I arrived in San Francisco on September 23, 1999, which by happy coincidence was the weekend of Folsom Street Fair.[i] Unlike the unfortunate tourists who stumble across this San Francisco tradition unawares, I was prepared. At the tender age of twenty-five I had already been working in the fetish industry for eight years. I’d had a string of jobs in shops and clubs in London, and designed latex clothes.
My friend Zari was the one who convinced me to come to San Francisco. We went to school together in London and hung out in the fetish scene before she relocated to the West Coast a couple of years earlier. She’s a buxom Persian princess with long, dark, but slightly disheveled hair. Her powerful maternal urge can sometimes come across as pushy, but most of the time I’m grateful for it. She knew I needed to get out of London. I had been lonely and depressed for years, and Zari suggested that making bold changes in my life might help. She had called me on my birthday, when I was wallowing in self-pity.
“Polly, you need to get out of there,” she had urged. “Why are you so stubborn? What’s keeping you in London?” Her voice was full of concern, but my chest welled in indignation at her suggestion.
“It’s not like I have a choice, Zari. Who’s gonna wave a magic wand for me? You think I’m choosing this?”
“Things are going really well for me here,” she persisted. “Why don’t you come? Take a long break? I will take care of you. You can sleep on my couch. I would love to have you here for a bit. It would be fun.”
“Come on, this place is amazing. I know you will love it here. You don’t have to be miserable, you know. You just need to get the hell out of London. You’ve got some savings. What’s stopping you?”
So I quit my job and left London. At first it was just a vacation. It didn’t take me long to realize I had found my new home. I had been in San Francisco for just two days when I found myself standing in Zari’s cute little apartment perched on the top of Liberty Hill, wearing a handmade, custom, silver latex minidress. Cut like something from The Jetsons, it had a short hoop skirt sticking out sideways, matching silver shorts, and a sculpted hood reminiscent of a ’50s swimming hat. Outside the window the San Francisco skyline stretched out in front of us. I could see the Bay Bridge peeking out from a glowing downtown skyscraper.
“Really, Zari? This is okay?” Although my years of experience in the fetish scene meant I’d worn some outrageous outfits in unlikely situations, on this occasion I was tired, jet-lagged, and not sure I wanted to be so conspicuous.
“It’s perfect. You look great,” Zari nodded approvingly as she rearranged her boobs in her corset.
“But it’s the middle of the day. I don’t think I’ve ever worn latex before sunset. It’s hot outside. I’m gonna sweat!” I complained.
“Just trust me. You look great. Come on, we don’t want to be late.” She picked up her spiked collar and fixed it around her neck.
“Late for what?”
“I signed you up for a volunteer shift. You can’t go to Folsom Street Fair without volunteering,” she said, and smiled. “This is how it’s done in San Francisco. Trust me.”
I was wary.
On the way to the fair, we drove past a building with couches, lamps, and chairs exploding out of the windows. It looked like the furniture was escaping and running down the walls. I stuck my head out the window, trying to figure out what I was looking at. Then I realized it was art—a kind of art I’d never encountered.
“I know the guy who made that,” Zari said nonchalantly as she sipped whisky from her flask in the backseat of the cab. She’d been telling me about the art scene in San Francisco since she first arrived, sending me photos from the Burning Man festival,[ii] which appeared to be somewhat like Woodstock, but in the desert: naked, body-painted people dancing in the dust. She proudly showed me a photo of a longhaired hippy wearing a diaper shooting a flamethrower off the back of a pickup truck. I didn’t get it.
As we got closer to Folsom Street, the population around us began to change. In front of the cab, two men with bushy beards, dressed in leather harnesses and big boots, walked confidently across the street holding hands. A gaggle of drag queens tottered by in high heels, feather boas flying. By the time we turned the corner to be dropped off, the streets jostled with thousands of colorful, sexy, outrageously dressed people. I’d seen crowds like this before in the fetish clubs of London, but this was outside, in broad daylight, and it went on for miles.
There were spanking areas set up with people strung up on medieval-looking bondage devices, pink asses exposed to the warm sun. A tall, naked, muscular man with a dark tan and an enormous cock was masturbating on the sidewalk with an audience of people cheering him on and taking photographs.
A tall drag queen met us when we reached our destination. She wore a red PVC nurse’s uniform and a huge, white headdress, which stuck out on either side of her head like something from a classic Flemish oil painting. Her painted white face, and exaggerated eye makeup, indicated that she was one of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence.[iii] These nuns are a common sight in San Francisco. They do outreach, raising money for AIDS awareness and other charity organizations in the LGBTQ community. This particular Sister was leading the station where Zari had signed us up, collecting donations from people as they entered the fair.
“Oh my goddess, look at your fabulous dress. I love it!” exclaimed the Sister.
“Thanks,” I answered a little sheepishly. “I made it.”
“Shut up. Really? Oh, honey, it’s fabulous.” She grabbed the arm of a woman who was passing by. “Lily, check out this amazing dress. She made it herself.”
The woman nodded approvingly. “Really, you made that?”
“Yeah. I’m a latex fashion designer. I just arrived here from London,” I answered, a little self-conscious at suddenly being the center of attention.
“Do you have a card? I would love to buy a latex dress from you.”
I didn’t have any cards made yet, or even a phone number, but I wrote my email address on a piece of paper at least a dozen times that day.
An hour later, I skipped down the street, sweating in my latex dress, beaming a genuinely happy smile for the first time in as long as I could remember. People were so friendly and supportive. I met the buyer from the local fetish shop and a man who wanted me to throw a party in his bar. I reeled from all the opportunities, encouraging conversations, and a sense of community I had never experienced before.
As I turned the corner, I saw a huge crowd swelling around a sound system. The beat was pounding, and an expanse of sweaty male torsos was gyrating in time to the music. Dangling from a crane above the crowd was a cage with a go-go dancer perched inside. I elbowed my way to its base.
“What do I have to do to dance up there?” I asked the operator.
“You,” he said, pausing to look me up and down, “just have to ask.” He brought the crane back to street level and a skinny boy in black leather shorts stepped out, beaming. He held the door open for me.
“It’s so fun up there!” he gushed enthusiastically as I stepped inside. The door swung closed behind me, and I lurched into the air. I sucked in a breath as vertigo swooped in and then subsided. I marveled at the extent of the street fair, seeing it stretched out into the distance: An ocean of leather boys, drag queens, and dominatrixes. I peered through the bars underneath me at the smiling faces of thousands of men cheering. It was their day to be out, open, and free. I gripped the edges of the cage and started to dance.
My love affair with San Francisco had begun.