Leather, Laughter Under the Sun

10th annual Folsom Street East event brings S&M scene into the light of day

A blistering 90-degree sun on Sunday didn’t stop Baroness Helga from sliding her sadistic self into full leather dominatrix gear and heading over to 28th Street between 10th and 11th Avenues, right in front of the gay leather bar the Eagle and the straight strip club Scores.

She was among the 7,000 to 8,000 leather/SM fetishists and onlookers who showed up for the 10th annual Folsom Street East fair, organized by the Gay Male S/M Activists (GMSMA). The laid-back street fair, named in honor of its long-running, much larger predecessor in San Francisco, was the centerpiece of Leather Pride weekend and is meant to bring the leather/SM scene and its devotees out of the dark shadows of the dungeon and into the bright, unthreatening public light of day.

“Sadism is a consensual medium,” explained Baroness Helga, brandishing a riding crop. She said she worked as a dominatrix at Pandora’s Box, a New York City dungeon with a secret address (call 212-242-4571 to obtain it).

“This gives me an outlet for my darker side,” she said. “You can’t just walk up to someone on the street and start whaling on them.”

On Sunday, a wide array of participants—dressed in everything from full rubber body suits to leather chaps and harnesses to tanks and flip-flops—seemed to revel in the chance to strut their SM stuff and schmooze in an atmosphere more like a classic New York street fair than a shadowy vault outfitted with instruments of torture. (Not that there weren’t plenty of them around on Sunday.)

“It’s about expressing our individual colors and celebrating sexual freedom,” is how Leather Pride weekend was described by Robert Valin, 42, who with his friend “CirrTone,” 38, founded Leather Invasion, a group that holds leather outings in public spaces. Recent venues have included the MoMA and Ikea.

“They were great,” Valin said of Ikea. “They gave us a tour and served us Swedish meatballs.”

The day before Folsom Street East, about 50 Leather Invasion members had held a picnic on the Christopher Street Pier, Valin said. “Some twinks came over to check us out,” he said. “They were like, ‘That’s cool.’”

As fair-goers drank cheap beer from kegs outside the Eagle and tables offered everything from free condoms and health information to a wide array of leather/SM gear and toys, performers including gay rapper Cazwell, vocalist Sylvia Tosun, and the opulent drag queens of the Imperial Court of New York entertained the crowd. Elsewhere, boot-cleaning and rope-tying demonstrations enjoyed captive audiences.

Speakers included openly gay state Senator Tom Duane and National Gay and Lesbian Task Force head Matt Foreman. Both men saluted Leather Pride weekend as an example of the diversity and inclusiveness of New York’s LGBT community.

Though the crowd was made up primarily of gay men, a fair number of women—some of them in full regalia such as Baroness Helga—were also in attendance. Perhaps because of the sweltering heat, those sporting a “leather-lite” look—shirtless chests with leather accessories like aviator caps or armbands—by far overwhelmed those rocking heavy gear.

“I have the look but I don’t live the lifestyle,” said Stephen Lane, 31, a Chelsea hairstylist with tattoos up his arms and leather suspenders across his brawny, furry bare chest.

In recent years, more gay men have gotten into leather/SM activities in conjunction with doing crystal meth, according to Spencer Cox, who heads the Medius Institute, a gay men’s health advocacy group. “It’s my impression that meth is really dividing the hardcore leather community,” said Cox.

He added that a growing number of leather veterans—many of whom are in recovery—are starting to speak out strongly about the dangers of mixing meth or other hard drugs with SM activities like torture or fisting, which require strong presence of mind for people not to go too far and hurt themselves or others.

That message seemed to prevail on Sunday, when a wide swath of leather devotees professed that not only did they and their peers not do hard drugs like crystal meth, but that strongly mind-altering substances were not compatible with SM’s activities or its deeper purpose.

According to Leather Invasion’s Valin, S/M “is more about self-awareness and self-discovery, and more people on that path choose not to do drugs and cloud their awareness of themselves.”

At the volunteers table, GMSMA member Bill Stokes, 66, a retired musician, said he has not seen a rise in the use of meth or other hard drugs among the members of GMSMA or other organized leather groups. “You can’t do [the stuff we do] drug-induced,” he said.

Indeed, the tone of Sunday’s fair was anything but druggy, with leather veterans and neophytes alike basking in the milieu—part night out at the Eagle, part activist rally, and part community carnival—despite the searing heat.

Inside Scores, the usually straight strip club, part of the proceeds from an event with male strippers, courtesy of popular gay party promoter Daniel Nardicio, went to the beneficiaries of the fair outside—the LGBT Community Center, the Gay and Lesbian Anti-Violence Project, and the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom, an SM lobbying group.

According to fair organizer John Weiss of GMSMA, there were no unhappy incidents at or around the event, which took place one weekend after beloved gay performer Kevin Aviance was brutally gay-bashed after leaving the East Village gay bar the Phoenix. Two years ago, said Weiss, someone was gay-bashed walking home from Folsom Street East. This year, the Anti-Violence Project handed out info cards at the event.

The event’s proceeds, from a small suggested entry fee, was not yet fully counted, said Weiss, but it likely exceeded last year’s take of nearly $20,000. “I think it was a smash success,” he said of Sunday’s event. “It begs the question of why there’s not more things like this throughout the year.”

Perhaps there will be, given how the event tapped into the desire of many participants to engage in leather/SM not just as a mode of sexual discovery but of civic pride and community building at a time when drug-fueled Internet hookups have left many gay men feeling more isolated and alienated than ever.

Leather Invasion cofounder Valin put it this way: “It’s like an urban outing for kinky people.”

Learn more at gmsma.org, folsomstreeteast.org, and leatherinvasion.com.

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