As San Francisco gentrifies, a gay subculture secures its space

by Gregory Scruggs | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Sunday, 30 September 2018 00:01 GMT

Items on display at 'Mr S Leather' leather store in San Francisco's SoMa district ahead of the annual Folsom Street Fair on Sept 19, 2018. Thomson Reuters Foundation/GREGORY SCRUGGS

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"It might seem really weird we've taken a fetish and given it a city seal of approval"

By Gregory Scruggs

SAN FRANCISCO, Sept 30 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Tens of thousands of men decked out in platform boots, jock straps, leather harnesses or simply nothing at all will take to San Francisco's streets on Sunday in celebration of a gay subculture the city has made its own.

The annual Folsom Street Fair has been going since 1984 and attracts about 250,000 people. But gentrification had threatened to suffocate the subculture known as leather that it celebrates - until city authorities stepped in earlier this year.

A pioneering city designation acknowledges the area in San Francisco's South of Market (SoMa) area as home to a unique LGBT+ heritage that should be preserved from the city's tech industry-fuelled development.

"It might seem really weird we've taken a fetish and given it a city seal of approval," said Jonathan Schroder, general manager of fetish supply manufacturer and retailer Mr S Leather.

"I don't think there is anywhere else it could happen."

The gritty, industrial SoMa district first became associated with the subculture - which nowadays takes in fetishes like bondage, sado-masochism and flesh hook suspension - in 1962, when a popular gay bar called The Tool Box opened.

It catered to gay men who dressed in leather, a symbol of homosexual masculinity in contrast with the more effeminate attitude of groups of gay men congregating elsewhere in San Francisco.

At its peak in the early-to-mid 1980s, some 30 bars, sex clubs, restaurants, bathhouses, clothing stores, and other establishments catered to leather.

"If you were a gay, kinky man, SoMa was the mecca," Schroder told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in his office as he sorted Mr S Leather-branded jockstraps ahead of the Folsom Street Fair.

The advent of HIV/AIDS in the 1980s led city officials to close bath houses, popular locations for casual sex, on public health grounds. When leather practitioners began contracting the disease, it further diminished the subculture's vibrancy.

Since its heyday, the leather community has dwindled to 12 establishments - a handful of bars and nightclubs, a leather-themed coffee shop and a few clothing and equipment stores like Mr S, where on a recent September day shoppers perused leather harnesses, masks and boots.


Meanwhile, San Francisco has gone through an unprecedented property boom, driven by the technology sector.

Companies like Uber and Twitter have set up shop along Market Street, driving residential demand in neighbourhoods like SoMa, where the average rent has climbed to $3,742 according to real estate website RENTCafe.

That spike in real estate prices affected the tight-knit leather community.

"Residents were some of the first to go as San Francisco became more expensive," Schroder said. "That had an impact on businesses."

The neighborhood's changing vibe spurred a call to arms instigated by native San Franciscan Rachel Ryan, one of 17 co-owners of the city's oldest gay bar.

The Stud originally opened as a Western-themed leather bar in 1966 and today is an LGBT+ bar welcoming all-comers.

"I was part of a smaller group saving one queer space," Ryan told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.

"That was the jumping-off point to start looking at the bigger picture. We've got this model for saving The Stud, but how do we organize the other queer bars and businesses in this community?"

San Francisco's cultural districts programme sprang to mind, especially after the city designated the world's first transgender district in the Tenderloin neighbourhood around the site of a historic trans civil rights uprising in 1966.

"We wanted to fight for the same recognition and protection," Ryan said.

In May, the city formally established the LGBTQ and Leather Cultural District under a procedure to "acknowledge and preserve neighborhoods with unique cultural heritage".

Ryan had spearheaded outreach in the leather and kink communities, greeted by a mix of skepticism and cautious optimism.

"Plenty of people are suspicious about government and doubtful about what helpful change can actually come from this kind of designation, but by and large people were excited about the concept as a whole," she said.


One drinker at The Stud, Wine importer Kevin White, approved of the idea.

"Kink is a significant part of the gay community, not some trend," said the 20-year city resident as he sat at the bar on a recent evening. "It deserves recognition as a significant part of a gay male's lifestyle."

Schroder expressed surprise at the official support for the move given the leather community's sexually-explicit subculture.

"We're comfortable walking down dark alleys and having anonymous sex in bathhouses," he said. "We're definitely not mainstream."

The initiative's proponents have now formed committees on issues like governances and land use as they write bylaws and determine how to work with the real estate developers changing the makeup of their neighbourhood.

Already, they have had success with a new 400-unit apartment building across the street from Mr S Leather.

The developer's neighbourhood improvement fee paid for black-and-purple leather pride flag murals and granite markers honoring the neighborhood's early leather businesses, events and social clubs in a historic alley alongside the new building.

"This movement is giving me hope," Ryan said. "We've already been at meetings with developers. The cultural district initiative is not anti-development - we want to create the best outcomes for everybody involved."

For Schroder, those outcomes include ongoing negotiations to write lease addendums into rental contracts for neighborhood newcomers renting expensive apartments on Folsom Street to acknowledge SoMa's history - and still active culture.

"The intent is to help prevent 400 more people moving in from complaining that there might be a guy in a jock strap," Schroder said. "Don't be alarmed."

(Reporting By Gregory Scruggs, Editing by Claire Cozens. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit

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