Gay culture, camp concerns and motorcycling have been long term bed fellows, and Planet Bike is all the richer for it. We still need each other…
Biking has always had a special affinity with the gay world. Consider: the outsider image, with its stylised accoutrements and defined look; the thrill of the machines, and the implicit rejection of the straight, risk averse majority; the male camaraderie – all these things resonated in the bars of California’s naval ports and dockyards (already familiar landmarks on the queer map), when and where it all began: as the great disembarkation following WW2 got underway.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF BUTCH
Prior to which, motorcycling was simply another transport option – albeit one illuminated by the occasional iconic individual, such as T.E. Lawrence (of Arabia). The concept of biking as an alternative lifestyle was a direct consequence of port de-mobilisation on a grand scale: not everyone wanted to give up on the adrenaline rush of action, in the company of like minded colleagues: not everyone – irrespective of orientation – wanted to go home. The easy availability of ex-military machines sealed the deal. Biking had something of the thrill of combat, but with less hanging around, and no officers. From this melting pot the concept of biker clubs emerged, encompassing men of all persuasions with a common love of motorcycles and a disregard for peacetime norms.
Once you have a bike, you need the gear. Leather may have been adopted as a practical material, but by the 1950s had transgressed into the world of SM and fetish: facilitated in San Francisco by the cross over of gay men into the biker community. Although there are a number of self designated gay biker clubs – including NYC’s all female Sirens (patch below) – some with a history dating back to the late 40s, the majority of gay men (and women) have become assimilated into all areas of biking. Yet to this day the image of motorcycling has a strange, contradictory duality about it.
The original concept of the biker as a macho, hetero outsider, with an inherent disregard for legal constraints and a taste for wild living and pack hunting, has proved to be surprisingly robust. It is perhaps an image some of us are comfortable with perpetuating – especially if we loathe the idea of biking as just another tame commodity. Rape and pillage may have been regretfully replaced – by utilising performance that other road users can only dream of: the vast majority of us live well outside the constraints of legal limits when riding, a disregard for the law which may or may not continue off the bike. Whether we ride sportsbikes in solitude, or fly the patch in the company of fellow club members, that element of otherness is always be tangible. It’s easy to see how the image continued to interface positively with gay culture, and less so elsewhere. Riding a bike remains an ambiguous social statement, despite the best efforts of the industry to bring it into the mainstream.
After all, we’re talking about a culture in which women traditionally played a very secondary role, and – despite the exceptions – continue to do so. One in which men voluntarily and preferentially associated with other men, complete with uniform and accessories – the very stuff of fetish. Thus the butch, macho, predatory element becomes sexually indiscriminate and ambivalent – precisely the same interpretation accorded to other tough, predominantly male pursuits by a sceptical, worldly audience. Yet nothing else has the same overall degree of ambivalence as biking. It is both gay and straight, legal and illegal, with its club aficionados and lone wolves – all of whom it simultaneously empowers while rendering vulnerable. That is the nature of the beast. These apparent contradictions are what make it all so compelling, so dynamic. Long may they reign: the minute a culture is defined, the marketing men move in. Sometimes the imagery gives the game away…
But beware those acres of chrome and studded leather, the flowing tassels, the mare-brush assaults of flame, white horses, forked lightening and inflated breasts, because they signify a radical pursuit made safe, middle aged and predictable. What was once minimal, cut back, and bobbed has become bloated and branded. Seen it that light, sportsbikes seem like an essential refutation of the too muchness of Cruiserworld – too much weight, too much bad taste, and too high visibility. But wait. What of the the sadly ill fitting leathers, the questionable colour schemes, the sameness of the hardware, the unselfconscious Power Rangerdom? What Cruiserworld and the PRs have in common is a lack of style, of individuality: Planet Bike can also be a very conservative place, in the worst sense of the word. Make no mistake: biking needs its aesthetes and stylists, because without them it always threatens to become stodgy and tasteless.
Fortunately, there are people out there who have not forgotten that style is an essential component in biking, whether they are riding machines or building them. There’s evidence of a new, visually literate design aesthetic at work, in retreat from our cumbersome core heritage of heavy bikes and heavy metal. Less is generally more in terms of bike aesthetics. Customisation started as a minimalist philosophy: there are welcome signs that its time has come again. There is a new sharpness out there, very much born of visual awareness and style, concepts which have always been highly prioritised in gay culture. Mercifully, biking still has it own subcultures, even if there is a whiff of endangered species about them: rockers, rats and so on. There is still a spark that corporations and lifestyle brands can not extinguish.
The public face of motorcycling – in global terms – inevitably belongs to our sporting megastars; which in reality is (still) a class of one. Never underestimate the cultural significance of Mr. Rossi. Had his sporting achievements – phenomenal though they are – been the sum total of his contribution, he would not, today, be a global brand. Here is somebody who with charm – and lashings of camp style – has deconstructed the macho posturing conventionally associated with bike racing. In doing so, he has incomparably widened the appeal of motorcycling.
Camp humour is not exclusively confined to homosexuals; but it is very good at deflating entrenched stereotypes, and exposing the pompous and the charmless. When Rossi rides side-saddle in celebration of victory, he is not merely showing off, largeing it. In adopting the traditional posture of a lady on horseback – as is his wont – he is sending a very particular signal. One which reminds us that however serious the competition, the feast needs leavening: this is a sport, after all. (Which is incredibly refreshing in a world of po-faced, monosyllabic sporting champions – so tediously familiar to F1 fans over recent years.) It also suggests that his own orientation is questionable, irrespective of the actual truth. It’s clever stuff: by implying sexual ambivalence, no one is left out: everyone can share in the moment – and the market. Furthermore, this ambivalence is being expressed in a world which has consistently portrayed itself as uber straight (a myth, incidentally, which the bike media perpetuates by repeating and celebrating). It is impossible to imagine a more camp conceit than that celebration (although some of his other efforts have come close, notably the Robin Hood incarnation), and motorcycling is all the more healthy for it. No wonder Dorna regard any talk of Rossi’s abdication for fresh pastures as heresy. But why do we need this populism and inclusivity if we are trying to avoid becoming just another consumer lifestyle?
Motorcyclists in Europe are an ageing demographic, and display many of the signs of being immune to the greater realities: cultural, political. But in today’s world, no group can exist in isolation. We need input, fresh ideas, radical thinking on all fronts: survival depends on evolution. Tolerance, on the whole, leads to an enriched experience. Its greatest attribute is that it encourages the individual to express him/herself without fear of sanction. We need the antics of our more flamboyant brothers and sisters, whether or not they are multiple world champions. If we value our freedom as bikers – the freedom to choose differently, currently threatened by legislation within the EEC – we need people on board who think differently, irrespective of orientation.
All the better if they bring a sense of style with them……
FRANK and GARRY’S TAKE…
Frank and Garry are a gay couple: Frank rides a Commando, Garry a a Monster S2R. There’s also an elderly XT 600 and a Vespa in their garage, ‘our London hacks’ as Garry puts it. I met them on a quiet Monday evening down the Ace – Frank works nearby. There’s little to distinguish them from the usual crowd, unless it’s a rather understated look – but their well worn, plain black leather jackets are quality and well cut. Both wear denims; Garry sports a Ducati T shirt.
Frank does his own spanner work on the Commando. In his late forties, he’s (just) old enough to have lusted over new Nortons as a spotty adolescent, and remembers the first incarnation of the Ace as a child (Garry is ten years younger). Frank detects some Norton DNA in the air-cooled Ducati – and I discern his influence in the Italian bike’s purchase and maintenance – but we’re not here to talk bikes. We’re here to talk about the riders.
FRANK: Guys look the part – or think they look the part – but far fewer live it day in day out these days, straight or gay. The bike used to be in the middle of your life: now its weekend entertainment, like clubbing or shopping. It has lost something in that transition.
GARRY: It’s weird because you can buy performance off the shelf like never before, and yet some connection has been severed. Our own bikes have something intangible: soul. Neither are that practical, but we wouldn’t have it any other way.
FRANK : When we ride, we’re bikers first and gay second: in other words, we don’t ride partly because we’re gay. We’re not into bikes primarily because of their undoubted gay resonance – although I know quite a few who are. Butch gays in particular are into that, but a lot of them are more interested in the clobber than getting their hands dirty. Some use biking to advance their gay credentials. On the West Coast (of the USA, not Wales) it’s common for a butch gay to have a hog and his bitch (boyfriend) on the back, quite openly. Its a much more out scene. Garry may know more about it. (laughs)
GARRY : Yeah I spent some time over there – and it’s true: biking has become ‘scene’ in gay terms but then it always has been to an extent, especially in the States. No self respecting Angel would dream of admitting the connection between the genesis of outlaw biking and gay culture, but they’re indivisible, and the scene in California celebrates that. Over here it is utterly different, gay bikers want to blend in, on the whole. Fair enough. The GBMCC is in many ways just like any other bike club, which kind of begs the question as to why members don’t simply join their local club or whatever. You can hide behind an interest group.
FRANK : No disrespect to them, but the reason they don’t is because they seem themselves as being gay first, even when they’re riding. Otherwise, why bother joining a gay bike club? Sure, they do track days and so on but they do them from the perspective of being GBMCC members. Their choice. For me it’s about the bikes, and riding them, its not about hooking up with other gay men and erm broadening one’s riding activity. (laughs)
I asked them what they thought of my analysis that (among other things) a gay aesthetic added style to biking: they’d both read the leather boy piece (above).
GARRY : I think the piece is both right and wrong. It’s wrong because it assumes that gay input will bring style and originality to the party by default. It might, but style is not the exclusive prerogative of gay men. You seem to be making a plea for a more individual outlook in bikers, a rejection of corporate mentality, and I happen to think that we’d all benefit from that, but again, I wouldn’t leave the instigation to gay men.
FRANK : But we both agree that you’re right about inclusivity. Biking PLC needs to embrace all bikers, and I mean all of them, from the HA to the GBMCC to couriers, because there is a challenge: look at what happened in North Wales, look at Brussels, look at Westminster. That means welcoming new recruits on scooters. I love the outsider element of biking, but in order to protect that you have to open your arms from time to time.
And so say all of us….