, close your eyes and think of England, um, I mean, Folsom.

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