I’m a gay man from a small Midwestern middle class town currently living in a wealthy urban city. I make a “living” as an artist. I’m a former Mormon converting to Judaism. I’m a cancer survivor with thousands of dollars of medical debt from treatment I received at a world-renowned hospital. I’m white. Based on all of this, my emotional baggage meter is about as balanced as Cinnabon bread pudding is healthy.
Naturally, because half of my brain is in my crotch, I attribute my emotional baggage to sex. The general vanilla state of mind I have towards sex is tame, passive, basically defined by romcom’s and a childhood of looking at the Sears catalog men’s underwear section. There are so many directions I could go in to find answers:
– Is the reason I can never have a successful one night stand because of my provincial Midwestern roots, or my Mormon upbringing, or because my Mom couldn’t breastfeed me because she was all milked out by the time I came around?
– Is the reason I clam up around sexually forward people because I’m uncomfortable with myself or because I’m actually judging them for their anti-mainstream sexual behavior?
– Do I only perform the “top” position sexually because I’m trying to establish authority I never had as a younger child in a big family?
– How many calories does Cinnabon bread pudding actually have anyway?
In search of an answer, I went to the Folsom Street Fair, the annual BDSM and leather enthusiast fundraising event in its 30th year. If I was going to get to the bottom of my sexual baggage (or nativity? ignorance? all the above?), I’d find it there. No pun was intended by my use of the word “bottom.”
Sometimes referred to as “Leather Pride Week,” the origins of the street fair and the modern leather gay community is just as diverse as the people that attend the fair. People have been into sadomasochism ever since people could say, “Ow, that hurt. Do it again.” The leather fetish communities can be traced back to the “blue discharges” of servicemen during the Second World War, an ambiguous dismissal that almost exclusively was meant for homosexuals and African Americans. Considered a dishonorable discharge in civilian life, these men would often move into “gay ghettos” in U.S. port cities. Marlon Brando in The Wild One set the fashion and masculine attitude of the community, while Bizarre magazine popularized the look and interest in sexual fetishism of these alternative communities.
Life Magazine’s 1964 article, “Homosexuality in America,” by Paul Welch is widely viewed as bringing gay visibility into the popular culture and coining San Francisco as the “Gay Capital of the World.” Because of this and the emerging 60s counterculture, homosexuals began to move there. By the 1970s Folsom Street’s Miracle Mile had more than 30 leather bars. The CMC Carnival (California Motorcycle Club Carnival) was the precursor to the modern day Folsom Street Fair.
But like with most other urban cities, AIDS took out a generation, and with them, part of their history. The leadership and membership of the CMC Carnival mostly died, and the city began shutting down bathhouses to curb the spread of the epidemic. In response to the city’s efforts to redevelop the South of Market district (SoMa) that houses Folsom, community organizers and activists created the Folsom Street Fair in 1984 to enhance the community’s visibility, fundraise, and distribute information to the community about safer sex. Since then over $5 million dollars has been raised for various charities benefitting the community. All money collected at the door and from beverage sales goes directly to the benefitting organizations, and the over 800 volunteers are comprised of supporters largely from these organizations.
So why go to Folsom to unpack my sexual baggage? It’s probably best if you know a little about my sexual past (skip this paragraph Mom). I lost my virginity at 14 to Dennis Rodman. OK, not the actual Dennis Rodman, the Mattel doll version of him (but you have to admit, the previous sentence is a damn good intro). My friend spent the night, we were both naked, fooling around the way 14-year-olds do, when he picked up the doll and smiled. The next thing I knew I was getting corn holed by the most flamboyant player the NBA has ever had. After that we had actual sex, where I figured out I’m gay. This kind of sex went on for years, almost always with “straight” guys, never any kissing; very much prison sex but with outdoor privileges. It was hot (and toxic). In fact I don’t even remember the first man I kissed, which, in retrospect is rather sad. I’ve had one long-term relationship that ended, and since then it’s been sporadic dating, nothing serious. The sex has been just as sporadic and pretty typical, basically the children’s book version of Fifty Shades of Grey.
Because of my sexual past, I honestly don’t feel that I have that much sexual baggage to unpack – how different am I really from everybody else? – but I’m willing to give it the benefit of the doubt. I tend to adopt the more dominant role in bed, the “top” in gay terms (meaning, if I even need to clarify this, that I prefer entering through the backdoor). Considering this, perhaps I’m adopting a more privileged role sexually? Does this sexual role mean that, because of my societal place, based on my background and experiences, I subconsciously am telling my partners, “I own you?” Looking at it another way, does their willingness to take all of me in (yes, I just gagged a little) mean that they actually have more power? By their submissiveness they’re in fact being dominant, thus showing how insecure I actually feel about myself? My head hurts. Just don’t have sex kids! Especially if you are, in fact, a kid.
I entered the fair at 9th Street just north of Harrison and was greeted by an elderly woman taking donations standing in front of a spanking booth. She could easily go from this to a church bake sale and it wouldn’t be weird at all. The man at the loudspeaker in the spanking booth, standing in front of various people willingly getting spanked, shouted to the people in the crowd taking pictures, “Put your money where your lenses are and give a little for the photos you’re going to jerk off to back in Nebraska.” The crowd surrounding the booth were the typical types you’d expect at a BDSM event, but also with locals just being spectators, out-of-town tourists with their DSLR cameras, and families. Yes, families, with actual children. I would have turned out so different if I had seen this at 6 I thought.
“I volunteer with one of the benefitting organizations,” the elderly female volunteer tells me. “I’ve been volunteering at Folsom for 14 years now.” In response to my asking what she thinks about the various sexual activities on display, “It’s great, it brings the community together in a safe way for a good cause.”
There were booths set up throughout the fair for vendors, organizations, and community partners. Even though the booths offer a wide array of alternative activities – human puppy play (people acting like dogs), naked Twister, live BDSM performances by porn production companies, spanking – it’s the people who come from all over the world to publicly display their sexual fetishes that make Folsom what it is. Chaps, harnesses, character costumes, no clothes at all, it’s all on display in every direction you look. It’s almost as if the booths aren’t even necessary, it could actually be one large block party.
“I work in construction,” a man fully naked except for shoes and a cock ring told me. “I come because I get to be with like-minded people. It’s therapeutic to let your sexual hang-ups dry out for a day.”
The writer in me would rather be a bystander, observe rather than take part. Sometimes I was forced to take part (as in the case of the 62-year-old woman who would only agree to let me take a picture of her if I would lay my head on her bare chest). But I didn’t go to Folsom just to watch and write this piece; I came to unpack my sexual baggage and truly experience Folsom.
After hours of talking to people and observing various things that I never thought were possible (like a buttplug can stay in your butt for hours if you take the time to work on those muscles), I stood in the center of the fair, the sun beating down on me. Covered from head to toe and in layers, I was starkly overdressed compared to literally, literally, everybody around me. I took off my collared shirt, stuffed it down the back of my pants, and went up to an attractive man – freshly shirtless and determined to actually participate in the liberation and drying off the hangups metaphorically around me.
“Show me your dick,” I said. He walked away.
Not discouraged, I walked. “Show me your dick,” I said to another man. Again, no luck. Perhaps it was in the way I was saying it? “Show me your dick,” I said to another man, more forcefully. It worked. He stood there, dick out, and I stood there, staring at his dick. I didn’t know what to do now. I thanked him and walked away. I almost curtsied.
Having popped my Folsom cherry with aggressive dick demands, I grew brave. I decided to dive in deeper. I went up to a large woman at one of the spanking booths, boobs flowing over her corset.
“I’d like to be spanked,” I said to her.
“Oh, I don’t work here,” she said, smiling. Embarrassed, I walked away.
Was my embarrassment maybe keeping me from unpacking my sexual baggage? I grew jealous of the people there that were able to let themselves be so exposed, so vulnerable. What was holding me back? I could only take off my collared shirt, I didn’t dare remove my t-shirt. There’s no way I’d get naked. Why am I so uptight? Why can’t I let myself out of the sexual box I’ve put myself in? I’m embarrassed by these questions! It’s a vicious circle (jerk)!
I needed a break, so I started up a conversation with another volunteer. She’s not actually volunteering this year, but she calls herself one for the many years of service she’s put in. I asked her what’s the point of putting your sexual fetishes out in the open?
“Does there need to be a point?” she said rhetorically. “I can’t answer that, I don’t think anybody could. It’s like, imagine how nicer the world would be if everybody just relaxed and got dirty? If more people had sex and acted on their fantasies, we could stop wars.”
There it is.
I’m not an overtly sexual person, nor do I think I ever could be. But if I were more comfortable with myself, more daring even, maybe I would be able to view the world in a different way. It’s no secret that baggage and privilege is really keeping the world from saying hey, and we’re all in it together, let’s have a little fun and stop judging every, little thing (looking at you, Twitter, blogs and pretty much every snarky thing on the internet). And where is there the most insidious baggage lurking? Sex! So yeah, let’s get rid the big one first.
Folsom is like Star Wars. I’m Luke, well-intentioned, destined for greatness (thank you very much), but with a lot of emotional baggage. That baggage, and all the privilege that comes with it, is Darth Vader. I need to kill Darth Vader in order to celebrate with my Ewok buddies, who, in this most awesome metaphor, are the other liberated people at Folsom, many dressed in costumes surprisingly similar to Star Wars characters. If I’m going to respect the legacy of Folsom, and Star Wars, I’ve got to kill Darth Vader (my fathhhhhhherrrrrrr).
Recognizing that the force is indeed within me, I was determined to get spanked. I headed to to the donation booth and donated my money. A large woman brought me to a station and instructed me to drop my pants. I considered not pulling my underwear down, but then I looked around and saw the smiles on the faces around me. I put myself here. I’m letting go, assimilating, understanding those that I’ve previously judged. Slowly, and rather reluctantly, I let the back of my underwear fall. Slap, slap, slap, it didn’t feel great and I certainly was not into it. Somehow though I didn’t mind what was happening, because with each smack I felt a little bit of my sexual baggage fall out.
As I thanked the woman for spanking me with a handshake, I walked away giddy. I felt free in a way I had never felt before. Not because I revealed myself in public, but because I let myself do it without judgment. Freeing yourself of judgment is half of understanding your own baggage and even privilege. To quote En Vogue, “Free your mind and the rest will follow.” I’m taking that away from my Folsom experience. Well, that and always have a cold press available after an aggressive spanking.