A woman bound and suspended naked, upside down from a tree while the Britney Spears and Rihanna Version of “S&M” plays at a stage nearby; People with puppy hoods are led with a leash through the swarm of leather clad, half-naked, and sometimes completely nude bodies; A group of people gather around a kilt-wearing man flogging another man; The smell of cigar smoke drifts through the atmosphere as voices all around blend into an indistinguishable rumble: Megahood 2021 was in full swing.
After a year hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Folsom Street Fair returned to the SoMa District of San Francisco. Otherwise known as the Leather Cultural District, for what is described as, “A stand against gentrification. An insistence on a place for us all. An event that was all about community,” according to the Folsom Street Fair website.
“Folsom, it is kind of the one day a year or weekend of the year that we all just kind of let go,” said second year attendee Aya Freundet. “It’s a coming together — bad play on words — of anyone who’s interested in anything remotely kink, leather, or even just queer community. It’s just a really big weird community where no one judges. Not today.”
The fair, known across the globe as one of the foremost leather and kink events, took place on Sunday but was preceded by a slew of events meant to celebrate leather, fetish and kink.
In 1984, Megahood, which would eventually come to be known as Folsom Street Fair, began as a community protest against redevelopment in the SoMa district.
One major part of the inaugural events was an emphasis on supporting and healing for the leather and queer communities at the height of the AIDS crisis. Since then, the festival has grown into a major staple in queer, leather and kink culture even spawning a brother events that are more uninhibited, like Up Your Alley held in July.
Other events included Pighaus, a men-only sex party, Brut dance party, and the Mr. Leather Queen pageant. Although the events prior to Folsom cost anywhere from $10 to over $100, Folsom was free, and attendees were asked to donate between $10 to $20 or whatever they could afford. Guests were not turned away if they could not pay for entry.
Traditionally a place for kinksters to explore safely and unabashed, this year’s fair seemed to be about a different kind of freedom.
“Today, I just wanted to get back toward a little more normal after COVID,” Tylor Grady said. “I’ve been coming for, this is probably the eighth year, maybe, so I’m excited to be back.”
Although some people like Grady were excited for a return to normalcy, there were still guidelines and regulations in place to ensure the health and safety of fair goers.
Masks and proof of vaccination were required at the gates in order to enter the event; however once inside, the mask rule was not strictly enforced on festival attendees. Still, the event was a safe place where those new to the kink community could explore and express themselves, like couple Marshall McCully and Vanessa Johnson.
“I’m excited. I really like it so far. I mean, we just walked in but there’s so much to see and do and I’m excited,” Johnson said. She came because her boyfriend, McCully, brought her after his own Folsom experience pre-COVID.
“[The] last time that I came was before the pandemic,” McCully said. “And so it was just amazing just to see and experience the freedom of going out and just explore. See who you are, what you like.”
Although most of the attendees were there to enjoy the freedom Folsom offers, others were there as part of various organizations, such as the San Francisco Leatherman’s Discussion Group. A BDSM and kink education group, the SF Leathermen ran a clothes check for anyone interested in stripping down to whatever level they felt comfortable.
Every year, San Francisco LDG volunteers to do a clothing check for Folsom, and in return, Folsom supports LDG by donating to the group.
Grunt, who only identifies by the single name, was in charge of the clothes chek and said it is important to have events like Folsom where people can come out and enjoy a different side of their lives.
“We need to have events like this where people can come out and be themselves and actually get a chance to walk around and just be free for a day,” Grunt said. “Because I don’t know about you but much like me, you know, I wear a number of masks and it’s nice just to be able to take them off. At least one day.”
PFLAG, the nation’s largest group of parents and allies of queer people, was another organization present with a booth, although the group was there to support attendees and not as volunteers.
“It’s important to be visible at Folsom because I believe Folsom and the BDSM community is one of the last closets, in our community and in any community,” said Kenda Horst, PFLAG San Francisco chapter president. “And I strongly believe that everybody needs to be supported in their sexual orientation, in their gender orientation, and everything else in between.”
Two attendees walk around Folsom Street Fair with the pup Pride Flag on Sept. 26, 2021. The flag was designed as the next evolution to a flag that can represent puppy play, a relationship roleplaying dynamic that has two people taking on the role of trainer or puppy.(Paris Galarza/Golden Gate Xpress)