On Sunday, LGBT folk — though primarily gay men in the leather community — will take over the two blocks of Folsom Street on either side of Dore Street, as well as the alley itself, for an afternoon of drinking, dancing, and open-air sexual deviance. Folsom Street Events bills the fair as "Folsom Street Fair's dirty little brother," and indeed in recent years it has tended to be a bit more sexually explicit and less tourist-friendly than the much larger Folsom Street Fair in September. "Up Your Alley® is only for real players – and not for the faint of heart – where leather daddies rule the streets of San Francisco’s South of Market district," the website reads.
Drawing about 15,000 people — compared to the 250,000 or more who attend Folsom — Dore Alley tends to feel like more of a community affair, and a (mostly) gay-male block party for both fetishists and local gawkers alike.
But the two fairs that occur eight weeks apart used to be two unaffiliated events, though Up Your Alley has always been the smaller and arguably dirtier of the two.
As SFist's Joe Kukura explained in this brief history a couple years back, the first Up Your Alley Fair wasn't held on Dore Alley at all, and it happened on August 25, 1985. It was founded by International Mr. Leather 1985 Patrick Toner and Jerry Vallaire, who launched it as a fundraiser specifically for gay organizations and those addressing the growing AIDS crisis — the first beneficiaries were SF AIDS Fund, the Gay Games, and Community United Against Violence. And the location was a couple blocks away on Ringold Alley, a notorious nighttime cruising ground where people engaged in public sex, and there were parked vans that operated as fully equipped BDSM "dungeons."
Up Your Alley was the leather community's way of putting all that out in the daylight, though the event was more of a daylight cruising party and beer bust with dunking booths, a kissing booth, and other activities.
The event happened on Ringold for two years, and then moved to Dore Alley in 1987, likely because of protest from residents along Ringold. In 1990, as organizers were dropping away due to HIV/AIDS, Up Your Alley and Folsom Street Fair began sharing resources — and in 1991 independent leather and fetish vendors began being allowed, adding the street fair character it still has today. By 1993, Toner would be dead from AIDS, and the precursor organization SMMILE (South of Market Merchants and Individuals Lifestyle Events) was now in charge of both events.
Dr. Gayle Rubin has done history lectures about the fairs over the years for the LGBT Center and other organizations, and as she explained to SFist in 2015, even though these fairs were not necessarily the money-makers they are now, the leather community continued to fund and support them as a means of keeping the culture alive. "The leather communities needed these fairs so much so that they kept them going and continually revitalized them, and kept them their own in ways the founders would have understood even if they never would have anticipated,” Dr. Rubin said. "On those days, the streets of South of Market belong to the leather folk."
Rubin is referring to the often declared death of the leather community, which has managed to endure as a gay subculture despite the fact that many of its early proponents are gone. The internet has in many ways helped the community grow and survive, bringing enthusiasts from parts of the country with no leather bars to big annual events like Folsom and the International Mr. Leather conference in Chicago each May.
In San Francisco, SoMa used to be home to over a dozen leather bars as well as 10 bathhouses and at least 6 leather retail businesses. The stalwarts that remain — Mr. S, The Eagle Tavern, and The Powerhouse — continue to be gathering places for the leather community, and outside the Eagle there will soon be the country's first city-sanctioned public plaza devoted to the leather community, which just broke ground last month.
But as Dr. Rubin said, the neighborhood only really becomes a version of what it used to be two Sundays a year these days, and this Sunday is one of them.
Up Your Alley kicks off at 11 a.m. on Sunday on Folsom Street near 9th.