While selecting material for digitization, CHS archivists identified a small collection of black and white negatives by San Francisco photographer and filmmaker Bill Pope. Included in the collection are two rolls of film from the Christopher Street West parade on June 25, 1972, marking the third anniversary of the Stonewall uprising against police brutality.
Parade images depict floats from LGBT activist groups, art collectives, bars, and bathhouses. One float advertises the Folsom Street Barracks, a gay bathhouse and leather club that opened on Folsom street in 1971. Ten years later, the Barracks was the epicenter of the largest fire in the city since 1906. The 1981 Folsom Street fire tore through 27 buildings and displaced 116 people (Flanagan, 2015).
Members of the news media blamed the fire on the gay leather community, speculating it had been sparked by a jealous lover and fueled by the combustion of bottles of amyl nitrate “poppers” in the bathhouse storeroom (Turner, 1981), neither of which was true. As the media derided leather culture and sensationalized the story, the fire chief speculated about “people chained to beds” in “an S & M slave quarters” (Murray, 1981). Artist Mark I. Chester’s apartment was ransacked, and a photograph of his bedroom and whip collection was published in the San Francisco Chronicle (Flanagan, 2015).
After the fire, the low rent apartment buildings in the neighborhood were replaced by new high-end developments. That same year, Moscone center opened. Gayle Rubin (2001) writes that in the following years, new zoning guidelines in SOMA along with a new ban on gay bathhouses “eviscerated the neighborhood gay and leather economy.”
Despite the loss of countless gathering places, businesses, and homes, South of Market remains an important hub for the queer leather community. For a deeper dive into San Francisco’s leather history, check out the Stud Archive (of the collectively-owned Stud nightclub formerly at 9th and Harrison) currently on display at the Haight Street Art Center.
Rubin, G. (2001, September 20). The South of Market Leather History. Frontiers Newsmagazine, 20 (11), 20+.
Turner, W. (1981, July 11). Worst since ’06, Razes 25 Buildings. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/1981/07/11/us/san-francisco-fire-called-worst-since-06-razes-25-buildings.html
Murray, W. D. (1981, July 10). Fire in a bathhouse spread through homosexual ‘slave quarters’… United Press International. https://www.upi.com/Archives/1981/07/10/Fire-in-a-bathhouse-spread-through-homosexual-slave-quarters/2511363585600/
Flanagan, M. (2015, September 27). The Folsom Street Fire: Anatomy of a Sex Panic. Bay Area Reporter. https://www.ebar.com/entertainment/culture/185494