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How Did Folsom Street Become The Center Of 'Sexy Times'?

Lance Gardner
Leather Etc. on Folsom at 8th Street.

Listener Katie Taylor asked us to find out how San Francisco’s Folsom Street became “the center of sexy times.” KALW Audio Academy Fellow Lance Gardner went to find out.

I’m here in Ringold Alley with community historian Paul Gabriel. This little strip between 8th and 9th streets is part of San Francisco’s newly designated LGBTQ and Leather Cultural District.

Gabriel says, "This is a famous place for people to come after hours and have sex outdoors."

That history is one of the reasons why, every year, there’s a street fair around the corner on Folsom that draws as many as a quarter million consenting adults to play.

As it turns out, The origin story of the Folsom Street Fair has as much to do with affordable housing as it does with sex.

Back in the 60s, people facing housing discrimination started coming to this area: gay men; racial minorities; elderly people. During the day, it was a blue-collar, industrial neighborhood, but at night, Gabriel says, "It had just this mass of bars and sex clubs and dance clubs. And you could just stumble through for a whole weekend and never get disgorged until Monday morning."

By the 80s, plans for redevelopment threatened to displace the boots and roots of SOMA residents. So in 1984 activists organized an event to raise money and keep the city from building a freeway through their community.

And by the early 90s, there were fewer watercolors and more assless chaps. The leather community had taken the opportunity to draw people from around the country to this kinky cultural hub, by adopting the fair as their own.

Today in the alley, you won’t find the kind of late-night cruising that put it on the map. Plaques and monuments commemorating the leather communityshare the street with a tech startup and a gated apartment complex. But every year on Folsom Street there’s a fair that continues to raise funds and eyebrows, putting it at the center of 'sexy times.'

This story originally aired in February of 2019 and aired most recently in the September 20, 2023 episode of Crosscurrents.