At this weekend's 31st annual Up Your Alley leather and BDSM festival, in San Francisco's historically kink-friendly South of Market neighborhood, more than 10,000 subs, doms, slaves, sirs, pups, handlers, leatherfolk, and onlookers gathered to celebrate the bonds of a community slowly moving from the sexual fringe toward something resembling the American mainstream.
It's no revelation that the leather and kink community has shed much of its outsider status in the wake of marriage equality and Fifty Shades of Grey. As the spectrum of North American kink broadens beyond its once predominantly leather-based roots, and a growing number of non-gay men come out as participants and players, a counter-retraction among the scene's demographic cornerstone is taking place. "Guy Baldwin, a fairly famous leatherman, gave a speech a few years ago to a room of mostly straight leatherfolk," Race Bannon, kink expert and columnist for the Bay Area Reporter, told VICE. "I'm paraphrasing, but he said that if gay men are retracting from your scene, it's because it doesn't feel like our scene anymore."
The contrast between Up Your Alley and its sister festival, next month's 32nd annual Folsom Street Fair, is sharp. Folsom, a traditionally tamer and straighter leather festival, hosts more than 250,000 attendees, and the BDSM on display there tends not to veer toward the sometimes graphic practice seen at Up Your Alley. "Frankly, the way that heterosexuals look at kink and BDSM is different than the way gay men do," said Bannon. "There's been a retraction into gay camps, and this is the appeal of Up Your Alley over Folsom."