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Photos Capture Four Decades of San Francisco Kink 

Wednesday, Sep 23 2015

Bill Bowers has photographed San Francisco's sexual fringe for more than 40 years. In that time, he watched the city evolve from a pre-AIDS libertine playground to a funereal ghost town during the plague years of the 1980s. And he's seen the city's most adventurous fucking move from long-gone bathhouses and leather bars to invite-only house parties.

"We used to call Folsom Street the 'Miracle Mile' because in the '70s, from about 13th Street to 5th Street, there was a gay bar on almost every corner," Bowers says, ticking off the roll call: the Trench, Dirty Sally's, Handball Express.

There were also half a dozen SRO hotels that catered to gay tenants, including the aptly named Brothel Hotel on Polk Street — the "Polk Gulch" of that era was another gay mecca, bustling with hustlers and pickup bars — along with a smorgasbord of bathhouses, sex clubs, and porn theaters.

It was a far cry from L.A., where Bowers had worked as a go-go boy on Sunset Boulevard. "It became a police state there," he says. "Freaks on LSD were scaring the tourists, so I packed up and came to San Francisco."

Here, Bowers and his friend Sylvester fell in with a troupe of acid queens and artists who dubbed themselves the Cockettes, whose flamboyant, ramshackle stage shows became as legendary as the group's spectacular implosion during a short-lived New York run in 1972. (Sylvester would go to record a string of disco hits in the late '70s before dying of AIDS-related complications in 1988.)

Post-Cockettes, Bowers enjoyed a brief but illustrious career as a costume designer to the stars, selling handcrafted capes and jackets to the Rolling Stones, Alice Cooper, and Aerosmith (Salvador Dalí admired Cooper's rat-fur cape enough to steal it). His clothes were featured in Vogue, Playboy, and After Dark, while his photography, an abiding sideline passion, appeared in Drummer magazine — a stalwart of the leather community whose cult following gave Bowers entrée to the fetish underground he would spend years documenting.

"The old guard leather queens of the '60s and '70s had brotherhoods and motorcycle clubs, and it was a very tight-knit community, "Bowers says. "Then AIDS hit and everything fell apart."

The city's previous no-limits nightlife suddenly stopped; men who'd kept the party jumping until dawn were now wasting away in Ward 86, S.F. General's dreaded AIDS wing. In 1982, Bowers decamped to Key West, Fla., mostly to escape the "boredom" of plague-ridden San Francisco. He worked as a houseboy at a resort on the coast, cleaning the pool and fluffing pillows, and in his off hours, shooting beefcake photos for a gay travel guide.

When he returned to San Francisco in the late '80s, the city had changed. Young men's obituaries filled each issue of the Bay Area Reporter. Most of the bathhouses and fetish bars had shuttered. The gay SROs were gone. But the Folsom Street Fair and the Dore Alley Fair (first held on Ringold Street) emerged in the mid-80s as new frontiers in the city's sexual reawakening. As AIDS' cataclysmic death toll declined in San Francisco, subcultures rebounded, and these festivals became more than just niche events for leathermen and their slaves. They became destinations for diverse crowds eager to explore BDSM fantasies in a public space.

And eager to prove the party could go on.

AIDS may have changed everything, but some of San Francisco's sexual pioneers and sexual outlaws are still around. And so is Bill Bowers, camera in hand.

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About The Author

Jeremy Lybarger


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