June is Pride Month. Many cities, towns and regions around the world will be filling the whole of June with Pride. And what better subject to head Pride Month than with a group of people who have become synonymous with the head of major Pride parades – the Dykes on Bikes.
Since 2006 the name “Dykes
on Bikes” has become an official registered trade name for an international
organisation that had its origin in 1976, though the phrase itself had been in
use many years beforehand. It was only at the first group participation at the
1976 San Francisco Pride parade that Dykes on Bikes became used by themselves
as an identifying name for their emerging movement.
It is inconceivable that
motorcycle riders of any gender identification had not participated in a Pride
parade or march before 1976. So it is to the credit of the organisers of that
year’s San Francisco parade who decided to put the group of about 25 women
motorcyclists who attended at the front. This was more of a logistical move than
anything else. Maybe some of the organisers had experience of stewarding
previous parades where motorcyclists have ridden in the midst of the walkers
and created a little unintentional concern and no doubt a few squashed toes.
Putting the bikes at the front meant they could be clear of walkers and can
proceed at their own pace, not to mention give a powerfully roaring start to
Groups of motorcyclists
had been appearing in various civic parades since the 1940s, though their
appearances in slower-moving marches like those of the early Pride marches were
less frequent until the marches became less politically motivated and more
In the 1970s seeing a
woman on a motorbike, even in the USA, was not a very common sight. It was a
very male-dominated mode of transport. To see how the Dykes on Bikes got to San
Francisco in the first place we have to go back to before World War II.
Even though the First
World War and female suffrage took the role of women out of the domestic
stereotype and into the traditionally male-dominated industries when the men
were called up for war, the stereotype returned once the war was over. Women,
however, fought to get their full roles in society recognised. Through most of
the remainder of the 20th century women were seen as housewives
rather than bread-winners. Any woman who didn’t conform to the stereotype was
often (derogatively) referred to as a feminist or lesbian, whether they were
actually a feminist or lesbian or not.
We have to go back 100
years to learn of female motorcyclists who made their mark. Mother and daughter
Avis and Effie Hotchkiss hit the headlines in 1915 when they became the first
women to cross the USA on motorbikes. However, this didn’t inspire a flood of
women to take up the machine and very few made their mark until the 1940s. But
there were enough women bikers around by 1940 to encourage the formation of the
Motor Maids, an all-female motorcycle association still in existence today
(it’s a pity they have an awful Disney-style uniform instead of biking
leathers). The Motor Maids were the first female biking group to appear in
parades, the first of which (as far as I’ve been able to verify) was in Ohio in
1943. Most of their parades have been on racing tracks at race meets where they
can ride around at speed.
During the war in the
1940s women were again called up to fill the positions in industry and
engineering vacated by the men enlisted for war. The US War Department also
recruited women for engineering work. The Woman’s Army Corps (WAC) in
particular attracted many volunteers, particularly after 1943 when screening
standards were loosened to help fill the rapidly decreasing work force. It
didn’t go unnoticed by the top brass in the WAC that many lesbians were signing
up for service as a consequence. In response the War Department introduced
regulations banning open lesbians from entering the armed forces.
The chance to work with
engines, vehicles and motorcycles appealed to many women and lesbians who felt
more comfortable with them than spending all day in the kitchen. The added
appeal of being in a predominantly female environment was not lost on lesbians.
During the war many women
gained skills they wouldn’t have had had before, so that by the time the war
was over in 1945 many thousands of women were trained mechanics and very
familiar with the workings of engines on all types of vehicle.
The attitude towards
lesbians in general had not changed and many of them had no choice but to
return to their pre-war closets and kitchens once peace was declared. Some,
however, were able to take advantage of their new-found freedom and refused to
conform to the stereotype. Their openness and determination paved the way for
the more political openness in the 1960s as feminism and lesbian activism
San Francisco has always
been seen as a more progressive and diverse city than others in the USA. So it
comes as no surprise that motorbiking lesbians became more visible in the lgbt
community there than anywhere else. Which means that by the 1970s there were
enough “dykes on bikes” in the city to gather for the 1976 San Francisco Pride,
around 25 of them, and form the first official Dykes on Bikes contingent at the
head of the parade.
Today the Dykes on Bikes
is an international organisation with 22 chapters around the globe. As they
enter their 40th year next month the organisation is as strong as
ever, and when they celebrate their 40th anniversary in 2016 they
could make an appearance at next year’s Nottinghamshire Pride parade.