Canis Majors

The fog city pack and the rise of puppy culture in San Francisco.

(Kegan Marling)

Abiding by the parliamentary precepts in Robert’s Rules of Order, the agenda turns to how many glory holes the sex party should have, and how many slings.

I’m sitting on an armchair in The Kennel, a two-bedroom apartment in the Castro that doubles as the lair for the Fog City Pack, a group of nine gay men who identify as human canines, or pups. It’s late spring. They’re hashing out the details for Beta, Fog City’s second event, to be held at a subterranean club in SoMa in the weeks to come.

The meeting began with check-ins and personal updates. One pup has gotten an internship with Scott Wiener and laughs about needing a step-stool to negotiate the six-foot, seven-inch supervisor’s office. Another got engaged to his boyfriend (who is not a pack member) in Amsterdam. Someone mentions that two beta pups are coming to the Up Your Alley Fair. (“They’re very adorable and very horny,” he says.) Someone else talks about having acquired a new “bio-pup” — which is to say, a Canis lupus familiaris. Another bio-pup, a miniature pinscher named Dakota, runs around the room, yelping at the commotion.

I’m not permitted to join the pack’s circle around the table, but nobody objects to my sitting in. (Plus, they’ve fed me dinner, a flavorful meat ragout over pasta.) Beta, the party, is a follow-up to Alpha, and it is to take place from 10 p.m. until 3 a.m. a few Saturdays hence. There is talk, much of it at the granular level, of which DJs from Alpha to retain, the color palette (silver-blue) for the Fog City T-shirts they’ll be selling at the door, the socks-and-jocks outfits each pack member will wear, and whether Eventbrite’s cut necessitates a discount for early-bird tickets or not.

As at a nonprofit board meeting, discussion of every item and even the interruptions stick to Robert’s Rules, but things get a little heated when one pup feels slighted during the decision-making process, as if things had been agreed upon in advance and this pack meeting wasn’t so much a discussion as a perfunctory ratification. To smooth things over, the alpha apologizes, twice.

The apology feels significant. Coming from an alpha to a beta pup, it indicates that, parliamentary procedure notwithstanding, the pup world doesn’t necessarily adhere to a rigid hierarchy between dominants and submissives. Many gay male fetish subcultures abide by variations on the same principle: Be he daddy, master, alpha, or sir, the one in charge makes the rules, and the subs obey. Leathermen, latex lovers, piercers, electro-freaks, and the like — nearly all of them denoted by their own colored-bandanna-in-the-rear-pants-pocket identification system known as the hanky code — have what’s known as an Old Guard, the generations that built everything up when the erotics of a gay existence were entirely in the shadows. And the Old Guard commands respect.

That’s how it pretty much used to be, anyway. A sea change is upon us.

 

With the possible exception of the hatching chick, the puppy emoji is the cutest emoji — and the nine members of the Fog City Pack know it. They have names that sound like a cross between American Gladiators and actual pet dogs. Midnight and Turbo are the alphas. Midnight’s beta pup is Shadow, and Turbo’s beta is Fawks. Four others — Atlas, Jumper, Bullet, and Amp — occupy a lower-middle tier. Arco was the last addition. As a non-Bay Area resident who’s frequently in town for work, he’s considered the omega pup.

Everyone’s between their mid-20s and early-40s, and on a poster in The Kennel, they’re each affiliated with a specific breed, like a shiba inu (Midnight), miniature pinscher (Amp), or Atlas terrier (Atlas). They address one another by their pup names, seldom referring to Midnight or Turbo as “sir,” and although the use of Greek letters would seem to indicate a rigid chain of command, in person the ethos is relatively egalitarian. (A little confusingly, Fog City also uses Greek letters as the names of their periodic sex parties, but in that sense, they’re capitalized.)

The pack took shape quickly during early 2015, and its hierarchical structure is fairly simple — even if the list of its individual members’ various partners, daddies, doms, sirs, boys, and other external relationships quickly grows dizzying, like keeping track of ancestry in a small village in Sicily where six or eight clans have intermarried over generations. No two members are primary sexual partners with one another. It’s polyamory in the most diffuse, expanded sense.

“The pack concept started with me and my beta, Fawks,” Turbo says. “We were very public and visible about being alpha and beta, and Midnight and I were ‘cousin pups.’ He got a beta, Shadow, right around the same time, so the pack is almost one year old.”

“Atlas came into me and Fawks’ relationship as gamma, and the three of us had this relationship that was sexual, playful, alpha-beta-gamma, and we started calling each other a pack,” Turbo adds. “But then, really quickly, I was like, ‘Let’s bring on Midnight and Shadow and have a bigger unit.’ It happened really organically, and then everyone else kind of came quickly: Jumper and I were already calling each other ‘brother-pups’ because our handlers were married to each other, and Amp and I were roommates, and Bullet joined as our guard pup. Arco was the last formal addition.”

“Turbo collects puppies,” Jumper says.

Many pups joined when they were new in town or after a prior relationship ended or some other big transition made a group dynamic more appealing as a stabilizing force in their lives.

“Turbo and I went through a reshuffling of the cards in terms of the relationships and the people we went out with,” Shadow says. “We both found this community in our respective breakups.”

As such, most everyone has had sex with everyone else at one point or another. (“I knew Atlas because we were fucking already, and you can print that,” Jumper says.)

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Although Jumper designed the pack’s logo and posters, there’s little differentiation of roles apart from the two dominants and seven submissives. The exception might be Bullet, who’s the bouncer at the pack’s parties.

“I’m protective by nature,” he says. “If something is brought back to the pack in a negative way, I try to take care of it. This family means a ton to me.”

As a pack, Fog City meets once a month and gets together in smaller groups for movie nights — usually camp fare like Serial Mom or Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead — and to go to parties like Daytime Realness at El Rio or the Sunday beer bust at The Eagle Tavern (which they refer to as “church”). They might dress alike in public, wearing the Alpha shirts or pins they created for the party of that name, but what mostly differentiates the pups is their collars, metal chains of varying thicknesses worn around the neck with dog tags or padlocks, to signify that they’re owned, however loosely.

It was one year ago that the The Fog City Pack made its debut during Leather Week — the run-up to the Folsom Street Fair — at the Fez Room at Oasis, a (mostly) drag club in SoMa. They barely promoted the event on Facebook, and it was packed with more people than Oasis’ main room.

“We had our minds blown,” Atlas says, and the impetus to do more was born. (They’ll celebrate their one-year anniversary, Man’s Best Friend, this Friday, Sept. 23, at the Powerhouse, with another sex party, Omega, coming on Nov. 19.)

Being public is intended to show that “kink isn’t just something you do in a bedroom,” Atlas says. “It’s a lifestyle. It can come out in the daylight. That’s part of our mission statement: You can have a healthy kink lifestyle and be part of normal society, whatever you define normal as.”

Turbo agrees that hyper-visibility is the point.

“I view it as a nurturing form of dom-sub dynamics,” he says.” It provides an alternative vision for what a family looks like.”

Strictly speaking, the Alpha and Beta parties grew out of a series of birthdays called Comfort and Kink that Turbo threw in The Kennel. Calling it an “orgy with cake and food,” Shadow describes how it came about: “Turbo wanted to have the same thing, but he didn’t want his house to be destroyed, and he wanted a bigger, I’m-turning-40 party.”

A playfully bitchy collective “shh!” arises from the younger pups.

“I’m proud of that! I’m Daddy now,” Turbo says.

(Kegan Marling)
(Kegan Marling)

 

Although it has likely never undergone a period of stasis, San Francisco’s queer culture is in flux. Phenomena such as same-sex marriage, the continuing disappearance of gay bars and other queer spaces, the emergence of pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) as a means of preventing HIV transmission, and the ubiquity of hookup apps are simultaneously causes and effects. But one less remarked-upon aspect is the explosion of once-musty-sounding subcultures whose older memberships had been decimated by HIV/AIDS. There is a resurgence of interest not only in kinky sex but in alternative forms of community, and the pups are front and center.

Bob Goldfarb is the program director for the Young Leathermen’s Discussion Group (YLDG), an offshoot of the longstanding Leathermen’s Discussion Group (LDG) which meets monthly for demonstrations of various kinks and fetishes, often above Mr. S Leather in SoMa. Both groups have had pup-themed programming.

“We split everyone in two,” Goldfarb says. “Half the group was handlers in the first part, then we all switched. Basically, if you know anything about having a real dog, do similar things: fetch, scratch them behind the ears.”

He’s observed that puppy play is “probably the fastest-growing” subculture out there.

“It’s easily accessible, and doesn’t require a lot of gear,” Goldfarb says. “A lot of people have dogs. People sort of get the mindset, and it’s a way to get together that people resonate with because of their experience.”

Jumper says that there’s a lot of younger guys in the scene because it gives them a toehold in the larger kink world, noting an additional draw: the fact that “gays love to give themselves an identity.”

He’s referring primarily to bears — hairy gay men who may be muscly or just big — and otters — who are also hairy, but thinner — and notes that the puppy identity exerts a different appeal because it’s “not tied up in your body type.”

“As much as the bear scene was kind of carved out of guys feeling they didn’t fit the mainstream, they’ve sort of become their own exclusive thing,” Jumper says. “It’s refreshing — anyone could be a puppy.”

However open and approachable pups may be, mis-impressions are near-constant.

“Midnight and I get asked, ‘What does it mean to be a pup? What is this new fad?’ ” Turbo says. Some of the things I get are overtly hostile: ‘I’ve heard you guys are just the next clones.’ I have to explain, ‘No, it’s about your expressing your individuality.’ ”

Atlas mentions an incident on Facebook where a “very Old-Guard, very well-respected person in our community commented that he was surprised to see a puppy flagging as a top.” That was Turbo, with a hanky in the left back pocket of his jeans to signify his alpha position.

“Somebody in a role that, depending on how you look at it, is considered a sub role could have a dominant personality and exhibit that through their kink,” Atlas adds. “What I think we show versus other packs or other puppies in the city is that we’re not going to bend to someone else’s will just because we are pups and you might be a sir or a handler. We will show you respect regardless, but we’re not going to get down and lick your boot. Unless you’re hot.”

“They don’t understand that there are dominant puppies,” Midnight says. “Alphas are like a sir. They can’t wrap their heads around that because they view puppies as subservient. They don’t understand us yet.”

(Kegan Marling)
(Kegan Marling)

 

It might sound to the uninitiated like a tempest in a teapot. But kink or not, no one wants to work hard at carving out a sense of belonging and a space for the people they care about only to have people with stature in the community dismiss them as frivolities — and gay San Francisco can be a small town.

“I think there’s a little bit of a foreclosure around new forms of expressing a fetish identity,” Turbo says.

Another salient division exists in pup culture, between pups who hunger for community and those that crave erotic release by being treated like dogs (although the line can be blurry). There are groups like Fog City Pack and there are “mosh puppies,” who have human-identified handlers who control them in some way, usually by forcing them on all fours in puppy-paw mitts (or even boxing gloves) that prevent the use of human digits, and by prohibiting the use of words. No member of Fog City has any issue with this more intense form of play, but generally, it’s not for them. (Nor do they bark.)

“It’s not something we do to escape,” Turbo says of moshing.

“The way I view our pack is that we’re constantly in our puppy modes because of our personalities,” Midnight adds. “A lot of other puppies need to close off their human aspects and really dive into their pup mode.”

Brue Pierce, the receiving manager at Mr. S Leather and the guy who ran both the LDG and YLDG demos, refers to the two camps as “biped” and “on-all-fours” pups (or “two-pawed” and “four-pawed”).

“I see the two-pawed as being more ‘human-social,’ in that they like to hang out as a group or pack when possible,” he says, “and use pup terms because they like the words and meanings better than the traditional ‘boy,’ ‘submissive,’ or ‘slave’ words used in the fetish scene. They enjoy wearing the gear at times — particularly collars with name tags and tails, as they find it fun and sexy. They usually don’t ‘pup out.’ ”

But whatever the eventual affiliation, it’s about overcoming that initial fear: “When approached and asked if they want to participate — at first, they’re intimidated, afraid of appearing foolish or not knowing what to do. But once explained that it’s just a willingness to let go, have fun, and not to worry, next thing you know, they are participating. And afterward, they thank people for encouraging them to try.”

Submission is key to the entire thing working, and Jumper crystallizes it: “Not all puppies are subs, but it is inherently a submissive role. What drew me to it is in sex, I’m the kind of person who gets in my head. I’m overthinking it, like ‘Do you like what I’m doing?’ or ‘Does this person really like me?’ ”

In pup play, everything is easier.

“You’re following orders,” Jumper says. “Your only purpose is to make the dom happy. I thrive on that.”

 

One of the saddest things about adult life is how much it resembles the middle-school cafeteria, and there are times when even progressive, sex-positive kinksters are no different than the Plastics. If, say, you’ve felt like a misfit your whole life and then, at long last, you stumble upon your tribe, it can be easy to turn inward, policing its boundaries to ward off dabblers and weekend warriors (as well as legitimate crazy people). The barriers for entry can be high, the shibboleths incomprehensible. And until you demonstrate that you’re all in, you may be regarded as a dilettante.

The day I bought my first harness, from a leather shop in New York’s West Village, my cheeks burned hot — from embarrassment over sharing my personal business with a cashier who’d definitely seen it all already, but also because I was keenly aware that I was fumbling blindly toward some unknown destination of perversion with only my inchoate desires to guide me, and I was probably going to make an ass of myself a lot. (I did, and do, but mostly online.) A few years later, naked and strung up by all fours in some crank-operated winch at a birthday party above Mr. S Leather, I had my ass paddled in front of 50 people until I couldn’t take it anymore and realized, “I can do this.”

The world of BDSM is intimidating by design. A lurid, underground quality is part of its mystique. There are sex parties for experienced players only — attendance at Inferno, held every September since the early 1970s in a secret location in Michigan, requires that a member of the vaunted Chicago Hellfire Club invite you to participate. But Beta, when the day finally comes, has the opposite feel.

(Kegan Marling)
(Kegan Marling)

 

If a hotspot, for bio-pups, is a patch of their fur that they’ve compulsively scratched bare, Fog City created a very different kind of hotspot at Beta: a big room full of hot guys. The pups are there in their jocks and socks, the dance floor is full, and the back room is fuller. The line for the clothes check is interminable because nobody wants to wear anything but undies and boots. Some of my friends are huffing poppers on a couch, others are lying on wrestling mats together. My boyfriend — who, at 6-foot-8, is the very definition of a silver daddy — is so popular that I lose track of him for more than an hour.

The Fog City Pack could appear a little like a loose group of friends that quickly coalesced into a socially ambitious clique complete with its own branded apparel, but it’s important to remember what drew the pups toward puppy-dom in the first place: playfulness, loyalty, and a desire to throw raunchy sex parties. It’s the very opposite of elitism, really. What the Pack succeeded in creating is the best possible thing for a city that’s convinced everything cool about it is dying: a really fun Saturday night. And underneath the veneer of hedonism is a lot of room for personal growth, in terms of finding your way in a challenging city — and for getting your rocks off.

“I’ve been talking to these two beta pups that I know from Tumblr,” Jumper says. “They’re a couple. I’ve been talking to them, and they’ve been calling me Alpha. I just bought them jock straps that they’re going to filthy up for me and send back.”

“I’m the biggest sub imaginable, but getting to stretch my dom legs is fun,” he adds. “I’m like, ‘I’m going to wreck the shit out of both of you.’ ”

 

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