Middle America discovered homosexuality in 1964.
While most people alive at the time probably had at least a vague idea what a homosexual was, that was the year LIFE dispatched a journalist to trawl the nation’s sordid gay underworld. Paul Welch’s exploits took him to various U.S. cities, and in San Francisco, he found himself in leather bars in SoMa and the Tenderloin, experiences he used to introduce readers to novel concepts like “drag.” (The article’s heavy use of scare quotes is revealing: Americans were so innocent of gay culture that even the word gay reads as “gay.”)
Although forward-thinking for its time, there’s no shortage of judgment and sensationalism. In advancing his argument to pity the poor homosexuals rather than hate or fear them — and pity was understandable, given the personal and professional risks to living openly — Welch includes a lot of lurid details about tight pants, smoldering glances, and the like.
By reporting on gay San Francisco in the early 1960s, and including a shout-out to Jose Sarria, who’d recently become the first openly gay candidate for political office in the United States, LIFE did more than titillate Lyndon Johnson’s America. It also proved to thousands of lonely, confused gay men across the country that something they’d likely only fantasized about truly existed.
With the opening of The Toolbox at Fourth and Harrison streets in 1961, dingy, working-class SoMa became a mecca for a very specific type of gay individual: the leatherman. Influenced by military uniforms and cultural representations like Marlon Brando in The Wild One, a highly particular and overtly masculine aesthetic coalesced in and around a large and ever-shifting network of bars and sex clubs. The scene was underground and hyper-visible all at once, a moral scourge that was only beginning to conceive of itself as the nucleus of sexual liberation. To whatever degree the political establishment wished they could have stamped it out — and 1964 was also the year San Francisco’s last Republican mayor left office — LIFE’s documentation proves how city history overlaps with the history of queers in America.
Few people would doubt it does, yet much of this history has been lost. Dimly lit clubs with short lifespans that could be raided at any time didn’t typically maintain archivists on staff, and HIV/AIDS decimated two generations. Today, SoMa’s leather scene consists of fewer than half a dozen bars, and although they’re packed on weekends, the neighborhood faces a renewed threat of extinction in the face of displacement. To preserve this vital subculture, activists have chosen a novel strategy: partnering with City Hall to designate a portion of Western SoMa as the San Francisco Leather District. The degenerates are about to be officially sanctioned.
If the past 33 years are any indication, this weekend is when San Francisco will flash its queerest plumage. Sunday’s Folsom Street Fair will welcome more than 350,000 people to a 13-block section of SoMa where muscle-daddies and their boys will parade in jocks and harnesses, their tinted aviator sunglasses reflecting back a streetscape full of dominatrixes, human canines, and freaks who are proud to get freaky. There will be genitals.
But once the pushbroom squad clears all the detritus and the volunteers dismantle the gates, SoMa will resume its place as a locus of gentrification. San Francisco’s distorted real-estate values better resemble the contemporary-art market than a dynamic that obeys the law of supply and demand. Perhaps second only to the Mission, this formerly affordable, industrial neighborhood is succumbing to the priorities of globalized capital, like a form of carbon-monoxide poisoning you can sense yourself breathing.
So a constellation of residents, activists, business owners, and historians — along with leather- and kink-related organizations that have been around for decades — pushed back. Building off the city’s Eastern Neighborhoods Plan, the Western SoMa Citizens Task Force began to study the area’s needs in 2007. Several years went by before the city actively moved forward on any ground-up recommendations, but in the past 18 months or so, the concept of cultural districts took hold as a land-use strategy for preserving imperiled communities.
Today, along with nearby SoMa Pilipinas, the Compton’s TLGB District in the Tenderloin, and Calle 24 in the Mission, the LGBT Leather Cultural District represents an effort to shore up existing businesses, add affordable housing, and encourage the preservation of the neighborhood’s unique culture by making sure future developers work with the neighborhood to retain its identity.
To this end, Supervisor Jane Kim, who represents the area, introduced a resolution this week that makes it formal. (Supervisor Hillary Ronen plans to introduce separate legislation codifying what the cultural districts’ roles are and what the city’s responsibility is when it creates one.)
“We want leather businesses to continue to thrive here,” Kim tells SF Weekly. “We want people to continue to live here. We want it to be a living, breathing district — and that is a lot harder to do than some plaques and street-name changes.”
Encompassing the area bounded by Howard Street, Seventh Street, the Central Freeway and Interstate 80 — with a panhandle of sorts, to loop in The EndUp — the Leather District includes The Stud, The Eagle, Oasis, The Lone Star, The Hole in the Wall, and The Powerhouse, along with Mr. S Leather, a cafe called Wicked Grounds, and 1015 Folsom (a venue that was once the address of the storied Sutro Baths). While deliberately intended to be a nightlife-heavy red-light district, the quadrant also includes civic memorials like the recently unveiled Ringold Alley Leather History Project, a block-long homage to that unremarkable side street’s delightfully raunchy history. The forthcoming Eagle Plaza, a pedestrian-only section of 12th Street in front of the leather bar with the same name, will be inside the perimeter as well.
But the Leather District is also notable for what it is not: a thumb in the eye of the real estate industry.
“The cultural districts are not anti-development,” says Rachel Ryan, an activist and member of the 18-member collective that runs The Stud. “The designation will create a dynamic where new developers automatically have to work with the cultural district that they’re putting a building into. There are a lot of situations where, if a development has ground-floor space, and if we could be a liaison between getting that developer working with a leather business, it’d be spectacular.”
Kim also believes that the districts constitute a way of working with, not against, free enterprise. She calls the Leather District and SoMa Pilipinas — which she also represents — “a form of wealth-generation for the LGBT and Filipino communities.
“It creates local jobs in the neighborhood, so we’re working with the Mayor’s Office of Economic Development,” she says. “What’s the point of being a sanctuary city if people can’t live in that sanctuary?”
History gets forgotten unless someone writes it down, or unless academics like Gayle Rubin teach courses on it, or historians like Shayne Watson and Donna Graves research it for the Planning Department and the National Park Service. (To establish the district, all three have worked hard doing just those things.)
In earlier decades, however, San Francisco actively chose to obliterate its history. Nate Allbee, an LGBT preservationist and author of the legislation that created San Francisco’s Legacy Business Registry, is another of the Stud’s owner-operators. He wants contemporary activists to keep in mind how hostile mid-20th-century urban renewal was to SoMa’s low-income residents (if not to the idea of cities generally).
“When Justin Hermann said ‘This land is too valuable to give to poor people,’ he was talking about the whole area that was redeveloped around Moscone,” Allbee says. “Those longshoremen were faggots, and they were part of this whole culture. The original leather district went from the Eagle all the way to the shore.”
Indeed, the YMCA that the Village People made famous wasn’t anywhere near 11th Street’s entertainment corridor; it was on Third Street, near the long-vanished SROs where the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts is today. And the Eagle itself, a bar with an international reputation, was closed from 2011 until 2014. For people who bristle at the idea of preserving whole city blocks in amber, the proposed district only covers a fraction of the relevant territory — and it should be emphasized that it’s largely an experiment, a repurposing of urban-planning tools for more benevolent ends.
Even the ultimate progressive boogeyman — market-rate condos — can be part of the solution. The former bus terminal at Eighth and Harrison streets is now the L Seven apartment complex, and while two-bedroom units start at $3,670 per month, its courtyard hosted the dedication ceremony for the Ringold Alley memorial, whose commemorative plinths and bootprint-shaped epitaphs border its northern edge.
“They’re kind of model developers, in many ways,” Kim says. “They were very patient with the process. They didn’t try to build an entitlement on their own — they waited for the entire community. I’ve been very appreciative.”
The more germane sticking point, then, may not be getting city government to sign on to the preservation of bars where dudes with red hankies sticking out of their rear pockets get drunk, huff poppers, and grab each other’s junk. It might be getting fetish-friendly practitioners of BDSM on board with municipal intervention. While the Castro has always been where LGBT San Franciscans organized politically — Harvey Milk’s camera shop was there, and the plaza named for him has been the site of numerous vigils and rallies — SoMa was largely where horny misfits who didn’t give a shit about gay marriage went to fuck.
Some piss pigs and genderfluid faeries might prefer to remain alternative rather than crow about the tax receipts leather culture brings. And City Hall is also where the idea to shut down the bathhouses at the height of the AIDS crisis was hatched. (You can’t legislate the sex drive out of existence, and the failure to enlist them as sites of testing and education is widely seen as a missed opportunity borne of homophobic sex panic.) Between the national political climate and the ever-censorious Facebook flagging this year’s decidedly PG-13 Folsom Street Fair poster as inappropriate, some people just want to do their thing without having to think about bureaucrats, however well-meaning. And no one should underestimate late capitalism’s seductive prowess or marketers’ ability to co-opt and repackage cultural artifacts as commodities. Rare is the servile bootblack who, licking a sole while accepting a tip, swells with pride at being recognized as an asset to the Bay Area’s economy at long last.
At the same time, displacement is a major emergency. Even the innovative Legacy Business Registry, which provides grants and rental assistance to certain entities that have been around for 30 years or more, isn’t a panacea. As Ryan notes, “The Stud got legacy status and we’re being forced out, anyway.” (The club still has time to find a forever home, something that The Catalyst, a dungeon and play-space just outside the Leather District’s boundaries, may have a harder time doing.)
Further, not everything at risk of displacement is a person or business. Nonprofits and other organizations like the Society of Janus, The 15 Association, the Leathermen’s Discussion Group, the Leather Alliance, the S.F. Girls of Leather, and the Bay Area Kinky Business Alliance all have longstanding ties to SoMa, and apart from creating a sense of belonging in a hostile world, they’ve raised a lot of money for a lot of causes over the years.
So the tension between the alternative and the mainstream remains just below the surface of these discussions. And in any group of people that had to fight hard for what it’s got, the struggle between pragmatists and idealists is eternal. While the LGBT community is well-known for minor disputes that become ideological confrontations of epic proportions, it can also be argued that both sides need each other: the pragmatists to insist on action, and the idealists to keep them from forgetting what they’re fighting for. Fortunately, in the case of the Leather District, the rhetoric is far from heated.
For Beth Bicoastal, a social worker, SoMa resident, and kinkster who hosts karaoke at the Eagle and who organized last weekend’s Leather Walk, involvement is not just about fighting gentrification from a defensive crouch. It’s about being in a sex-positive environment that encourages you to do things for people in need.
“It hits two things at once: the community-service part and just the freedom of it all, the expression,” she says. “The reward for me is my favorite bar is staying open. My friends are able to stay in the neighborhood.”
Additionally, she’s quick to note, that neighborhood has strong ties with sex work, the adult-film industry, and plenty of other businesses that sustain an erotic culture that’s consumed far beyond San Francisco.
“It’s part of your roots,” she says of the hypothetical porn watcher. “It’s important that we all acknowledge it — and we have a unique opportunity.”
As there are satellite Folsom-branded fairs in Berlin and New York, Bicoastal contends that fetish subcultures are getting bigger worldwide. (Edwin Morales, the president of Folsom Street Events, has numbers that bear this out. Both Folsom and the smaller Up Your Alley fair held each July are growing, he says.)
The hedonistic revival might dovetail a little neatly with the business-friendly prerogatives of a neoliberal city, but most queer San Franciscans would rather see more parties, catering to wider swaths of the rainbow, than fewer. So, if enacted, the Leather District — like Calle 24, Compton’s, or SoMa Pilipinas — can be construed as something to make it easier for the people who create the culture that defines their neighborhood to have a stronger say in the future of that neighborhood.
Reading the 1964 LIFE article, it’s almost hard to tell who hated effeminate men more cruelly, straight society or the hypermasculine SoMa bar patrons who were desperate not to be seen as swishy “giddy boys.” What might generously be construed as the growing pains of a still-new subculture now looks like internalized homophobia on the part of some deeply scarred people. It would never fly in San Francisco today, either: It’s unimaginable for the Lone Star to 86 a drag queen just for being in drag.
That’s but one facet of the decades-long evolution of the leather and BDSM worlds, which eroticize cigars and tattooed biceps as much as they ever did, but which have long since opened space for women, transgender and gender-nonconforming people, and more than a few heterosexuals. Queerness resists definition as much as postmodernism does, but the scene’s trajectory over the last half-century has strongly moved toward maximum inclusiveness. So it’s striking that this openness should be contemporaneous with what’s widely considered to be decline.
Except that narrative of decline is false, as the proliferation of harnesses and necks encircled with padlocked chains attests. Rising rents and hookup apps are hard on queer spaces, but if Folsom weekend brings $180 million into San Francisco, as it’s expected to do, it’s hard not to conclude that activists have met the challenge. The line to pee in the trough urinal at the Eagle beer bust will be long for a great many Sundays to come.
Or, as Allbee says, “Anyone who says that the Leather District isn’t culture worth saving deserves to be whipped.”