Tuesday, 2 June 2015

Taking the Lead

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 the parade.

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 community centred.

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 developed.

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.

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