Thursday, March 30th, 2023

History of the Folsom Street Fair

Folsom Forever

Written and Directed by Mark Jensen
(as Mike Skiff)

USA Premier: June 22, 2014 at the Frameline Film Festival
72 min.


Review by Stephen O. Murray

September 22, 2015.

The title of Mike Skiff’s mosaic (narratorless) documentary about San Francisco’s Folsom Street Fair, Folsom Forever, is ironic both in that the film shows that the street fair began at a very specific time, 1984, and that the gay leather/kink neighborhood had mostly ceased to exist by then.

“South of Market” (SOMA), especially the northeastern part, has become much more residential and way more expensive than it was when the Redevelopment Agency condemned “blight” and tore down residential hotels where the Moscone Center and Yerba Buena Park were created.

During the1970s, seniors were displaced from SOMA, and during the 1980s many of both gay residents of SOMA and the gay leathermen who made the night-time neighborhood a center of leather and kink died.

The first fair was a neighborhood street fair that included gay leathermen but was not dominated by them: it  was not a “leather festival.” As Gayle Rubin points out in the Frameline panel discussion that is the longest of the DVD’s supplemental features, it was after Drummer magazine moved to San Francisco and moved the “Mr. Drummer” contest to the Saturday evening before the Sunday fair (which led directly to there being a “Leather Week” drawing in leathermen from outside the San Francisco Bay Area) that the Folsom Street Fair became dominated by gay kink/leather.

Since then, as the scenes shot at the 2012 fair show, the crowds of straight attendees gawking at the “freaks” have dwarfed the numbers of those in some sense “coming home” to the mostly vanished Folsom neighborhood of the late-1970s.

As Gayle Rubin also notes, such nostalgia for a mostly vanished ethnic neighborhood typifies street fairs elsewhere in the U.S. That is, not just people who have left the neighborhood, but those nostalgic for a community they have not personally experienced is a common basis for many celebrations that are less flamboyant than the Folsom Street Fair spectacles.

Nor is the high ratio of spectators to participants uncommon (for instance, in Pride parades or in the tourist-drawing carnivals of Rio or New Orleans). Nor is the phenomenon of going with friends and not significantly mingling (or even talking with) others there and previously not known to the fairgoer. That is, copresence does not generally lead to interaction turning strangers into tricks, let alone into new buddies.

The documentary alternates history with scenes of recent spectacles. The bonus features separate out a panel discussion running nearly 40 minutes (in comparison to the film’s 72) about history (and political economy) with vignettes, including one with interviews of those performing at the fair (not only onstage) and one that just shows some of those with outlandish costumes or with a lot of exposed flesh. Though there are more shots of buttocks, the film and the bonus features include many cock shots and uncovered female breasts.

(No, there is not sex in the street at the Folsom Street Fair. The documentary strays to covering the controversy about nudity at the Castro Street Plaza and has way too much footage of San Francisco gay supervisor (for the Castro district; his district does not include SOMA) Scott Weiner.)

The Folsom Street Fair raises money for charities, though the documentary provides no information on how charities are chosen and the profits divvied up. Also, there is no representation of “old school” leathermen who regard putting on spectacles for straight gawkers as dubious. (Showing off domination/submission to others participating in the milieu predated the bondage chic that embraces entertaining nonparticipants, and the dismay from surviving old-school leathermen about ”playing at” b&d and/or s&m extends beyond that occurring at the Folsom Street Fair and “Up Your [Dore] Alley.”)

Folsom Forever does not tell viewers what to think, though implicitly advocating a “Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom” message of San Francisco as the homeland of tolerance, happily extending people who enjoy being led around (in varying degrees of undress) on leashes and trying out very public floggings. There is no question that there are many gleeful exhibitionists, but the celebratory documentary begs questions of tolerance or acceptance and of the role commitment or role distance of those delving into b&d and/or s&m on one late-September Sunday or more often.

Still, the film and the supplements both show and tell a lot.

first posted 22 September 2015, reposted for the 2017 FSF
©2015, Stephen O. Murray


About The Author

Stephen O. Murray grew up in rural southern Minnesota, earned a B.A. from James Madison College (within Michigan State University), an M.A. from the University of Arizona, a Ph.D. from the University of Toronto (both in sociology), and was a postdoctoral fellow at Berkeley (in anthropology). He is the author of American Gay, Homosexualities, etc. and lives in San Francisco.