Either you’re one of the 400,000 people going to the Folsom Street Fair this weekend, or you’re tired of hearing about it from all your friends who are going. Located in the historically kinky South of Market neighborhood of San Francisco, the Folsom Street Fair is marketed as the largest leather, fetish, and BDSM gathering in the world. Fully aware of the amount of money I will spend, the amount of hours I will sleep (not many), and the amount of other activities (ahem) I will engage in, I’m almost tired of it already. So this year I had to ask myself: Why go?
Well, for fun, of course. But Folsom is more than just fun. For a millennial-aged gay guy like me, Folsom is also an educational event, a treasure trove of information where I can learn new kinks and discover better, safer ways to do the kinks I already enjoy. For beginner fetishists and longtime pros alike, Folsom is a vital exchange of information as well as a celebration of a counterculture with a long history behind it — a history that I will continue.
I was born in 1992. Given my sexual history and personal perversions, I’m lucky that I wasn’t born in 1972 or even 1982. I missed the darkest period in queer history, and one that defined us forever.
Straight people don’t have a collective loss like the AIDS epidemic to band together over, so I’m not sure if they can understand its enormous impact. I’m not even sure gay men my age can truly fathom what the AIDS epidemic was at its height— because I'm not sure I can.
A marginalized and punished community lost an entire generation just as it was starting to gain traction in politics and visibility in culture. LGBT progress was virtually halted as ministers and conservative politicians across the country seized upon the epidemic as a wrathful God’s final say on “the gay problem.” In a way, we invented the “YOLO” attitude — a concept that has lingered with gay men ever since — because the idea that tomorrow could be the start of a slow and horrible death became very real for us. In 1992, the year I was born, I imagine many men woke up wondering how they made it, how the senseless workings of chance put their names on one list and the names of their friends and former lovers on another.
For this reason, I revere the history of LGBT culture and believe it is my duty as a new-era gay to know it. My generation has already made its contributions: It reclaimed words like “queer” as power terms (much to the chagrin of generations previous who remember it as a slur). My generation brought dating apps to gay life. And my generation will grow old in a country far different from the one our predecessors knew.
In the early days of the epidemic, leathermen and kinksters were some of the first to band together to fight AIDS, and theirs is a largely untold story. So taking my place not only in the next generation of gay men but also the next generation of leather-lovers and kink players is no small thing: With it comes the weight of a powerful history and a place of belonging within a tight-knit community that has been fighting to free sex from its cultural bonds, destigmatize HIV, and advocate for alternative lifestyles long before I was born.
When I first discovered I liked getting tied up and enjoyed the feeling of leather on my skin, I had no idea that my tastes would be a doorway into a community of the kindest men and women I’ve ever known — and some of the most dynamic political activists in the history of this country.
Folsom, in many ways, is our home base, our headquarters. San Francisco has been a kinkster’s city for a long time, but it is never so uproariously leather-studded as when this weekend rolls around. People come from small towns all over the world where their kinks have been restricted to private bedroom play, and it is here, at last, that they are allowed to express themselves openly.
I'm going because, after all the fun and sex and partying, Folsom is a chance to be with my people. If leathermen, daddies, pigs, pups, rubber fetishists, piss players, fisters, fistees, slaves, masters, sadists, masochists, bondage boys, and motorcycle men are your family — as they are mine — the Folsom Street Fair feels like home.
ALEXANDER CHEVES is a sex-positive writer, blogger, and intern with The Advocate. Follow him on Twitter @BadAlexCheves.