Folsom Street Fair

“The world is not divided into people who have sexual fetishes and people who don’t. There is a continuum of responses to certain objects, substances, and parts of the body, and few people can disregard these and still enjoy having sex.”

This quote from Pat Califia exemplifies fetishes and why we have them, and no fetish community is more prominent than the BDSM community, with its harrowing triple acronym (bondage & discipline, domination & submission, sadism & masochism) that includes most all fetish and kink acts. There is also no larger
BDSM fair than the Folsom Street Fair held in San Francisco. With the fair comes 400,000 visitors who are into all sorts of things, including leather, bondage, sadomasochism, drag, and petplay, to name a few.

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The Folsom Fair itself can be traced back to the origins of leather culture, which is a huge part of the BDSM community and one of the earliest communities for those into BDSM. Leather culture started in San Francisco in part because of the blue discharge, a discharge from military service for being gay. With these came multitudes of gay men who were dropped off in San Francisco and decided ‘why not just stick around.’ Among the areas that became popular among gay men in this early San Francisco, from the mid-40s on through the 80s were the Embarcadero and Folsom. By the 70s there were 30 different leather bars, leather clubs, and leather merchants on Folsom Street.

An extensive list of what each color and placement represents in hanky code

From this time the hanky code also originated, an excellent example of the structure that the leather community, and typically other kink communities, take on to communicate desires and rules. The hanky code is where someone has a colored hanky on their person, with the color and the placement indicative of what they are interested in, placement on the left meaning they are a top, and placement on the right meaning they are a bottom. Some common colors are red for fisting, grey for bondage, and black for s&m. Parallels can be drawn between this informal but almost official set of guidelines with Califia’s explanation of the guidelines the dictate public sex and turn it into more of a “quasi-public” act. Folsom can certainly be identified as quasi-public, as it occurs in the open but is confined to several blocks that are cordoned off so nobody just wanders in. To those inside Folsom though, everything is more public, which is part of the appeal of the fair. Being present at the fair is participation in some form, and as Justin Bond said in Shortbus, “voyeurism is participation.”

What is the appeal of Folsom and BDSM anyway? In Califia’s article “Feminism and Sadomasochism” she states that: “wearing leather, rubber, or a silk kimono distributes feeling over the entire skin. The isolated object may become a source of arousal. This challenges the identification of sex with the genitals.” Certainly appropriate, as the BDSM community deals with fetishes and fetishes by definition are sexual arousal towards something other than genitals. This erotic sensation that can be had from wearing leather and rubber underlies the BDSM community and the Folsom fair, with many participants wearing some or mostly leather and/or rubber. This challenge of arousal at the genitals also extends to other sub-categories of BDSM, most notably petplay. Petplay is a very common sight within Folsom, either very obviously, like wearing the gear that is involved in petplay, to more subtlety, like wearing a collar. Petplay also tackles on the idea of arousal and affection being directed at something other than the genitals. The arousal can come from the dominant and submissive roles that the two partners engaging in the act take on, it can also come from the intimate moments that are shared within the action. These moments also skew the classic sense of what is romantic and erotic by replacing verbal action with non-verbal action such as petting, holding, or stroking. Within this subset we can also find guidelines and rules established by the community, like collar etiquette. If one is wearing a collar, at Folsom or outside of it, one is assumed to have a partner. For those who like wearing collars but who do not have a partner or are not exclusive, having a collar with an open lock signifies this. Within this community and all the communities at Folsom rules and codes create an ordered environment where everyone can have safe and erotic fun.

Someone in full pony gear engages in an aspect of pony play at Folsom, pulling the dominant partner in a cart

Folsom stands out as a very intimate fair that challenges many norms. It is a BDSM fair that occurs outdoors, where many would consider such acts inappropriate. It also has a very large attendance which may contradict those who think that BDSM is a fringe thing and that fetishes are not common among people. The fair itself stands to challenge norms and it also establishes its own norms which is a wonderful thing in itself. On top of this all, the fair raises money for charity so head on out to it with your best leather and rubber gear because you are doing so for a good cause.

Randy Shilts: And the Band Played On

“By October 2, 1985, the morning Rock Hudson died, the word was familiar to almost every household in the Western world.

AIDS.

Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome had seemed a comfortably distant threat to most of those who had heard of it before, the misfortune of people who fit into rather distinct classes of outcasts and social pariahs.”

Randy Shilts graduated an openly gay man from the University of Oregon in 1975. In 1981 he was hired by the San Francisco Chronicle. It was also in this year that AIDS was becoming more prominent in the US. Committing himself to the disease he wrote on it years before he decided to write a book about it in 1983. The book was published in 1987 and Shilts died from complications of AIDS in 1994.

Randy Shilts

And the Band Played On is one of Shilts’ major works. Over the course of his journalism career he published 3 books. In 1982 he published The Mayor of Castro Street: The Life and Times of Harvey Milk. The biography of Milk was published about 4 years after Milk was assassinated with Mayor George Moscone by Dan White. White was about to finish his four year sentence for the murders when the book was published. His final book Conduct Unbecoming was about discrimination of gays and lesbians from the military. It was published in 1993 and he had performed thousands of interviews for the book. He dictated the final chapter from a hospital bed.

And the Band Played On stands out as an extensive and critical view of the AIDS crisis, covering all aspects of the disease, beginning with Danish doctor Grethe Rask in 1976 dying of Pneumocystis carinii in her lungs, and concluding with the death of AIDS activist Bill Kraus in January of 1986, when the amount of infected from AIDS in the US had reached over 30,000.

The work also stands out as a critique of the inaction during the crisis. Reagan first held a conference on the disease in May of 1987 and before that had not spoken the word AIDS at all. Several of his staff had consistently listed AIDS as a top priority for the administration, but in reality there were cuts to the funding given to AIDS over the years. On its budget of billions, the National Institute of Health gave only a few million each year to the disease. This was at a time when requests for AIDS research were reaching upwards of 55 million dollars. Shilts is frank in his critiques of the government and its apathy and inaction towards AIDS, and he points out homophobia as a primary cause of the apathy. It certainly seems to be the case, as certain incidents like Legionnaire’s Disease brought about quick action. It was estimated that $34,841 was spent for every death brought by that disease, yet only $3,225 was spent for every death of AIDS by the NIH in 1981.

Shilts also calls out the gay community in its inaction to prevent the disease. It was recommended early on that gay men should refrain from sex until the disease was better understood, but refraining from sex caught many as an anti-gay act. Some argued that telling gay men to stop having sex at a time when they were just starting to feel good about themselves would have dire consequences for the gay community. There was also the matter of the bathhouses, which Shilts advocated to shut down, despite harsh resistance against such an action in the gay community. Shilts noted that what little that was achieved in the bathhouses was small signs in corners warning about AIDS and condoms that were provided to those who asked. Nobody did. Shilts was harshly critiqued for his stance at the time.

New York activist Larry Kramer, who was part of Gay Men’s Health Crisis and was featured heavily in And the Band Played On

And why was the public so seemingly disinterested in the crisis? Perhaps their opinion closely mirrored that of Epstein. Gays were something one could tolerate, but only at a distance. Epstein believed that gays were akin to pedophiles and at best perverts. With this mindset one could understand a public sentiment that would allow the deaths to continue to occur. And perhaps this was a just end for the gay community. Because, after all, Epstein would wish away gays if he could. There was simply too much pain for them in this world. If only Epstein could wish them away then perhaps the AIDS crisis in the US would not have occurred. At this time in the US such thoughts were still prevalent, and notable in actions, or inactions could be the product of this. Like the mayor of New York Ed Koch and President Reagan, who both seemed to avoid AIDS at all costs.

And the Band Played On stands out as an essential text for understanding the people and the politics of the AIDS crisis. And even though it is a book full of answers one is left with even more questions after finishing. Perhaps the most prominent being “Why did it seem like nobody cared?” To Shilts and activists like Larry Kramer, the answer was clear: because those suffering were gay.

Gender in Avatar: the Last Airbender

Gender is explored in many ways in the Nickelodeon show Avatar: the Last Airbender. The show was created by Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko and ran from 2005 to 2008. It is an animated series that was created in the U.S. but draws inspiration from anime styles. The show is set in a fictional world where certain people, called benders, can control an element; water, fire, earth, or air. In this world each “nation” of bending ability co-exists with the others peacefully until one nation, the Fire Nation, goes to war with the other nations to dominate the world. The Avatar is one person who can control all four elements at once. When the Fire Nation goes to war with all other nations the main character Aang is only 12 years old and is told that he is the avatar. Due to the pressure he runs away and gets caught in a storm and is frozen for 100 years while the Fire Nation wipes out the Air Nation, a nomadic people who embrace nonviolence. Aang is awakened by Katara and Sokka, who are from the Southern Water Tribe. I will focus on Aang, Katara, Zuko, and Toph as representative of prominent male and female characters depicting gender differently.

In the show gender is explored in a way that queers normative culture by challenging gender roles, prominent depictions of gender, and traits that typically correspond to gender. Through its diverse cast of characters the show depicts female characters that embrace masculine traits and feminine traits, and femininity is not depicted as submissive to masculinity. There are also male characters that embrace more feminine traits and defy the idea of heroic masculinity.

Katara embraces feminine characteristics in the show by becoming a motherly figure to other characters. She dresses in a feminine way and is nurturing but she is also very strong. She defies patriarchal institutions as well, asserting herself to become the student of a master who only teaches men. Toph is the opposite of Katara, she is rough and aggressive and does not dress in a feminine way. She is smaller than Katara but equally as strong. She was introduced to the show as an earthbender fighting in an underground competition where she beat out many huge and aggressive men. She also defies her parents who only see her as a delicate little girl by running away. This clip shows her defying her father’s and master’s expectations of her by defeating multiple enemies and saving Aang.

Zuko and Aang, two main characters who are male, help to deconstruct the heroic masculinity ideal presented by Halberstam. Halberstam presents that the typical heroic masculine character is a straight white male who is very one dimensional and depends upon others to prop him up. Aang and Zuko are the exact opposite of this. Aang is the avatar and has to resolve the worldwide conflict but he comes from a nomadic culture and typically avoids violence when he sees another alternative. Zuko is a much more aggressive character and is initially the villain of the series, but throughout the series he becomes less violent and eventually helps Aang defeat his father Firelord Ozai. Zuko was banished from the Fire Nation by Ozai because he showed sympathy for Fire Nation troops. The empathy and sympathy shown by Aang and eventually Zuko as well defies the idea of heroic masculinity. They are both heroic characters who are masculine but are well developed and complex character who also embrace nonviolence and understanding, traits more often seen as feminine.