The annual Folsom Street Fair in September is the biggest kink and BDSM-centered event in the world (and one of the city’s biggest festivals). But it’s a lot more, too. Folsom Street Events, the organization that runs the fest, is a charitable nonprofit that donates hundreds of thousands of dollars each year to local and national groups—in 2019, more than 250,000 people attended the fair, and FSE awarded $350,000. It also other hosts popular events like Up Your Alley (formerly Dore Alley Fair) in July and the Bay of Pigs party.
The Folsom Street Fair itself was launched in 1984 to fight downtown development and gentrification, as the queer working class community in SoMa was in danger of being pushed out. (Founders Kathleen Connell and Michael Valerio originally called the festival “Megahood.”) It was an in-your-face way to reclaim the area—and if it scared away a few real estate speculators, then that was fine, too. But the fair was also meant to be a proactive way to celebrate not just local neighborhood but the wider fetish community in all its diverse and wildly different expressions.
Recently, as income inequality and development, especially in SoMa, have skyrocketed, FSE has faced its own pressures to remain accessible, diverse, and appealing to the broad spectrum of kinksters, while keeping up with the times. Former executive director Demetri Moshoyannis increased the entertainment aspect of the fair, turning it into a de facto music festival, with more international live acts and DJs, including an appearance by a giant, leather-clad sheep. The fair successfully fought for an exemption from then-supervisor Scott Wiener’s prudish 2012 Public Nudity Ban.
But FSE came under fire under most recent executive director Patrick Finger, when the initial posters for last year’s Up Your Alley Fair were seen to pigeonhole the celebration as strictly for gay males, despite a vast contingent and history of other happy BDSM participants. The organization issued a quick and timely apology, putting out a new set of posters that accurately reflected the community’s diversity. The move was lauded as fantastic response to necessary voices. Then, a highly publicized kerfuffle with the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, who threatened to pull out of the fair after a contract dispute, again drew controversy and protests.
Now, Folsom Street Events has just appointed a new executive director, Sarah Patterson, a promising choice to bring a wider perspective and diverse experience to the organization. Patterson’s background includes positions as director of development and communications at the Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment, an environmental justice organization serving low-income communities of color in California’s Central Valley, as well as the co-founder and director of Persist Health Project, a nonprofit by and for sex workers and trafficking survivors in New York City. She is also a board member emeritus at Trans Lifeline.
“Folsom is a crucial part of many community members’ first experiences with alternative lifestyles,” Patterson, who identifies as an alcohol-sober leatherdyke and community collaborator, says in the press release announcing her hire. “All of us have our place in that history, our journeys in leather, and they all matter.”
Before she even got a minute to settle into her new position, I asked Patterson a few questions about the challenges FSE faces and her leadership plans.
48 HILLS You have a strong background in social justice and serving diverse communities. Can you tell me what experience in particular you feel will help you lead the next phase of FSE?
SARAH PATTERSON My work with FSE through this new phase is informed by the work that Folsom was grounded in: The fact that [founders] Kathleen Connell and Michael Valerio were community activists, and especially that Kathleen is a lesbian with a background in housing and environment justice work. I feel deeply connected to the legacy of that important work and its political nature. I am also grateful for this opportunity to merge my work in leather community (I have, up until this point, been hosting a BIPOC-centered private party for femmes with Ms. SF Leather 2020 Contestant Lola Ursula) with my nonprofit leadership experience.
48 HILLS Do you have any immediate plans to address the concerns of some in the community that FSE has not been diverse enough in its recent outreach and messaging to the broader kink community?
SARAH PATTERSON Before making any big changes to FSE, I want to listen to the multiple viewpoints and understanding the implications. There are such a variety of different ways that the Fair can be made more accessible to folks. Also, difference of opinion, experience, and background are inevitable within our very diverse communities. That said, we are already exploring a change in marketing strategy; rather than focusing on a singular image to express our diversity, we are planning to pivot towards iconic, historical images in our overall branding that highlight what links us together as leatherfolk.
48 HILLS Can you tell me a little about your goals and aspirations for your first year leading the organization? Any immediate changes you’re planning?
SARAH PATTERSON My main goal as the executive director is to lead alongside folks, and not in front. I lead from a place of wanting to lift others, and I hope I can highlight how wonderful our community is through my own work. I am in awe of the collective knowledge, skill, and dedication of the staff, Board of Directors, and volunteers at FSE. I consider this role one of service—in particular to the preservation of the Fair as the world’s largest leather and fetish event—and I take that role very seriously. I want to preserve what we know and love about the fairs while also making thoughtful changes to make it even better.