SAN FRANCISCO — In a quote capping off a colorful San Francisco Chronicle article about the Folsom Street Fair, a yearly celebration at the end of September of fetish culture and the bustling Bay Area leather scene, a local attorney and minor California gubernatorial candidate cast his yearly visits as an overtly political statement.
“I’ve alienated the Christian right already,” he said, no doubt fingering the ringlets on his chain-mail harness and loosening the spiked collar wrapped securely around his neck. “Why not go whole hog?”
To the uninitiated, stuffy, or easily spooked, Folsom Street may resemble a harrowing depiction of hell on par with anything Dante, Luca Signorelli, or South Park could conjure. Originally conceived in the 1970s as a more exclusive street party for San Francisco’s gay leather enthusiasts, proud purveyors of a lively aesthetic that incorporated biker garb popularized in the late ’60s into more traditionally flamboyant attire, and the Folsom Street Fair gradually became an immensely popular counter-culture event.
The gates opened leisurely at eleven in the morning, but by early Sunday afternoon, thousands had descended on the few short blocks to flaunt their ensembles and ply some highly irregular trades. Mountainous, preposterously hirsute Hagar the Horrible types wore black vinyl vests, faux cowboy chaps, and little else as they sauntered about hand in hand, tossing back gallons of over-priced Pilsner and inhaling the knishes hawked at a few of the fair’s upscale refreshment stands.
You know how, at the beginning of Ridley Scott’s Gladiator, Russell Crowe’s frostbitten Roman legions weather a final assault of bloodthirsty Germanic tribesmen led by one gigantic barbarian, who bellows ferociously and shot-puts a severed human head to signal the charge? Imagine that guy with a swell manicure and a taste for organic radicchio, and you’ve got the picture.
These alpha males stood in sharp contrast to their less imposing counterparts: the pimply weaklings meekly unfurling a hysterical Lord of the Rings fantasy in studded vinyl, the white-haired hippie relics dancing wildly to mediocre garage rock blasting from the main stage, and the mostly co-ed sadomasochistic couples whacking the dickens out of each other with a variety of sinister contraptions.
Such truly violent, vaguely sexual performances hypnotized the throngs of curious folk who wisely declined to join the half-naked imbeciles kicking up dust at one of the many side street raves. While no one goes to this event expecting anything resembling family entertainment, a few of these displays may have struck some perfectly open-minded audience members as far too painful and callous to pass for either good-natured role playing between lovers or a source of black humor.
Not me, I’m afraid. The ritualistic infusion of affection into physical and emotional abuse was a little tough to stomach at first, but the whole scene gradually struck this skeptic not as sicko tomfoolery but as the genuine article — a ridiculous but ultimately endearing roundabout way to truly tender moments, testaments to the unfathomable diversity of the human spirit. That is, until the whacking picked up once more.
Still, after watching a seriously threatening 300 pound woman cram her slight, hog-tied spouse into something called a spanking machine to be clobbered mercilessly in front of a substantial crowd of onlookers, and then less than an hour later noticing the same couple calmly sipping a Snapple, sharing a cookie, and chatting quietly, I became convinced that the masterful diplomacy required of S and M, applied to international affairs, could lead to world peace.
In fact, for all the profound debauchery, Folsom Street has evolved into fascinating Bay Area tradition precisely because the public’s ever-increasing familiarity with alternative lifestyles has ground down the event’s once shocking edge to the blunt point of a butter knife. This allows attendance by those who would otherwise stay far, far away.
Regular people with neither acid flashbacks nor gurus embraced the inner voyeur. Sensibly dressed middle age men and women wielded cameras and gasped on cue at the various raunchy acts, and moved on to the next exhibit. If angering the right wing is an important goal of the fair, then event planners will need to swiftly ratchet up the offensiveness of future festivals in order to stay ahead of this sort of infiltration.