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Guest Opinion: Every day is a celebration in Leather & LGBTQ Cultural District

by Bob Goldfarb

Bob Goldfarb. Photo: Courtesy Bob Goldfarb
Bob Goldfarb. Photo: Courtesy Bob Goldfarb  

The Leather & LGBTQ Cultural District, created by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 2018, is 22 city blocks in the South of Market neighborhood that have been home to numerous leather and kink venues since the 1960s.

I'm often asked what the leather in our name means. It's a shorthand term that encompasses an ever-expanding subculture of erotic self-expression and sex that is enjoyed by all genders, orientations, and identities, and includes everything from wearing fetish attire to engaging in exotic, kinky activities.

After a delay last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Leather & LGBTQ Cultural District is excited that San Francisco's annual weeklong celebration of leather culture is here. We are proud to own and produce the LeatherWalk, the traditional kickoff event to Leather Week. This year, for the first time, we started at City Hall and visited favorite neighborhood spots and watering holes along the route. If you didn't join the walk this year, we hope to see you next time.

This week is filled with parties and events celebrating leather culture. After last year's pandemic hiatus, we are delighted to meet, gather, and exercise our self-expression again, while still following health department recommendations. The grand finale of Leather Week, the Folsom Street Fair, will be different this year. For one thing, it is called Megahood2021. Some aspects will be scaled back to follow health guidelines, but if this year's Folsom Street Market (which took the place of Up Your Alley in July) was any guide, there will be just as much joy and "celebration" — if I may use that euphemism — in the streets as ever.

The public celebration and visibility of Folsom Street Fair/Megahood2021 is critical to the leather community. Even to those who have never attended, the event is known citywide, nationally, and even internationally. It is part of the fabric that makes San Francisco a wonderful place to live, work, and play, and serves as a symbol of our city's tolerance and acceptance. In addition, the fair brings art, creativity, fun, and commerce to the city. Without these contributions, the leather community can be pushed into invisibility.

In the summer of 1980, there were roughly 40 thriving, vibrant leather and queer bars, clubs, bathhouses, sex clubs, leather makers, restaurants, and shops in the district. The curbs outside popular places were often lined with the motorcycles of those looking to express their sexuality and exercise their specific desires. SOMA was also home to the meeting spaces for many bike clubs, SM clubs, and other organizations that spearheaded the leather community's charitable, fundraising, educational, and activist efforts. Today, we count just 12 brick and mortar locations housing leather and queer businesses.

The leather community originally gravitated to SOMA because there, they found both acceptance and affordable rent. These are both increasingly threatened by gentrification as the entertainment and industrial spaces our community has traditionally used to house our groups and venues are being redeveloped.

The only way we will avoid permanent displacement is to buy a building to house a leather community center, and indeed, that is our long-term goal. In the meantime, we are focused on easing those challenges in various ways. For instance, we are working with developers to include lease addendums to make new residents aware that events like Folsom Street Fair may bring some interesting clothing choices and entertainment to the streets, along with all the commerce, art, and excitement.

During the pandemic, we worked to make our community's presence felt on the other 364 days of the year when there is no in-person Folsom Street Fair. We gained permission to install leather pride colors on light posts, similar to what one sees in the Transgender District and North Beach. Leather Pride-themed crosswalks were approved on alleys along Folsom Street, reflecting some of our community members' fondness for back alleys. Speaking of alleys, we encourage everyone to visit the Leather History Walk on Ringold Alley, between Eighth and Ninth streets, just south of Folsom. There, visitors will see boot-shaped sidewalk plaques and standing stones commemorating people and venues foundational to our leather community.

Soon, the district will become home to several mural projects, and as health restrictions ease, there will be numerous events and art installations. We are already co-producing SOMA Second Saturdays (with SOMA West Community Benefit District and Folsom Street Events), a monthly fair for leather artists and artisans. Through these engaging projects, we will be celebrating leather, kink, and queerness all year round. While we hope you enjoy this Leather Week, we also hope you remember that here in the district, Leather Week lasts all year long, every year.

Let's celebrate leather and queer culture, and let's start now!

Bob Goldfarb, a gay man, is president of the board of the Leather & LGBTQ Cultural District. For more information about the district, go to www.sfleatherdistrict.org

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