When people refer to California as “the land of fruits and nuts,” they’re usually talking about the San Francisco Bay Area, one of the places that has most strongly welcomed people who are LGBTQ – or in any way different from the mainstream. San Francisco hosts the annual Bay to Breakers race, where people wear wildly creative costumes – or nothing at all. Just across the bay, Oakland is home to the Black Panther Party and Occupy Oakland, and the 1960s Free Speech movement and student-led Vietnam War protests took place at UC Berkeley’s Sproul Plaza. As of this week, Berkeley (or “Berzerkeley,” as a conservative radio announcer referred to it the other day) is the first city in the U.S. to officially recognize Bisexual Pride Day (which is today, September 23). Questioning authority, challenging convention – that’s the Bay Area.
But no other event challenges convention more, in my opinion, than the Folsom Street Fair.
The Folsom Street Fair is the third largest event held annually in California (the other two being the Tournament of Roses and San Francisco Pride). It attracts all sorts of people, ranging from members of the leather/BDSM community to sightseers and tourists, with a considerable number of “gawkers.” And every year, there seems to be some sort of major controversy associated with the event. One year, Catholic church officials spoke out against the official poster artwork for the fair, which featured several well-known LGBTQ and BDSM community members, clad in fetish attire, seated around The Last Supper table. The table was draped with the Leather Pride flag, and various sex toys and other BDSM paraphernalia were scattered across the table. Another year, a photograph of two twin toddlers attending the fair, clad in leather attire, sparked a call for boycotting the Miller Brewing Company (a major corporate sponsor of the fair). The event has been criticized for public nudity and flogging, potential harm to children, and general debauchery.
The Folsom Street Fair was the first event I attended when I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area back in the 1990s. I was still on my own coming-out journey, and I was searching for community. Had I known then what I know now, I probably wouldn’t have chosen the Folsom Street Fair as my initiation event, so to speak. I attended that event very naively, knowing almost nothing about BDSM, and being a relative newbie to the general LGBTQ community. But, in hindsight, I’m glad I went, because it opened my mind in ways I never would have expected. And I’ve learned, since then, that the BDSM community can potentially teach us a lot about positive, healthy relationships, communication, and acceptance.
As part of the research for my upcoming book, Fringe: On the Edges of the Mainstream Gay Community, I’ve interviewed several people who are involved in the altsex community in some way. All of them have felt powerfully drawn to BDSM and kink, despite the fact that these practices are so strongly pathologized. Even though homosexuality has been removed from the DSM, kink and consensual BDSM have not – sexual sadism, sexual masochism, fetishism, and transvestic fetishism are among those still included. In fact, most therapists know little or nothing about BDSM, and most of them continue to view it through a pathologizing lens. One 2010 study indicated that, among people who aren’t part of the BDSM community, strongly negative and pathologizing attitudes continue to persist. And still, despite that negativity, people are drawn to these communities.
One of the most popular booths at the Folsom Street Fair is the Spanking and Flogging booth, hosted by the Society of Janus, which is the second-oldest BDSM group in the United States. Their website gives a brief history of the organization, as well as the origins of their name:
There were three basic reasons why we chose Janus. First of all, Janus has two faces, which we interpreted as the duality of SM (one’s dominant and submissive sides). Second, he’s the Roman god of portals, and more importantly, of beginnings and endings. To us, it represents the beginning of one’s acceptance of self, the beginning of freedom of guilt, and the eventual ending of self-loathing and fear over one’s SM desires. And third, Janus is the Roman god of war–the war we commonly fight against stereotypes commonly held against us (emphasis mine).
Can you imagine a society where we all – every single one of us – experienced complete and unconditional acceptance of self, freedom from guilt, and a release from self-loathing and fear over our desires, sexual or otherwise? How ironic it is that people who are “erotic minorities” – people who are marginalized furthest from the mainstream – are the ones offering us this vision? I think that’s a powerful thought to reflect on.
If you plan to go, enjoy the Folsom Street Fair. And happy Bisexual Pride Day.