Friday, September 20, 2002

Motorcycles and Leather

(Leather Life column published in Lavender Magazine, Issue #191, September 20, 2002)

Why do motorcycles have such a hold on the imagination of the leather tribe? Why did last year’s International Mr. Drummer contestants make their entrances on bikes? Why are the Dykes on Bikes such crowd-pleasers at Pride parades? Because motorcycles are butch—they are probably the butchest form of transportation available to the average person without access to a tank, Stealth bomber or Humvee.

A romance (a very butch romance, mind you) is connected with the image of bikes, bikers and biker culture that was a seminal influence on the early leather scene (and that continues to influence leather culture to this day).

In post-WWII America, bikers were gangs of modern-day cowboys on their internal-combustion-powered stallions following the lure of the open road, independent souls who lived life as they pleased, adventurous rebels who followed their own rules rather than conform to society’s norms.

That reputation was splashed all over the silver screen in 1954 when Marlon Brando appeared in The Wild Ones wearing black leather and leading a motorcycle gang that terrorized a small town. The gang/rogue imagery was a bit intimidating and off-putting to most Americans.

This reaction was so pervasive at the time that motorcycle sales suffered as a result. Honda tried to counter that image by running ads full of clean-scrubbed, Ivy-League riders and non-threatening, upbeat Beach Boys-style voices singing “You meet the nicest people on a Honda.”

Homosexual men returning from military service in World War II, however, embraced the rebel image—which fit their feelings of being rebels and outcasts from the rest of society. They used this image to build their own culture.

Gay male leather clubs like The Atons and The Black Guard in the Twin Cities grew out of gay motorcycle clubs like The Satyrs, founded in Los Angeles in 1954 and now the oldest continuously operating gay organization in the country. (News flash: a gay motorcycle club has formed in the Twin Cities—see below for details.)

Although most of heterosexual society was too polite to mention it, or was perhaps too repressed to even notice, the erotic appeal of bikes and bikers was not lost on gay men. The image of the biker represented masculinity and power (“My, look at that big powerful machine between your legs!”). A biker’s chaps were a perfect frame for interesting areas of the body both fore and aft. The experience of riding with a buddy, holding on to him or having him hold on to you, was a permissible public intimacy. One attraction of a bike couldn’t really be seen but could certainly be felt: the vibration of the engine on the areas framed by the chaps.

When I was just getting into leather, one of the most impressive sights I remember seeing on a visit to San Francisco was the long row of bikes parked outside the San Francisco Eagle. At closing time I stood in front of the bar and watched as each bike was mounted (notice the imagery) by one or maybe two men who proceeded to ride off into the night. The image fascinated me then and still fascinates me today.

No matter how fascinating motorcycles are, though, there’s no escaping the fact that they are not always the most practical method of transportation. One almost has to be something of a rebel and an outlaw, or at least stubborn, to ride a machine that has so many disadvantages.

Downside: Motorcycles are not cheap transportation—the bike itself can cost as much as a car, and then there are the accessories: helmet, saddlebags, and all that leather riding apparel. If you want cheap transportation, buy a used Hyundai. Upside: Bikes are cheap to operate, although few Americans riders care. In Europe people ride motorcycles or motor scooters because the streets are narrow and gasoline is much more expensive. In America, land of wide-open spaces and relatively cheap gasoline, those aren’t major considerations.

Downside: Motorycles offer no heating, no air conditioning and no weather shielding. That makes them spectacularly unsuited for places like Minnesota, where good days for riding are vastly outnumbered by bad ones. Winter is too cold and icy, and black leather can get awfully hot and sticky on a sweltering summer day. If it happens to rain while you’re riding, you have a choice: duck under a freeway overpass and get out the rain poncho (which is even hotter and more stifling than your riding leathers), or keep going and get soaking wet. Possible erotic upside: If the leathers, and you, are rain-soaked (or perhaps better yet, sweat-soaked) when you get home, perhaps there’s someone waiting there who will sensuously peel all that wet leather and other clothing off you.

Downside: A motorcycle actually produces more exhaust emissions than a car—if you really want to be environmentally friendly, ride a bicycle. Upside: Because there are so relatively few motorcycles on the road, the total emissions produced by motorcycles are basically insignificant in the overall air-pollution picture. Currently the government is more concerned with emissions from power lawn equipment and outboard motors.

Downside: Motorcycles obviously aren’t as safe as automobiles. Riding leathers and helmets offer some protection, but in a contest between the driver of a car (or an SUV or an eighteen-wheeler) and a motorcyclist, guess who’s going to get hurt worse? Upside: Of course, in some cases that very danger is part of the excitement and thrill of riding; in that sense, cycles can be looked at as another form of edge play.

Automobiles and motorcycles have been around for about the same length of time, but there are practical advantages to automobiles that have allowed them to become the basic form of personal transportation in this country. Motorcycles, meanwhile, are transportation that’s anything but basic. They’re fun, and they make any journey an adventure. Oh, and—did I already say this?—they’re butch, too.

Twin City Riders, a New Gay Motorcycle Club

A new gay motorcycle club called Twin City Riders is in the process of forming. They currently have five members and three bikes, and are looking for more of both. If you’re interested, e-mail

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