Leather Dykes In Space

Reimagining Women’s Visibility At Folsom, America’s Largest BDSM Festival

September 27, 2019

Sloane Holzer
Our-chive
Bianca and Girl Complex of the Unruly Social Club

ast week, a friend passed along a video, without explanation. They’re known for digging deep through internet archives, uncovering dated pages and videos lost in the morass of Web 1.0, and this was no different. The video was nearly an hour long, and contained the highest quality footage of any Folsom Street Fair pre-1995, documenting the fair and its participants in 1989. Stored amongst the crackling audio were the sights and sounds familiar to Folsom, if a much earlier and more tame incarnation — the cracks of whips, vendors selling leather gear, and the coy smiles and gleeful screams of leathermen meeting one another.

The gay community in San Francisco, like other major cities with high populations of gay men, was right in the thick of the AIDS crisis; AZT had just been developed but was difficult to access, and so much of the footage (that isn’t set at the Eagle in San Francisco) prominently features fundraising booths for AIDS-related healthcare. Among the shots of assless chaps and booths are leatherdykes, their presence immediately recognizable if sparse. Two stand off to the side in one shot, holding hands, their matching bleach blonde mullets forming a pair of kinky Billy Idols.

The first time either of us attended the Folsom Street Fair, almost thirty years after that video was taken, we searched for these same women and queer people, slipping between the shirtless and sweating crowds of men, hoping to catch a glimpse of ourselves in the crowds. Folsom Street Fair began in 1984, an effort by housing activists, community organizers, and the residents (and regular guests) of the South of Market Street neighborhood to push back against the shuttering of bath houses and gay bars by the San Francisco City Council and its Health Department.

While the bathhouses of many other cities stayed upon, the efforts by San Francisco’s city government was “a case of political pressure overwhelming public health considerations.” The forced closing of these spaces served to greatly diminish the presence of gay men, with “abrupt bathhouse closure and damage from urban renewal” serving a united political goal of ending the South of Market neighborhood’s identity as a gay one. In this way, the fair served as both a political gesture, a method of community cohesion, and a way of distributing resources regarding safe sex that recently evicted gay bars and bathhouses might otherwise have had.

The Folsom Street Fair was an intentional act of resistance and spatial construction, by gay leathermen and likeminded activists, creating a vision of neighborhood cultural resilience in the face of ‘urban renewal.’

On a hot Sunday morning, clad in a simple black t-shirt and blue jeans, with hair that asks ‘what if Bettie Davis was a bike mechanic?’ Marlene Hoeber, one of the Board Members of the Center for Sex and Culture, declared that “dyke spaces are always on purpose.” Sarah and I visited her home in Oakland, hoping to gain a bit more insight about the history of leatherdykes and their spaces at Folsom in years past. Marlene admitted that she had not been to any of the afterparties and play parties hosted at CSC, in its various locations over the years, but did speak to its existence as a multi-function space.

The Center for Sex and Culture served as a repository for history, sexual education, and as a community space, as a site of sex positivity or “a belief that the personal is the political” and that engaging and thinking critically about one’s sexuality, and practicing “living past the engrained repressions about sexuality… is critical to the world becoming a better place.”

This political ethos was founded in tenets from leather community in the 1980s and 1990s, and served to underline the intentionality, the “purpose” with which dyke spaces were made. Marlene also argued, that when there are fewer leatherdykes, with less money to spend, and that when hard economic decisions must be made, spaces and people “de-prioritize dykes first because they bring in the least amount of money.”

This assertion begged the question: how have the leatherdyke spaces that have been created at the fair grappled with this purpose?

According to Ms. Cat, Co-Coordinator of the Exiles, Vice President of the Leather Alliance, and Volunteer Coordinator for Venus’ Playground (now called the Playground), while there may be more dyke space now, “unless someone is on the Board, we get forgotten about.”

The board she’s referring to is the Folsom Street Events board, which coordinates the fair every year. Spaces like the Playground are “more segregated because of the safety. No one in the Playground wants to venture out because the rest of the space [at the fair] isn’t safe.” The Playground began with the Exiles, which is an offshoot group of Samois, the first lesbian-feminist BDSM organization in the nation.

What started with dungeon equipment in the Humanist Hall became an actual section of the Folsom Street Fair, running for the past 14 years. It’s organization was initially contracted out to Queer Sphere, a Bay Area club for queers of all genders, but switched to being run by Folsom Street Events board three years ago.

Guided this year by Angel Adeyoha, Associate Board Member of Folsom Street Events and Playground Coordinator, the Playground has successfully lobbied for more physical space at the fair, undergone a visual rebrand with signature pink in its logo, and worked on making an adjacent queer space so its performance stage is visible from both sides.

The admission policy—rooted in the Exiles’ policy of trans inclusive queer leather spaces—used to be “anyone who has identified as a woman in the past, present, or future” and has since evolved into “a space for women of every kind, non binary, and trans folks.” Angel also spoke about having a space designated for Venus’ Playground staff and volunteers from the past 14 years with food and drink, in order to honor the work that they’ve done to create the environment.

Angel said: “I really want to be cognizant of all the hard work that went into the space. Whatever mistakes have been made over the years in building the Playground, those errors should not cancel out the immense amount of work that went into it.”

Despite missteps in the past, Venus Playground would not exist without the hard work of spatial creation that leatherdykes have put in for decades.

“We all work within our resources in the moment, as we go forward. And now I will make absolutely certain that those most marginalized and impacted within our community are given central stage in the Playground.”

Claiming physical space is something that leatherdykes deal with in terms of where they can play and how they are treated there, but it’s also a kind of psychic space: the sense of communal belonging and ownership over one’s sexuality. For Kenzi Conner, a Bay Area trans leatherdyke and bootblack who has bootblacked at the Airtight party at the Stud, the Playground for Folsom, and the main stand at Dore Alley, claiming space initially felt difficult due to transmisogynist associations between assertiveness and masculinity:

“I’ve seen in the growth of trans-inclusive femme community in leather over the part few years, a sort of dyke femme renaissance. Maybe that’s just me, or who I’m around, but it feels that way. And there’s also this concept in leather where you’re supposed to be strong, aggressive in some ways, and claim your space. And trans-inclusive femme space has made me feel it doesn’t have to feel inherently “masculine” to claim space — a thing that I as a trans woman look to avoid feeling.”

Kenzi also cites the presence of International Ms. Bootblack (IMsBB) Teagan as playing a role in her own ability to claim space in bootblacking spheres locally. “Teagan is not the first trans women who has been IMsBB, but she has carved out space for trans women and other dykes who are generally more marginalized in bootblacking. To my knowledge, not a single guy has run for bootblack since Teagan started running the SF leather titleholder’s contest.”

Femmes On Top’s flyer for their Dore Alley Party // Katlyn Tracy @bad.fats

To claim space and to always be recognized and acknowledged for that work, however, are two different matters. At the end of July each year, Folsom Street Events takes over two blocks of Folsom Street, on either side of Dore Street, for the Up Your Alley Fair (also called Dore Alley). It is billed as “Folsom Street Fair’s dirty little brother” — smaller, allegedly more explicit and less tourist friendly. For the promotion of Dore Alley 2019, event staff released a body-positive poster of men of different races and body sizes, being drawn by a white masculine person sitting on a curb next to a hydrant.

Leatherdykes responded to the poster with outrage at its business as usual issues. Lola Ursula, Oakland leatherdyke and co-host of the private femme4femme play party Femmes on Top, said:

“I thought, where do I even start with this? It feels like one of the Highlight Magazine challenges, where I get to name all the problematic and shitty things about this poster.”

Bianca Spencer, co-founder of the Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) group The Unruly Social Club, part of Production Team for International Ms. Leather and International Ms. Bootblack (IMsLBB), and former Chairperson for the Lesbian Sex Mafia (LSM) in NYC, simply asked in response to seeing the poster: “Where are the women?”

It is not an uncommon part of our shared history in leather, or really in queer community at large, for women’s stories to be written out of the narrative. As Bianca pointed out, most of the volunteers for many leather events are women. Women run a large portion of the events, from titleholder contests to bar nights. Bootblacks and volunteers at events are typically women.

“But they didn’t even show us the respect of putting us on the poster, even though it is because of us that these spaces exist.”

Bianca responded to the poster by writing to Folsom Street Events, outlining the issues. Through Bianca and Lola’s advocacy, the poster was then deleted from social media and replaced by multiple posters with images of past Up Your Alley attendees, many of whom were noted and beloved members of the community. Lola categorized it as “a great example of an organization taking responsibility, responding to community feedback, being accountable, and offering ways to rectify the harm they’ve caused.”

However, the work of visibility and access to community resources is never simply achieved and done with, it has to be actively maintained. And how many times does something have to be done wrong, before it gets too tiring to keep fixing it? For many dykes in the community, that maintenance is itself so exhausting that it feels, well, not worth it. Making dyke space of their own is essential, regardless of how Folsom Fair evolves.

Lola, for example, began Femmes on Top as a way to create a specific space for femmes to cruise, fuck, and love on each other without the external gaze of folks. “As a BIPOC person born and raised in the Bay, I think it’s important for me to contribute to this community in some way and create space. To me, kink is political, and what happens in the Bay politically ripples out, so if a shift is going to happen, like a shift to recognize BIPOC and femme dyke contributions to kink, it makes sense that it start here.”

Sarah and Lola of Femmes on Top

In her co-founding the Unruly Social Club with IMsL 2017 Girl Complex, Bianca wanted to show a sense of community where she couldn’t find one before. They founded Unruly in the back of the Powerhouse at the Onyx Bar Night during Folsom 2018. Unruly Social Club formed, quite literally, as a space for the unruly dykes in the corner.

“There was no community space like this before, a space we wanted to be in and could feel completely comfortable. There’s not enough spaces for BIPOC, or women, so of course there’s not enough for BIPOC women.”

Bianca’s concerns are similar to Lola’s: not wanting to be fetishized, having the space to connect in leather with others like you, and not having to make space for those who in the larger leather community take up the most space.

For other dykes, Folsom as a day is more about a marker of place & time than the fair itself, an opportunity to welcome community in and have a dyke-centered moment. Such is the case for Lex and Sophie, the co-organizers behind Airtight, a party series at the Stud Bar that centers around Dore Alley and the Folsom Street Fair.

In 2017, after employees of the Stud had chosen to collectivize, Siobhan Alluvalot approached the pair, interested in starting a party to coincide with the weekend long leather festivities. Both have attended gay social spaces and play spaces for years before hosting this party. However, when they were asked to start Airtight in 2017, Lex worried about the disappearance of those spaces “and the culture that they supported.” For them, it felt like a galvanizing call to action. Airtight is an act of reclaiming that “nasty ‘fucking on a bus stop during Pride’ type of energy that San Francisco dykes used to be known for.”

Lex and Sophie’s idea of creating a “club space that was dyke-centered” — which merged dancing, socializing, as well as s/m and fetish scenes into a cohesive party atmosphere — was the vision that the space centered around.

“For both of us, the ideal party is one where someone could show up and just dance all night and have a great night, or just play, or cruise and socialize, or all three.”

The building itself is as much a part of the party as the attendants, with the historically designated Stud Bar and its long history of ‘mixed parties’ that catered to both gay men and lesbians. The Stud has a legacy of “embracing the really really wild side of queer San Francisco,” which factors into the feeling of the space.

The door policy for Airtight — “Dyke-Centered, but everyone welcome” — was chosen precisely because it is a positive definition that empowers those who might not feel so otherwise to “take up space and enjoy themselves, rather than defined negatively by who is not welcome.”

Airtight’s vision of queer community is one that empowers those who have been marginalized and removed from the spatial and historical record, a vision of community where dykes feel safe and welcomed to “take up public sex space unabashedly.” But for many parties, and kink groups that have not been invited to host a party at one of the most historic (and last remaining) leather bars in the city, establishing your “space” can be a question of demanding a community with pre-set tables make room for you.

For Girl Complex, a founder of the Unruly Social Club as well as a founder of A Drive Named Sailor and IMsL 2017, this question of carving out space has been central to her work, and is about a “culture shift, about wanting a table instead of a seat at the table.”

Attendees at the mixer between Femmes on Top and the Unruly Social Club

Unruly’s presence as a community space-making and culture-shifting organization has been established through this focus on presence, serving to invite others who might otherwise feel uncomfortable or alienated by predominantly white male cis kink spaces into the conversation.

“I want people to come to the fair and see that there’s a space for them as a BIPOC trans person,” with Unruly’s presence acting as “a flare in the forest” to call other BIPOC to their ranks, with their members, standing shoulder to shoulder and walking through Folsom as a “sea of color.”

Indeed, this was the very way that Unruly connections are born, with Bianca expressing that she met Complex after her IMsL performance “because it was the Blackest leather performance I’d ever seen. I knew I could be Black in leather the way that I wanted to be because of what I saw her do.”

For so many dykes, and particularly those who are further marginalized beyond their sexuality because of race and transness, seeing another dyke take up space unashamedly and without apology can give them the permission they need to own their presence in the world in a similar way.

Poster for Femmes on Top

While the trailblazing and space establishing work can be tiring, with Complex admitting she doesn’t want “someone else to look as hard as I had to,” she has indelibly shaped the social space for BIPOC dykes in the Bay Area and beyond. Wearing her IMsL sash while flying across the country often lead to her answering questions about the club, with interested folks wanting to establish other national chapters after seeing her and learning about Unruly’s existence.

Complex’s presence, her existence as “Black, Kinky, and Leather” has created the possibility for the further proliferation of Unruly Social Clubs, with her acknowledging that when “you see me, you know there is dyke space happening.” While leatherdykes have had to, since the very beginnings of leather community, fight to establish spaces of their own, there has always been a purpose—an intentionality—that leaves room for more dyke space in its wake.

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