Folsom Street Fair celebrates 40 years of bondage, leather and kinky fun

Angel Adeyoha likes to have a job to do when he's at the Folsom Street Fair

"I really like to have a job at the event." He says it helps him feel grounded. Now in its 40th year, the world-famous BDSM, kink, leather and fetish gear event has always allowed for the open expression of sexual freedom. 

Adeyoha found this scene in the early nineties, having come up with the leather dyke scene back then. This was pre-internet and pre-smartphone. He says he would find out about kink and fetish parties by looking at the back of alt-weekly newspapers and that's how he found his community of "hot people." 

Now he's the executive director of Folsom Street, which produces the South of Market Folsom Street Fair, and also runs the fetish gear-adjacent ‘Up Your Alley’ held annually in July. 

He says at his first Folsom Street Fair in 1993, he gravitated to the strong sense of volunteerism. "You don't see that kind of support from larger society." 

Raising of the Leather Pride Flag. (Photo: Dave Fong) 

He says it's important for those involved in this scene to become more visible to people who are not in this subculture and community. "It means there's more room for people to understand themselves." 

Adehoya says acceptance of alternative sexuality is more prevalent in queer communities and that they have more experience in this area. 

With many factions of the LGBTQ+ community striving for visibility and simply trying to exist, the event takes on a renewed significance as it hits this milestone. 

"When I took this job, the idea that it could go away, because it didn't have the right support (was a concern.) What would it mean to lose this institution? We've lost a lot in San Francisco," Adeyoha says. 

The event is specific to the San Francisco experience and part of what Adeyoha calls the city's "unique, vibrant weirdo culture." 

"Forty years of anything in San Francisco is quite an accomplishment," Adeyoha says. "To be able to bring our community out year after year has been just an absolute treat. I feel really lucky to guide the process at this point. We started in 1984. The original fair was definitely different than it is now. It was more of an all-community street fair that celebrated both pushback against gentrification by local communities and the visibility of the queer, LGBTQ and leather and kink communities here in SoMa." 

To kick off the festivities, last Sunday's 31st annual LeatherWalk launched LeatherWeek in San Francisco. 

The march descended upon Eagle Plaza, where the celebratory raising of the Leather Pride Flag was held. This was preceded by the blessing of the leathers at the Ringold Leather History Monument

LeatherWeek is a series of events put on mostly by the LEATHER & LGBTQ Cultural District. 

Even the Roxie Theater got in on the LeatherWeek action with screenings of Tom of Finland (the story of the artist who created the iconic-homoerotic, muscle-leather look) and William Friedkin's Cruising starring Al Pacino, who plays a straight cop who goes undercover as a gay man in New York's underground S&M club scene in a crime thriller. 

Other events include Queer Book Readings, a Newcomers-Only Crash Course, Leather/Kink/BDSM classes, Sleazeball Underwear Night and so much more. The events are held at various SoMa venues within the cultural district. 

The cultural district was founded in 2018 and is the first of its kind in the world. 

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Colorguard at City Hall from LeatherWalk 2023. (Photo courtesy LEATHER & LGBTQ Cultural District)

"Even here though, our communities are faced with displacement and marginalization," cultural district manager Cal Callahan says in a statement. "Folsom Street Fair began as a protest against the overdevelopment of our neighborhood which forced out many of our residents and businesses. We are still working to keep our community strong, thriving, and vibrant."

The street fair, much like the cultural district, has seen varying degrees of support from city government officials over the years. Adeyhoa says the fair brings in a lot of money and tourism; things the city has been thirsting for as we gradually emerge from the pandemic.  

"It's really amazing to be in a city that…I've not seen any other cities do work like this where multiple communities are celebrated with cultural districts," Adeyoha says. "And the support specifically for the leather and kink communities is not like anywhere else in the world that I can tell." 

In pre-pandemic times, Adeyoha says the crowds at the street fair would be around 250,000 people over the course of the day. COVID shut down the event in 2020, but in 2021, a reduced version of the fair made its return. "People were really looking for outdoor gatherings," Adehoya says.

He expects this year's gathering to be closer to those pre-pandemic numbers.    

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Emerging from the pandemic may have its advantages for artists and creative types in the city. There are programs artists can look into like the Vacant to Vibrant initiative, the expansion of the Outside Lands concerts in Golden Gate Park, and the SF New Deal program, which includes a Shared Spaces initiative that recruits engaging artists to activate public space that otherwise may become blighted or is not in use. 

Adeyoha sees this time in San Francisco as a bit of a renaissance. 

"A lot of artists exist in a space where their artwork is too explicit, but is not explicit enough to be considered porn. The fair is a perfect venue for these artists to explore. A lot of brilliant artists are working there," he says. "I’m excited that we’re bringing the live music stage back. A fashion show is planned."

As much as the festival is associated with deviant sexual behavior, Adeyoha says there has always been a heavy emphasis on consent. "There is signage. Doing anything without consent is not what we are there for." 

So if you're feeling curious and want to explore the largest leather event in the world, remember to go with an open mind. 

"[Folsom Street Fair] is often the first place people have an experience with public kink. We’re the gateway and treasure that role," Adeyoha says. But he acknowledges for some, especially those from more buttoned-down circles, this scene can be intimidating. 

"It is really something that you can't get anywhere else," says Adeyoha. 

For more on the event and its seven stages, showcasing art and performance, you can look here

For more on LeatherWeek events check here

And to learn more about the LEATHER & LGBTQ Cultural District, click here