Pushing his way between alternately harnessed and sunburnt bodies, a young tourist asks us if “this sort of thing” is normal. He is referring to the figuratively and literally steaming throng of roughly 400,000 bodies clogging 13 city blocks: the Folsom Street Fair, the world’s largest kink and bondage festival hosted in, where else, San Francisco. In one sense, such a gathering is definitively not normal: it is a rare and public celebration of that which is usually kept under wraps, a radical space where S&M enthusiasts can freely mingle (as the sun’s rays and myriad whips beat down on participants) and disrupt the city’s flow for one day a year in pursuit, display, and celebration of their chosen taboos.
An afternoon at the Folsom Street Fair is like stumbling into the weird side of Youtube: the password-protected chat rooms of pubescent summers made material. Furries bang their giant heads to live bands like Icky Blossoms and Light Asylum—bands as entertained by the underdressed and flailing crowds as the crowds are by their deafening beats. Bearded drag queens sell you beer for $10. A teenager has his nipples clothes-pinned for a cheering crowd. An impossibly skinny man in a full-body latex suit that restricts all movement gives consent for photographs by blinking. A booth selling high-grade paddles offers free demonstrations of their hemp cat-o-nines, courtesy of an obese woman in a bustier: the kink equivalent of Santa Claus, for whom every little boy was bad. Watching naked middle-agers with pierced cocks line up for chicken skewers is a surreal sight indeed—double-vision. This is where the respective cultures of rockabillies and renaissance fairs intersect, Rocky Horror Picture Show mashed with sex-positive moms and long-time Castro locals.
Most fascinating of all, though, is the atmosphere of the fair. This is a different SF pride. Everyone makes eye-contact with one another. Eighty-year-old strangers compliment your ass tattoo then dance away. A chatty lady in a cop costume assures us that God loves every single person at the fair and that her slave, who is also her husband, agrees. Blame it on the weed that permeates the air at any public Bay Area party (and masks the smell of sweat and lube), but the crowd is nothing if not welcoming. One is more likely to be groped on a frat-house dance-floor than amidst this enchanted forest of half-hard cocks and scrotum slings. So central is sex to the festival that all sexual tension has been diffused: democratized, as it were, by the happy, flabby masses. The hardcore shit picks up at private nighttime events, parties like a fist-a-thon or a rave called CumUnion; the street fair itself is more about about seeing than doing, being together en masse rather than coupling (or quadrupling) off.
Now in its 30th year, a festival such as this is in a way normal, a San Francisco classic. What could be more perfect for a city so in love with its freaks, street-fairs, free things, and Halloween? Neither is the city’s history forgotten in the frenzy: a suggested $10 donation at the gate goes to AIDS charity and research. If there were ever a day when SF let its famous freak-flag fly, the last Sunday in September is surely it. In the very least, the folks at the Folsom Street Fair would be sure to find creative uses for that flagpole.
On the way to the fair, a man furtively leans over to us. He is wearing a Giants hat and holding a beer. His three-year-old son sits on his knee. “Is the Folsom thingy today?” he asks. When we nod, he lets out a long, loud laugh. “I thought the Caltrain seemed a little bit kinkier than usual.”