During World War II, an unprecedented number of military personnel were deployed through San Francisco to fight Japan in the Pacific Theater. It was also during World War II that a new military policy was implemented for the first time: the discharging of any personnel who were gay. Sent back to San Francisco, many of those who had been discharged chose to stay in the city rather than return to their hometowns after having been “outed.” Some historians, including Allan Bérubé, John D’Emilio, Nan Alamilla Boyd, and Susan Stryker and Jim Van Buskirk, have suggested this marked a new beginning for San Francisco as a site of gay organizing and activism.
Some of the gay men who settled in San Francisco were drawn to the outlaw image of bikers in popular media, including Marlon Brando’s 1953 film, The Wild One. They founded motorcycle groups such as the Warlocks, the California Motor Club, and the Barbary Coasters. It was partly out of these motorcycle groups that a new breed of urban gay man emerged: the “leatherman.” Many of these men wore black leather gear and denim, regardless of whether or not they rode a motorcycle. In contrast to the theatrical styles of femininity used by drag queens, leathermen developed and eroticized a distinctively masculine appearance and deportment. They sought each other out for heightened sexual experiences that included bondage, role-playing, and fetishes. Having been isolated, stigmatized and criminalized for their sexual desires, they upheld community-building and the pursuit of pleasure as the organizing principles of their lives.
By the 1960s, San Francisco leathermen had begun to create an elaborate all-male social world that came to include hundreds of bars, bathhouses, motorcycle runs, fraternal organizations, and other venues and events. Many of these institutions were centered around Folsom Street in the South of Market. In addition to providing places to build community and to meet potential sexual partners, the bars and bathouses were often the only venues where leathermen could showcase their photography, murals, and other art that portrayed their lives and experiences. This milieu thrived until the 1980s and 1990s when the combined impact of AIDS and neighborhood redevelopment ended Folsom Street’s days as the “Valley of the Kings.”
José Guevara tends bar at the Powerhouse, one of the few remaining leather bars on Folsom Street. In 2008, he began to draft an historical map of the neighborhood that he kept at the bar. During his shifts, he solicited patrons’ recollections of the venues and events that had been in the area.
Paul Johnson of Off Ramp Leathers and artist Mike Caffee have been among the many friends and bar patrons who have generously shared their memories and memorabilia with Guevara. He has also conducted research in the archives of the GLBT Historical Society and reviewed the scholarly work on his topic – including the late Eric Rofes’ historical tours of the South of Market, and Gayle Rubin’s publications, such as Sites, Settlements, and Urban Sex: Archaeology and the Study of Gay Leathermen in San Francisco, 1955-1995.
Guevara soon realized that the material he was amassing could more easily be accommodated in the format of a game than a map. With friends’ assistance, he transformed the map into a 16″x 52″ board game with dice, playing pieces, and a stack of trivia cards. The board is lamenated and fits easily on the bar. The outside edge of the board portrays current businesses in the South of Market, along with a timeline and an epigraph from South of the Slot, Jack London’s 1909 short story about the neighborhood. The center of the board represents leathermen’s venues and events that existed in the South of Market from 1962 until 1984. The project is a work-in-progress, and Guevara continues to develop the game as his research proceeds.
While he is considering other formats – including a publication, an online version, and an app for mobile phones – Guevara has been especially gratified that the game is played in the bar. As he commented to me,
I’m hoping that it’s something that brings them to the bar during my shift. The patrons are engaging each other, and I’m engaging them. You’re getting people to talk about their lives without having to say, “the party is over.” Sometimes people get lost in that. This is a chance to acknowledge them and the time that people spent in creating their community. It’s a chance to ask, “How did this community form? Where is it now? Where is it going?”
You can join the game and reminisce at the Powerhouse, 1347 Folsom Street, when José Guevara starts his shift on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Saturdays at 4:00 p.m. You can also review the recent proposal by the Western SoMa Citizens Planning Task Force to the San Francisco Planning Department to recognize and promote the neighborhood’s leather history.