Controversy: Folsom Street Fair

Leather

Last Supper

The promotional poster for the Folsom Street Fair in San Francisco featured a leather representation of DaVinci’s “Last Supper”. The Folsom Street Fair is the “crowning finale” to San Francisco’s Leather Pride Week. Over 400,000 people attend each year, and it is described as an “international destination.” From their post-event press release …

Hundreds of thousands of Folsom Street Fair-goers, dressed in leather, rubber, uniforms, drag, or very little at all, enjoyed a memorable day of frolic in the hot summer sun this past Sunday, September 30th. Incredible numbers of visitors came from all over the world to mix and mingle with local enthusiasts to enjoy top alternative acts, sexy vendor booths, lots of cold beer, and more than just a little fun and flirtation.

And, more about the sponsors …

Folsom Street Events is a 501(c)3 nonprofit agency that produces four annual fetish events: Bay of Pigs™, Up Your Alley™, Magnitude™, and the Folsom Street Fair™. The mission is to create volunteer-driven leather events that provide the adult alternative lifestyle community with safe venues for self-expression while emphasizing freedom, fun, frolic and fetish and raising funds to benefit charity. In 2006, over 350,000 attendees raised $301,512 for charitable donations. 2008 marks the 25th Anniversary of the Folsom Street Fair.

And now for the controversy …

The Catholic League noticed that Miller Brewing Company was the only national sponsor of the event, called for Miller Brewing Company to withdraw its support for the event because of the imagery, described as “Christ-mocking”. Miller Brewing Company replied saying,

“While Miller has supported the Folsom Street Fair for several years, we take exception to the poster the organizing committee developed this year. We understand some individuals may find the imagery offensive.”

But Miller Brewing Company declined to withdraw support. There was another plea to Miller Brewing from The Catholic League about the “queer nun” group the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. On their website, the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence promised:

“No gastric craving will go unsatisfied, no bag of silver will go unspent, and no sin will go unforgiven. … Don’t be a Judas! Come, eat, drink and be Mary! Be sure to mention The Last Supper With The Sisters when you make your reservation.”

Miller Brewing Company again refused to withdraw support and The Catholic League has called for a nationwide boycott of Miller Beer. The response from Miller Brewing has been … wait for it … “Lite”.

But these things get legs. The Folsom Street Fair has issued a press release, the bulk of which is reprinted here.

Andy Copper, President of the Board of Directors, stated, “We can no longer stand by while Folsom Street Fair remains under attack. The Catholic League insists upon provoking its followers, resulting in emails and phone calls threatening us with everything from ill-will to bodily harm. We understand that The Catholic League believes it is doing ‘the right thing’ but they are attacking our San Francisco values of community, diversity, education, and freedom of self expression. If they do not share in our values or do not understand them, that’s fine; but, they have never opened up a dialogue with us. They have only stood in judgment, making threats. We can no longer remain silent on the issue.”

Andy Copper added the following, “To date, we have donated over $5 million to charities serving the community’s needs in the areas of public health, human services, and the arts. Sponsorship dollars only underwrite the direct expenses of the Fair itself. Miller’s sponsorship does not support the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence or any other charity that benefits from the Fair. The donations brought in at our gates from individual community members support our charities. Additionally, Folsom Street Fair generates approximately $36.4 million in travel and tourism dollars benefiting San Francisco and the nation.”

In closing, the organization asks the following, “Please support FOLSOM STREET FAIR by calling Miller Brewing Company and thanking them for not caving into extreme right-wing pressure, requesting that they pull out from presenting sponsorship of our Fair. We have worked successfully with this company for many years, and they have been very supportive. This is no longer an issue of our poster image, but it is an issue of free speech and freedom of expression.

Two very different worlds collide … and don’t seem to be able to hear one another (and I suspect that neither is interested in even attempting to hear the concerns of the other). It is an interesting example of how powerful symbols are at communicating, and how blind we can become when those symbols are used by “outsiders”.

The problems with Folsom Street Fair and their response:

  1. The committee chose this image particularly because it offers offense to Christians. I don’t know that for sure … but I know that. Much of leather and fetish and the displays of sexuality within these kinds of festivals described as “adult alternative” have a desire to “push the envelope” and celebrate that which is off mainstream society. The problem is that they act surprised when someone calls them on it and holds advertisers and sponsors accountable for their decisions. It would be far more honest to say outright that they choose images designed to draw attention to the Street Fair and to create controversy.
  2. Free speech does not equal unchallenged speech. The Catholic League has free speech and freedom of expression also.
  3. The justification by way of the amount of money going to charity or the economic contribution to the San Francisco economy has really not much impact on those who oppose the image or more broadly, what the Folsom Street Fair represents. If Westboro Baptist Church showed up in San Francisco with their message of “God Hates Fags” and generated the same kinds of numbers, would the board of Folsom Street Fair be pleased or impressed? I dare say not … and for good reason.
  4. I doubt that the Folsom Street Fair has initiated conversation with The Catholic League either. Someone has to take the first step. Note to Folsom Street Fair Board — If they talked to you about this, would it have made a difference?
  5. Calling The Catholic League “extreme right-wing” is laughable. You should hear what the extreme right wing is really saying! What The Catholic League did was minor.

The problems with The Catholic League and their actions:

  1. I understand the strategy to hold a national advertiser accountable for their advertising dollars, but this was a drop in the bucket for Miller Brewing Company, and not likely very effective. (Having said that, I’m not sure what would be effective, unless the real desire is to move this Folsom Street Fair onto the radar of people outside the “adult alternative community”).
  2. I read the poster at question as recognition that this is a powerful image … even for those who wish to distort it. What ways could The Catholic League have found to counter the image as a way to call people into relationship with the church? What alternative images might have communicated in a similar way the values of the Christian Church and helped people question some of the values encouraged by the fair? In other words, what evangelistic opportunities might have been made available?
  3. “You took my symbol” generally doesn’t play very well. Witness the uproar over the Danish comics belittling Mohommed a few years back. Didn’t we all wonder then what the problem was? Much of our culture is hostile to Christianity. Circling the wagons is one response. The trouble is, it will kill us through attrition.

Do I find the Folsom Street Fair poster to be a problem? Yes. It was done in poor taste. But I doubt that what Christians think matters much to the Board. I doubt that this controversy matters much to Miller Brewing Company. Too bad this has to create more of a divide than to create the opportunity for dialogue or invitation to come and see what the church has to offer these days … it’s not always what people expect.

Pondering Pastor

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2 responses to “Controversy: Folsom Street Fair

  1. I read this post yesterday, and thought about it all day. So here I am, my thought in hand…

    As another ‘pondering pastor’ I find the above photo provocative, ‘offensive,’ but its also extremely creative. When I step back from my pastoral role, I have a laugh.

    The notion of art- good art- should demand our attention, it should stretch our sensibilities to proclaim a message, and it should elicit a response. The above poster does all of that.

    To say that the original Leonardo painting is a ‘symbol’ that belongs to the church diminishes it. The “Last Supper” does not belong to the church, but to the world. All art, either sacred or profane, belongs to the world. There have been many interpretations of “The Last Supper,” all of which express more about the artist than about the event. The ‘iconization’ of this painting, even to the “DaVinci Code” publicity of late, point to how the culture reveres the painting more than they do the subject of it. Leonardo himself was extrememly controversial, and would probably have a good laugh at what his work inspired.

    Sadly, many religious leaders have attached too much importance to images and various adiaphora. When we have church leadership in the public square squawking about the denigration of our ‘symbols’ we’ve lost something.
    If paintings and images have such power, we have elevated them to the status of an idol, and we have lost the battle. Just what is it that we worship?

    The Reformation caught fire among the common people by the distribution of pamphets (using the new technology of the printing press) which utilized cartoons and satirical ‘abuse’ of what the church revered as holy symbols through creative artwork. The common folk saw through the humor to get the message: is God’s Word hiding in the hierarchy of monied aristocracy of the church? Or is God present in all around us, even in the humble and lowly?

    Christ came and gave his life for all, even for those who push the boundaries of propriety, even for those pictured in the poster. Who is welcome in the Church? The banquet feast of the lamb is not just for the ‘good children’ with proper manners and lifestyles, but even for those dressed in leather, hoisting a brew.

    Can we catch a breath, and see beyond our puritan sensibilities, and have a laugh?

  2. ponderingpastor

    Bravo. Well said!

    Pondering Pastor

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