Folsom Street Fair (FSF) is an annual BDSM and leather street fair held in September, that caps San Francisco’s “Leather Pride Week”. The Folsom Street Fair, sometimes simply referred to as “Folsom”, takes place on Folsom Street between 8th and 13th Streets, in San Francisco’s South of Market district.
The event started in 1984 and is California’s third-largest single-day, outdoor spectator event and the world’s largest leather event and showcase for BDSM products and culture. It has grown as a non-profit charity, and local and national non-profits benefit with all donations at the gates going to charity groups as well as numerous fundraising schemes within the festival including games, beverage booths and even spanking for donations to capitalize on the adult-themed exhibitionism.
Beginnings of the Folsom Street Fair
The community had been active in resisting the city’s ambitious redevelopment program for the South of Market area throughout the 1970s. City officials had wanted to “revitalize” the historically blue collar, warehouse, industrial district by continuing successful high rise development already underway on Rincon Hill.
But as the AIDS epidemic unfolded in the 1980s, the community’s relative autonomy from City Hall was dramatically weakened. The crisis became an opportunity for the city (in the name of public health) to close bathhouses and regulate bars, which they did beginning in 1984.
As these establishments for the leather community were rapidly closing, a coalition of housing activists and community organizers decided to start a street fair. The fair would enhance the visibility of the community, provide a means for much-needed fundraising, and create opportunities for members of the leather community to connect to services and vital information (e.g., regarding safer sex) that bathhouses and bars might otherwise have been situated to distribute.
Thanks to the success of the first Folsom Street Fair, the organizers created the Up Your Alley Fair on Ringold Street in 1985. This fair moved to Dore Street (“Dore Alley”) between Howard and Folsom in 1987.
As one of the few occasions when sadomasochistic activities are encouraged and performed in public, it attracts a considerable number of sightseers and those who enjoy the attention of onlookers as well as hundreds of photographers and videographers. Although the costumes and activities are frequently transgressive, many attendees find the event “eye-opening” and positive. On the other hand, the event has at times drawn public and internal criticism for its bawdy atmosphere and broad tolerance of lewd behavior, and it is a regular target for pro-Heteronormativity organizations such as Americans for Truth about Homosexuality.
The organizers have reportedly earned a great amount of trust from city officials as they have demonstrated not only an exceptional level of community and volunteer support, but also have risen to be a role-model for other street fairs in San Francisco which have faced opposition from various neighborhood groups. With the assistance of the high-profile Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, the gate donations totaled more than $300,000 in 2006 and the methodology emulated at other street fairs like the Sisters’ Pink Saturday, the Castro Street Fair and San Francisco Lovefest.
The fair annually draws 400,000 visitors, including kinky leather fans from around the world, and is the third-largest street event in California, after the Tournament of Roses Parade and San Francisco Pride parade. Each year, net proceeds from Folsom Street Fair, including gate donations and beverage sales, are given to qualified local charities (“beneficiaries”). These include charities working in public health, human services, and the arts, as well as beverage partners, and the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence who lead the organizing effort at the gates. The event regularly generates over $300,000 annually for charity.
Fair organizers present one or two live stages for alternative bands and artists. Previous headlining live acts have included Austra (band), Little Boots, Miami Horror, Ladytron (DJ Team), Dragonette, Imperial Teen, Berlin, The Presets, Monarchy, The English Beat, MNDR, Light Asylum, Shiny Toy Guns, Natalie Portman’s Shaved Head, Nitzer Ebb, MEN (featuring JD Samson of Le Tigre), My Life With The Thrill Kill Kult, The Limousines, and Ladyhawke. Over time, the fair is becoming more and more well known as a venue for top-notch, international underground musical talent. There are one or two dance areas with DJs and cage dancers, featuring DJ sets from the likes of Tony Moran, Manny Lehman (disc jockey), The Cucarachas featuring Tom Stephan, and Mark Moore of S’Express. In 2006, Folsom Street Fair introduced a women’s area, first dubbed “Bettie Page‘s Secret” then changing its name in subsequent years to “Venus’ Playground.” In 2007, an erotic artists’ area was established as well with a performance art stage appearing in 2013 in honor of the 30th fair.
The San Francisco South of Market Leather History Alley consists of four works of art honoring leather culture; one of them is engraved standing stones that each honor a community leather institution, including one for the Folsom Street Fair.