Yesterday, after a decade of debate, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors unanimously approved a resolution authorizing a LGBTQ and Leather Cultural District in South of Market (SoMa) area as a way to honor the past and ensure a future for the culture there.
For decades, the city’s gay leather culture sought shelter in the seedy SoMa district, becoming a neighborhood of bars, clubs and bathhouses that epitomized San Francisco’s reputation as a safe, vibrant haven for people with different lifestyles.
In the 21st century, gentrification and high rents began to drive the gay and leather crowd out of the neighborhood. Now SoMa is home to and Airbnb. The Cultural District designation gives the neighborhood negotiating rights in future development and access to public money.
The neighborhood still has leather and kink bars, plus the world famous Folsom Street Fair, which draws a half million people every year to celebrate leather sexuality and taking pics that could get them kicked off Facebook.
The Folsom Street Fair is a living reflection on San Francisco’s history from Gold Rush port town to a cultural capital, and weaving narratives of LGBTQ Rights, the 1960s War on Poverty, and the emergence of the leather/kink subculture.
During WW II, thousands of servicemen were given ”blue discharges” for homosexual conduct. They landed in major port cities, adding to the burgeoning queer communities in NYC, Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco.
SoMa was a poor, working-class neighborhood with many single men. Bars and bordellos thrived in the area. By the mid-1960s, SoMa had become a hub for the gay leather scene. The first leather bar in SoMa was the notorious The Tool Box, which opened in 1961 on Fourth Street. Today it is a Whole Foods. In 1964, Life Magazine published a feature titled Homosexuality In America, profiling The Tool Box, making San Francisco the capital of gay deviance in the minds of many Americans. LBBTQ people, of course, moved to the city in droves.
By the late 1970s, SoMa had 30 leather bars, clubs, stores and bathhouses.
At the same time there was a large activist movement developing in the city to fight poverty. The Society for Individual Rights (SIR) was the largest queer organization at the era. SIR worked in SoMa to protect the neighborhood residents. A strong community-based resistance to redevelopment 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, SF Convention Center and San Francisco Art Museum.
The first Folsom Street Fair in 1984 was a community protest against redevelopment, with a goal to establish the neighborhood not as a blighted area in need of rebuilding, but an already thriving community. Another goal was to bring healing and support for the LGBTQ community reeling from the AIDS crisis.
After the success of the first Folsom Street Fair, organizers created the Up Your Alley Fair on Ringold Street in 1985, before moving to Dore Alley between Harrison and Folsom in 1987. The events became important to LGBTQ and leather communities in a city that shut down bathhouses and bars due to concerns about public health.
In the 1990s and 2000s, the leather and kink elements were center of both fairs, but they also drew all sexualities and genders.
Now there are spinoffs in NYC with Folsom Street East; Toronto’s Folsom Street North, and Folsom Europe in Berlin.
Also announced was the new Calle 24 Latino Cultural District. Other San Francisco Cultural Districts include: Japantown Cultural Heritage District, SOMA Pilipinas in SoMa, and the Compton Transgender Cultural District in The Tenderloin. There is also an effort underway to create a Bayview African-American Cultural District.
Check out Folsom Forever, the terrific documentary film form 2015.
This year’s Folsom Street Fair begins September 30th. Get out those chaps!