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December 8, 2006
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Volume 34
Issue 49
 
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Past Out by Liz Highleyman
What is the history of Gay motorcycle clubs?
Motorcycle clubs, a mainstay of Gay culture since the 1950s, ushered in a new brand of Queer masculinity and gave rise to today's leather/SM community.

Motorcycle culture emerged in the United States in the 1920s and 1930s, often revolving around racing, with enthusiasts who formed clubs and wore distinctive uniforms and "colors." The popularity of motorcycles grew during World War II - as motorcyclists were regarded as something of a modern-day cavalry - and cheap military surplus cycles became available after the war.

Upon leaving military service in the late 1940s, many Gay men stayed in port cities rather than returning to their hometowns. Just as the Hell's Angels were purportedly started by former bomber pilots and paratroopers unwilling to settle into mainstream life, Gay men also sought an alternative. "Only in the swashbuckling motorcycle culture," argues author Guy Baldwin, were they able to retain the "easy camaraderie, the stress and thrill of real risk taking, and the masculine sexuality that they had known during their military days." Gay and straight men alike embraced the image of the outlaw biker as a free-spirited rebel, as exemplified by the Marlon Brando film The Wild One (1953), inspired by an infamous riot at a motorcycle convention in Hollister, Calif., in 1947.

The first Gay motorcycle club in the United States was the Satyrs, founded in Los Angeles in 1954; the second, Oedipus, was an offshoot started in 1958. The earliest Northern California club was the Warlocks, founded in 1960, followed by the California Motorcycle Club (CMC). By the mid-1960s, San Francisco's South of Market district had become a hotbed of the Gay motorcycle scene, home to clubs such as the Constantines and the Barbary Coasters.

While California - with its climate conducive to year-round riding - continued to host the greatest concentration of Gay motorcycle clubs, similar groups cropped up around the country, including, in 1963, the Second City Motorcycle Club in Chicago, an early hub of the Gay leather scene. The Empire City Motorcycle Club of New York City, founded the following year, claims to be the oldest ongoing GLBT organization east of the Rockies. Gay motorcycle culture also crossed over to Europe, starting with London's 69 Club. As motorcycle clubs grew more numerous, they formed interclub organizations such as the Atlantic Motorcycle Coordinating Council.

Gay motorcycle clubs provided an outlet for socialization - and often for sex. The early biker scene was closely allied with the emerging "Old Guard" leather/SM culture, and the clubs' watering holes became some of the first leather bars. Stylized biker gear became a sort of uniform for a segment of the Gay community, featuring engineer boots, crotchless black leather chaps (designed by D.L. Sterling in 1960), and military-style caps. The look - which caught on even among men who had never sat astride a motorcycle - was embodied by Gay artist Tom of Finland's characters, Peter Berlin in the movie Nights in Black Leather (1973), and Glenn Hughes of the disco group the Village People.

Motorcycle club outings, known as runs, typically involved manly activities such as camping trips. But while bikers eschewed the stereotypical Gay male effeminacy of the era, their events often featured grand pageantry and camp of a different sort, including drag shows. Events such as the annual CMC Carnival became popular even among nonbikers, and many men organized their social lives around annual runs such as the Satyrs' Badger Flats outing in the High Sierra. Many motorcycle clubs also performed charitable work, sponsoring holiday toy drives for children and fundraisers that originally assisted injured riders and later helped people with AIDS.

While early Gay motorcycle clubs were men-only, some Lesbians also embraced the lifestyle, forming women's clubs such as the Moving Violations in Boston (1985) and the Sirens in New York City (1986). The most well-known Queer women motorcyclists are the Dykes on Bikes. The original group, which rode in the 1976 San Francisco Pride parade, became a nonprofit officially known as the Women's Motorcycle Contingent. After the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office twice rejected the group's application - claiming the word "dyke" was derogatory and vulgar - it finally registered the name "Dykes on Bikes" in 2005.

Over the years, the nature of Queer motorcycle culture has changed. With the advent of Gay liberation in the late 1960s, many men no longer felt the need for secretive fraternal organizations, and liberal activists rejected the hierarchy and militarism of the early clubs. In the 1980s, the AIDS epidemic devastated the Gay male motorcycle community. With the emergence of groups specifically devoted to leather/SM, motorcycle riding and fetish sexuality diverged as, according to Baldwin, some serious riders were "embarrassed by the erotic visibility of the kinky crowd."

While motorcycle clubs no longer play as prominent a role in the Gay world, the culture continues to thrive, and new clubs emerge, such as the Stonewall Knights in Ft. Lauderdale and the Cavaliers of New Orleans, both founded in 2002. Mirroring trends in the larger GLBT community, many of today's motorcycle clubs welcome members of all genders and sexual orientations. In the words of the organizers of the annual Queer Biker Invasion of Death Valley, being Queer is "a state of mind, and you know if it fits you."

Liz Highleyman is a freelance writer and editor who has written widely on health, sexuality, and politics. She can be reached care of this publication or at PastOut@qsyndicate.com.
 

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