Motorcycle clubs, a mainstay of American 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. The popularity of motorcycles grew during World War II, as motorcyclists were regarded as something of a modern-day cavalry. 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 likewise sought 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," according to author Guy Baldwin. Gay and straight men alike embraced the image of the outlaw biker as a free-spirited rebel, as exemplified by the 1953 Marlon Brando film, The Wild One.
The first gay motorcycle club in the United States was the Satyrs, founded in Los Angeles in 1954. The earliest Northern California club was the Warlocks, started in 1960; by the mid-1960s, San Francisco's South of Market district had become a hotbed of the gay motorcycle scene. While California continued to host the greatest concentration of clubs, similar groups cropped up around the country. The Empire City Motorcycle Club of New York City, founded in 1964, claims to be the oldest ongoing GLBT organization east of the Rockies.
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, and military-style caps.
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 pageantry and camp of a different sort, including drag shows. 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 original Dykes on Bikes, who first rode in the 1976 San Francisco Pride parade, became a nonprofit officially known as the Women's Motorcycle Contingent.
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. 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."
Today, gay motorcycle culture continues to thrive, and new clubs emerge. Mirroring trends in the larger GLBT community, many of today's 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."
For further information:
- Baldwin, Guy. 1993. Ties That Bind (Daedalus).
- Bloom, Scott. 2005. Original Pride: The Satyrs Motorcycle Club (documentary).
- Guggenheim Museum. 1998. Motorcycle Mania: The Biker Book (Universe).
Liz Highleyman is a freelance writer and editor who has written widely on health, sexuality, and politics.
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