BARchive:: The Folsom Street Fire: Anatomy of a Sex Panic

  • by Michael Flanagan
  • Sunday September 27, 2015
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On the evening of July 10, 1981 a worker from Millbrae who had working on the conversion of the former Folsom Street Barracks into a hotel became convinced his tools had been stolen and in a fit of pique set the building on fire. In the ensuing conflagration (at the time the biggest since the 1906 fire that followed the earthquake), 27 buildings were consumed and many people were displaced. Though the fire had nothing to do with the leather or gay communities, the response of the authorities and the hysteria of the press did their best to stigmatize both.

Coverage in the San Francisco Examiner included statements like: "At the height of the fire, several gays alarmed fire officials by reporting that people might be chained to beds and trapped in sado-machistic (sic) playlands."

The article reported that "Chief Casper, who had ordered a temporary morgue set up in an alley after firefighters said they smelled "burning meat," admitted, "I think it got a little exaggerated initially."

The description of the building that started the fire emphasized its former use: "The fire is believed to have started on the ground floor of a former gay bathhouse known as the Folsom Street Barracks."

The Chronicle was even more lurid, saying "the fire started in an abandoned gay bathhouse" and included a photo with the caption, "Whips and chains and leather harnesses filled one corner of a burned-out apartment."

It was also reported (and subsequently disproved) that the amyl nitrate product Rush had fueled the flames, with an article that identified the manufacturer in the title as a "Sex Enhancer Firm." And the drumbeat of casualties continued with articles two days later entitled "Officials fear bodies may be found in fire ruins" and on July 14 "'Rumors That 3 Are Missing In Big S.F. Fire."

The gay press took on the straight press' sensationalism. In a cover story, "The Fallout From a Blaze." the Bay Area Reporter's Allen White pointed out the preoccupation of Channel 4's Dave Fowler with reporting the fire had taken place in the "gay ghetto" and sensational on-air references to "slave headquarters," "sado-masochistic rituals" and the obsession with the former "gay bath house."

White pointed out that the fire was hardly a "gay fire" and that of the 116 people displaced by the fire, 27 were children.

Fire Chief Andrew Casper was taken to task for saying "people may be chained to beds." White reported gay men were receiving calls from relatives asking if they were "sinning in slings" and reported that Supervisor Harry Britt received over 100 calls on the fire before noon of the following day.

An editorial in the B.A.R. said that the fire chief's sensationalistic comments had been "carried nationwide on network TV and radio - unleashing an orgy of media titillation."

In reference to the firemen's comments that they smelled "burning meat" the B.A.R.'s political columnist Wayne Friday asked "what were they smoking" and suggested SFFD Chief Andy Caspar deserved a "boot in the ass" for his comments to the press.

In the midst of all this, the paper reported that SFFD's Deputy Chief Ray Landi told the S.F. Progress, "Gays are more prone to have lover's quarrels and are more prone for actually setting an entire building on fire because of revenge."

One person at the center of the hysteria was the photographer Mark I. Chester. His apartment, at 19 Brush, had survived the fire. But it was his bed in the "whips and chains" photo and his home that was described in the S.F. Chronicle as having "a torture chamber used by sado-masochists complete with hooks, chains and manacles attached to the bed." The gay press didn't help, with the B.A.R.'s editorial referring to "bizarre homosexual sex practices."

In his new photography book "City of Wounded Boys & Sexual Warriors," Chester recounts, "When I was escorted back into my place after the fire I was shocked to discover that many of my personal belongings, including boxes of my photographs and my sex gear, had either been ransacked or stolen."

I asked Chester if, as an artist, the fire stimulated his work or if he was paralyzed by the trauma.

"Both," he replied. "I was told, even by other leathermen, that I deserved what happened to me for being so public. As I say in my book, the fire kicked me artistically into a whole new photographic universe, both in terms of subject matter and technique."

One of the few places that provided Chester with support at the time was Peter Hartman's 544 Natoma gallery, which held both a benefit and an exhibition of his work. His latest exhibit (in conjunction with his book release) is on display at the Center for Sex and Culture (1349 Mission Street). See the artist's website ( for more details.

The hysteria related to the event acted as a spur for many artists, including author and former Drummer editor-in-chief Jack Fritscher.

"I've written quite a lot about it, including one scene inside an apartment on fire in 'Some Dance To Remember,' " said Fritscher, who also wrote about the fire in Drummer and continues to be inspired (it will be featured in a forthcoming book as well).

Photographer Janet Delaney also documented the fire, and the resulting work can be seen in her book "South Of Market," which was also the title of an exhibition of her work at the de Young Museum earlier this year.

The 1981 Folsom Street Fire is a bridge between the days of conflict between the authorities and the LGBT community typified by the Milk/Moscone murders and later events such as the AIDS epidemic and the gentrification of SoMa.

Mark Chester told me that firemen and police at the site of the fire were still wearing "Free Dan White" T-shirts. He also told me this was part and parcel of the stigmatization of S&M in the press.

In response to Coroner Boyd Stephens' workshops on S&M safety in March, 1981, Mayor Diane Feinstein told the press, "It is my belief that S&M is dangerous to society and I'm not eager to have it attracted to San Francisco."

Author Gayle Rubin cites the fire as one of the early steps to remove leather from South of Market in her thesis "The Valley of the Kings: Leathermen in San Francisco, 1960-1990."

It's a small step from seeing the leather community perceived as a place where people are left chained to beds in a fire to seeing them as so unconcerned with life as to be freely spreading AIDS. In an essay in "Reclaiming San Francisco: History, Politics, Culture" Rubin points out the notion that HIV was more prevalent for leathermen is unsupported.

Sex panics, however, are viral and freely transmit their hysteria and stigma for years after they are gone.

It's worth remembering that such hysteria is not always in rural states, and did not stop in the 1950s. They are a part of San Francisco history and colored perceptions of sexuality in the not too distant past.