Behind The Harness: The Extraordinary History Of The Folsom Street Fair
On Sept. 30, 2018 Folsom Street in San Francisco between Eighth and 13th streets will close down to car traffic and welcome more than 400,000 people to the largest kink and leather event of its kind. If you’ve never attended a Folsom Street Fair, you’ve surely seen photos.
But how did we get here?
To dig into the history of the Folsom Street Fair is to walk through the development of San Francisco from post-WWII port city to its current state, and weaves with it the narratives of gay rights, the war on poverty and the emergence of the leather and kink subculture.
Here’s a rundown of how the truly one-of-a-kind event came to be:
- In the 1940s, thousands of male servicemen were given “blue discharges” for homosexual conduct. They landed back in the nation’s major port cities, contributing to the burgeoning gay populations in cities like New York, Chicago and San Francisco.
- San Francisco’s South of Market (SoMa) neighborhood (the epicenter of San Francisco’s gay leather scene and where Folsom Street Fair takes place) was a poor, working-class neighborhood where many single men resided. Honky-tonks, whorehouses, and gambling dens were scattered throughout the area.
- By the mid-1960s, SoMa emerged as a hub of the gay leather scene. The first leather bar in SoMawas The Tool Box, which opened in 1961 at 339 Fourth St. (which is, of all things, now a Whole Foods). In 1964, Life magazine published an article called “Homosexuality in America,” profiling The Tool Box and cementing San Francisco and SoMa as the capital of gay deviance in the minds of many Americans. More than ever, gays came flocking to the city.
Image from LIFE Magazine depicting The Tool Box. 1964
- At the same time there was a large activist movement in the city to fight poverty. One major player was the Society for Individual Rights (SIR), the largest queer organization at the time. SIR worked in SoMa to protect the neighborhood’s residents.
- This strong community-based resistance to redevelopment efforts continued through the 1970s. In 1978, activists filed a series of lawsuits on environmental grounds which failed to halt the construction of the current Yerba Buena Park, convention center and museum complex.
- By the late 1970s, SoMa’s “miracle mile” included nearly 30 different leather bars, clubs, merchants and bathhouses.
- Kathleen Connell and Michael Valerio began working with activist groups in 1980 and held the first Folsom Street Fair in 1984 as a community protest against redevelopment. A major goal (among many) was to establish the neighborhood not as a blighted area in need of rebuilding, but an already thriving community. The fair was called “Megahood.”
- Another major component of the first fair was to proclaim healing and support for the LGBT community — and leather community — in the throes of the AIDS crisis.
- After the success of the first Folsom Street Fair, organizers created the “Up Your Alley Fair” on Ringold Street in 1985. This fair moved to Dore Street (“Dore Alley”) between Harrison and Folsom in 1987.
- As fundraising to combat AIDS continued to be a major priority, Folsom Street Fair quickly became more about the LGBT and leather communities, especially as the city continued to shut down bathhouses and bars due to concerns about public health.
- Through the 1990s and 2000s, the leather and kink components of the fair have taken center stage, and though the fair is still a largely gay event, it incorporates all sexualities and genders.
- The fair now draws crowds in excess of 400,000 to the streets of SoMa every September.
- Spinoffs now include Folsom Street East (New York), Folsom Street North (Toronto), and Folsom Europe (Berlin)
For more on this year's fair, check out GayCities.com.
For more Folsom history, we highly recommend the new documentary Folsom Forever.