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Savage Love

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I was wondering what you think about the Folsom Street Fair, the annual gay leather/fetish/BDSM street fair in San Francisco. Do you think it is still a socially relevant display? Or do you think that in this time when we are fighting for civil rights and equality that it does more harm than good?
Better Displaying San Francisco

I'm pretty sure that the Folsom Street Fair remains socially relevant – and highly so – to folks in the leather/fetish/BDSM scene in San Francisco. It's also relevant to anyone who believes in freedom of sexual expression. (For an idea of what Folsom looks like, and to see the scale of the thing, search for "Folsom Street Fair" on YouTube.)
And it's important to emphasize that the Folsom Street Fair, which took place last weekend, isn't exclusively gay. Thousands of straight kinksters attend every year. About the only difference between the straight attendees and the queer ones is that no one claims that the kinky straight people at Folsom make all heterosexuals everywhere look like sex-crazed sadomasochists. (For the record: Sex-crazed sadomasochists are my favorite kind of sadomasochists.)
Straight people, of course, aren't fighting for their fundamental civil rights. Kinky straights can marry in all 50 states, after all, and no one is pledging to kick kinky straights out of the armed forces or to write anti-kinky-straight bigotry into the U.S. Constitution. So maybe it's not the same – maybe it's not as politically risky – when straight people come out in bondage gear, leather chaps and pony masks. But straight people are a big part of Folsom, too.
But you didn't ask about kinky straight people. You wondered if the Folsom Street Fair was harming the struggle for LGBT equality.
The Folsom Street Fair has taken place on a Sunday in September in San Francisco every year since 1984. Pride parades have been taking place on a Sunday in June in cities all over the country since the early 1970s. And every year, we hear from concern trolls about the damage that's supposedly being done to the LGBT rights movement by all those drag queens, go-go boys, dykes and leather guys at Pride or Folsom or International Mr. Leather.
But everyone acknowledges – even our enemies – that the gay rights movement has made extraordinary strides in the 43 years since the Stonewall Riots in New York City. We're not all the way there yet, we have yet to secure our full civil equality, but the pace of progress has been unprecedented in the history of social justice movements. The women's suffrage movement, for example, was launched in the United Sates in 1848. It took more than 70 years to pass the 19th Amendment, which extended the vote to women. In 1969, at the time of the Stonewall Riots, gay sex was illegal in 49 states. Gay sex is now legal in every US state, gay marriage is legal in six states and our nation's capital (and in all of Canada), and gays, lesbians and bisexuals can serve openly in the military. (The armed forces still discriminate against trans people.) And we've made this progress despite fierce opposition from the religious right, a deadly plague that wiped out a generation of gay men, and – gasp – all those leather guys at Folsom and the go-go boys and drag queens at Pride.
We couldn't have come so far, so fast if Folsom or pride parades were harming our movement. And I would argue that leather guys, dykes on bikes, go-go boys and drag queens have actually helped our movement, BDSF. They demonstrate to all people that our movement isn't just about the freedom to be gay or straight. Our movement is about the freedom to be whatever kind of straight, gay, lesbian, bi or trans person you want to be. And freedom, as Dick Cheney famously said, means freedom for everyone – from pantsuit-wearing POS sellouts like Mary Cheney and Chris Barron to kinky straight people and hot gay boys in harnesses.
I don't think it's a coincidence that cities with big pride parades and events like Folsom are more tolerant and more accepting of sexual minorities than cities that don't have big gay parades and fetish street fairs. If an event like Folsom were actually counterproductive, BDSF, you would expect San Francisco to be less tolerant and less likely to back equal rights for sexual minorities, not more likely.
And finally, BDSF, any attempt to shut down the Folsom Street Fair – or to ban drag queens, go-go boys, dykes on bikes or leather guys from pride parades – would be so poisonously divisive that it would do more harm to our movement than a thousand Folsom Street Fairs ever could.

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