Friday, July 21, 2006

Cruisin’ with the Twin City Riders

(Leather Life column published in Lavender Magazine, Issue #291, July 21, 2006)

PHOTO: Members of the Twin City Riders at this year’s Ashley Rukes GLBT Pride Parade.

Every year, what group gets the Twin Cities Ashley Rukes GLBT Pride Parade off to a roaring start? The famous and beloved Dykes on Bikes, of course. But this year there was another group of gay motorcycle riders in the parade, revving their engines and getting cheers from the crowd: The Twin City Riders, or TCRiders for short. They were the guys on motorbikes following the 75-foot-long rainbow and leather-pride flags.

The Twin City Riders is a group of GLBT motorcyclists living in the Minneapolis/St. Paul metropolitan area, and in outstate Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, and North and South Dakota. The mission of the group, as stated on their web site (<>, is simple: to build friendship and camaraderie through group rides.

Last summer the Twin City Riders experienced their first full summer of riding (although their Yahoo! group dates back to 2003), and their second season of weekly rides is going strong. Every Sunday during riding season as many as twelve to fifteen riders make their weekend trek.

Riders are mostly gay men, but women and non-gay men ride too. Riders sometimes bring friends as passengers on their bike, or friends who have their own bike. Everyone is welcome, as long as you have a passion for motorbikes.

Every kind of cycle is welcome, too, from touring bikes to cruisers to sport bikes (also known as crotch rockets). Harley-Davidson, Honda, Yamaha and BMW are just some of the makes represented by current riders.

How is the group organized? Very loosely. There is an internet presence in the form of their Yahoo! group, but there are no bylaws, officers or dues. They don’t have back patches on their vests—they haven’t even talked about it. According to group member Ed Skjaret, “People who have belonged to clubs sometimes get burned out on politics. This isn’t that—this is just a Sunday ride.”

Riders meet at The Minneapolis Eagle at noon Sunday for brunch and to decide where they’re going to ride that day. They leave about 1 PM and return to the Eagle about 6 PM. (Some of them stay for the Eagle’s Sunday beer bust.)

The group might decide to ride from Hastings to Red Wing and then to Prescott, Wis. before grabbing a burger at Dick’s Bar & Grill in Hudson, Wis. or in Stillwater. Or they may ride west to Buffalo or north to Taylor’s Falls. Last year they rode to Madison, Wis. for the Madison GLBT Pride celebration, and this year they plan to ride to Duluth for their GLBT Pride celebration.

Sometimes during the week riders meet at Betty’s Bikes & Buns in northeast Minneapolis, or they may join the big biker gathering on the first Thursday of each month at Dulono’s Pizza on Lake St.

Members of the group take their riding, their cycles and their safety seriously. On the road they ride “in formation.” That means they alternate where in the traffic lane they ride—one rides on the side of the center line, while riders before and after ride on the “ditch side.” This enhances safety by providing better vision and a further view down the road for riders in the group (because they don’t have another rider directly in front of them). Also, riding in formation separates riders from each other by a distance of about fifteen feet in all directions, which also enhances safety.

Several riders have taken or are taking advanced motorcycle safety courses offered by the Minnesota Motorcycle Safety Association. These courses help riders be prepared for emergencies when they happen—say, when a car pulls out in front of a cycle, or when a car makes a left turn into the path of a cycle behind them. If the car had seen the motorcycle they wouldn’t have created such an unsafe situation—that’s what all those “Start Seeing Motorcycles” bumper stickers are about.

The Twin City Riders carry on a long tradition. Old-guard gay leather culture started with bikers in the 1950s who would cruise through Griffith Park in Los Angeles. The Satyrs of Los Angeles (<>) recently celebrated their 50th anniversary and have the distinction of being the oldest continually operating GLBT club/organization (not just biker club, but any kind of GLBT club or organization) in the country.

If you want to join the Twin City Riders for a ride, check out their Yahoo! group, or just show up at The Minneapolis Eagle on Sunday at noon. The group will be riding through October.

Friday, July 7, 2006

The Church of the Holy Circuit

(Leather Life column published in Lavender Magazine, Issue #290, July 7, 2006)

PHOTO: Excalibur, Chicago

Come with me now to Excalibur, “the best nightclub in Chicago.” It’s the Monday evening after the International Mr. Leather contest, and time for the Black & Blue Ball—the final official event of the IML weekend and one of the events on “the circuit” (as was Sunday night’s post-contest “Salute” party at Chicago’s famous House of Blues). This is where leathermen and circuit boys intersect.

(For the uninitiated, “the circuit” means circuit parties, a series of gay men’s dance parties held in major cities around the country and the world throughout the year. Just as a distinct culture has grown up around leather runs and title contests, a similar culture has grown up around circuit parties.)

They probably haven’t thought about it, but for many gay leathermen and gay men in general this and other circuit parties serve many of the purposes that churches serve or, in many instances, formerly served. Those who worry about the future of organized religion, and who wonder where the church is headed in the twenty-first century, will find ample food for thought here. (Perhaps it’s not coincidental that some of the most enduring music played at circuit parties is by an artist named Madonna, and her new album is called “Confessions on a Dance Floor.”)

The building that houses Excalibur was originally built in 1892 to house the Chicago Historical Society. The building’s architectural style is Romanesque Revival, based on the 11th- and 12th-century architecture of Spain and France. The building, clad in red granite, has turrets, high-peaked and steeply sloped roofs, arched windows and even a cathedral-like rose window. It looks vaguely church-like except for the absence of crosses on the roof peaks.

Entering through an ornate, dark portico, one finds oneself in a large central entrance lobby surrounded by other rooms (side chapels?). As with all great cathedrals, the building’s interior is decorated with stunning art, mostly contemporary photographs and including some interesting collage pieces. The ceilings are decoratively painted, and even the floors are ornate. Up the grand staircase from the main lobby is the main dance floor, surrounded by four levels of balconies and topped by high, steeply peaked ceilings.

The evening’s DJ, Matthew Harvat, is situated in a loft overlooking the dance floor. Like the organist or music director in a church, the DJ at a circuit party is responsible for picking music that will lead to the greatest inspiration and spiritual uplift. The beat of the music inspires bliss, and the messages in the lyrics celebrate love, music, fairness, justice, brotherhood and respect for self and others. Most of the vocals are sung by soulful female voices straight out of a gospel choir.

This is what the disco music of the early 1970s, the post-Stonewall years, has become. Some of tonight’s musical selections, in fact, are reissues or remakes of classic 70s disco—notice this word—anthems.

The music, and the bliss it inspires, are also reminiscent of the idealistic, positive, hopeful and politically-charged 1960s. One song exhorts listeners to “keep the faith.” (Unfortunately, too often circuit-party bliss-seeking involves drugs—another way in which this scene hearkens back to the 1960s.)

The effect of the music is enhanced by a fantastic light show that uses every trick in the book. Computer-controlled lights quickly and continuously change position, color and pattern, sending light beams cascading around the room. There are also lasers, strobe lights, fog machines and a mirrored disco ball. (In its time, the stained glass in twelfth-century cathedrals also served as an awe-inspiring light show.)

Everyone on the dance floor is male, in leather and, according to my gaydar, gay. But within that demographic it’s a diverse mix: black, white, Latino, Asian, etc. The age of crowd members ranges from the twenties to the sixties. Some are gym-buffed and some are not. But everyone is beautiful. No one seems to notice or care about ethnicity, age or physique—everyone here is equal.

The men are busy disproving the old adage that “Leathermen don’t dance.” The dancing is sensual and sultry. These guys know how to move and how to seduce. If dancing has always been a surrogate for sex, here it’s not too far removed.

Unlike traditional churches, circuit parties do not concern themselves with ritualistically marking, celebrating and commemorating life stages—baptisms, weddings, funerals, etc. The action on the dance floor is very much centered, like Buddhism, in the here and now. In that sense it is timeless or out-of-time, if only for an evening. It is an escape from the ordinary and the mundane, although not a permanent one.

But for tonight, it will do. Tonight, this is sacred space for these men and this tribe. Tonight, Excalibur is their cathedral and the Black & Blue Ball is their proverbial Sunday morning service on, in this case, Monday night.

This is their own kind of Sabbath rites and rituals. They are dressed in their version of Sunday Best, which in this case involves lots of leather, lots of body jewelry and lots of skin. This is their version of bliss-seeking, using their bodies to reach spirit, transcendence, liberation—the kind of liberation that started with Stonewall and just keeps evolving.