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    San Francisco Dykes on Bikes® Women’s Motorcycle Contingent Celebrates 45 Years at the Front

    By Kate Brown, Ph.D., Editing by Elisabeth Warren, Sheila Malone, and Brooke Oliver–

    Revving engines, loud pipes, and cheering passengers of the San Francisco Dykes on Bikes® Women’s Motorcycle Contingent (WMC) greet the crowds on Market Street, a tradition entrenched in San Francisco’s annual LGBTQ+ Pride celebration. It’s no wonder that the iconic images of rebellious, independent women riding powerful motorcycles are repeated in Pride Parades the world over, creating a global thunderous cacophony of noise and a rallying cry for queer motorcyclists.

    The movement that started with queer and lesbian San Francisco motorcyclists in the 1970s endures to this day; recognized as being officially established in 1976, the San Francisco Dykes on Bikes® WMC celebrates its 45th anniversary this year. The San Francisco Dykes on Bikes® WMC is the nonprofit mother chapter for Dykes on Bikes® at a national and international level, with chapters in the United States as well as Canada, the United Kingdom, Germany, Iceland, Australia, and New Zealand, each operating with a unified mission of supporting philanthropic endeavors in the LGBTQ+ and women’s motorcycle communities and to reach out to empower a community of diverse women through rides, charity events, Pride events, and education.  

    Landmark Freedom of Expression Case

    While widely known for its commanding presence in the Pride Parade, San Francisco Dykes on Bikes® also played a critical role in helping overturn an unconstitutional law, part of the Lanham Act, in what is hailed as one of the most important Freedom of Expression legal cases in years. In 2003, more than 20 years after a group of 20 to 25 women motorcyclists took their position at the start of San Francisco’s then-named Gay Freedom Day March, the Board of Directors of the small nonprofit organization decided to register “Dykes on Bikes” with the United States Patent Trademark Office (USPTO) in order to ensure the term was preserved for nonprofit use in the LGBTQ+ community. What should have been a straightforward process became a thirteen-year legal journey that eventually took the group to the United States Supreme Court after the USPTO rejected “Dykes on Bikes” on the grounds that “dyke” is a disparaging term and derogatory to lesbians.

    Under the legal leadership of Brooke Oliver (then of 50 Balmy Law, P.C., now at Procopio, Cory, Hargreaves & Savitch LLP) and with support of the National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR) and Townsend and Townsend, San Francisco Dykes on Bikes® aggressively challenged this argument, presenting declarations in 2005 from more than two dozen expert witnesses, including scholars, lexicologists, activists, artists, and historians, that “dyke” is not disparaging to lesbians, but rather the LGBTQ+ community views “Dykes on Bikes” as a symbol of pride and empowerment.

    Dykes on Bikes® was finally registered with the USPTO in 2007; however, when the group later went to register a trademark for its logo, which contains the same words, it was again denied by the USPTO on the grounds the word “dyke” is disparaging to lesbians. In 2016, with a pro-bono legal team again led by Brooke Oliver and including Shannon Minter from NCLR, renowned constitutional law practitioners Tobias Barrington Wolff, Michael Feldman, and Mark Lemley, the San Francisco Dykes on Bikes® filed an Amicus Brief in the U.S. Supreme Court case of Matal vs. Tam.

    In the brief, the Dykes on Bikes® argued that it has heightened protection for political speech under the First Amendment, including the reclaimed and self-referential term “dyke,” as well as the importance of trademark protection to nonprofits like Dykes on Bikes® for preventing infringement. In a 2017 unanimous decision, the Supreme Court found it unconstitutional to prohibit trademark registration of a mark by the United States Patent Trademark Office based on what a trademark examiner may consider disparaging language. The decision struck down part of the Lanham Act, is considered one of the most important Freedom of Expression cases in years, and marks a major victory for the LGBTQ+ community.

    San Francisco Dykes on Bikes® has continued to pursue intellectual property and trademarks to ensure that the wordmark Dykes on Bikes, logo, and other intellectual property are protected from commercialization and reserved for nonprofit use within the LGBTQ+ community, having secured registrations in the European Union and England and pending approval in Canada of “Dykes on Bikes” for use in nonprofit education, parades, and certain material goods.

    Global Reach and Pride

    What started in the late ‘70s as an unorganized group of defiant lesbian motorcycle enthusiasts has evolved into a worldwide network of riders. Patch-holders from chapters as far away as London, England; and Melbourne, Australia; have traveled to join the San Francisco Dykes on Bikes® and the hundreds of motorcycles that lead the San Francisco Pride Parade. Likewise, members of the European and Australian chapters often participate in Pride parades with neighboring local chapters.

    In the early to mid-2000s, as many as 450 motorcyclists would participate in the Parade. While hundreds of riders participate in the Parade on Pride Sunday, it is a small group of active patch-holders that ride together throughout the year and constitute the organization that is the San Francisco Dykes on Bikes® Women’s Motorcycle Contingent. It is this group that prepares in the months leading up to June, finding volunteers to help register and line up riders early on Pride Sunday and securing the Road Captains who will help ensure motorcyclist safety for the duration of the short, but exhilarating Pride Parade Ride.

    The San Francisco Dykes on Bikes® organizers work throughout the weekend of Pride, arriving at Market Street as early as 6:30 am the morning of the Parade to begin preparations to register and line up eager and excited Pride celebrants and their motorcycles. And following the Parade, after all the motorcycles have parked, this small group takes a much-needed break, enjoying what is now a tradition of lunch together while they relive the joyful chaos of the previous four and a half hours. More than once, one will hear a patch-holding member exclaim about the entire day’s activities: “It’s so much work—but it’s always worth it.”

    Looking Towards 50+

    While 2021’s LGBTQ+ Pride celebrations were markedly different from the typical Parade down Market Street, the San Francisco Dykes on Bikes® WMC was still there to kick off events. The June SF Pride Movie Night at Oracle Park included the surprise presence of Dykes on Bikes® riding around the compressed dirt track that defines the playing field inside the San Francisco Giants stadium—a truly unique motorcycle route. 2021 also marked the second year that the San Francisco Dykes on Bikes® escorted the Pink Torch Procession through Oakland and San Francisco, proudly taking the Torch on the last leg of the journey to the top of Twin Peaks where Mayor Breed and Speaker Pelosi symbolically lit Patrick Carney’s Pink Triangle canvas with 2700 pink LED lights from the nonprofit art organization Illuminate.     

    In 2021, as San Francisco Dykes on Bikes® WMC celebrates its 45th anniversary, the members are already looking towards their 50th and beyond. Under the direction and guidance of Emeritus Patchholder Dr. Sheila Malone, the group has begun the archival process for close to 5 decades worth of material encompassing everything from meeting minutes to party fliers, chapter patches to photographs, and even motorcycle tanks and personal effects of key figures within the Dykes on Bikes community.

    The San Francisco Dykes on Bikes® is proud of its role in the history of LGBTQ+ rights and equality. The organization is working to ensure that its story is properly preserved and made accessible to anyone seeking to learn more about the history of Dykes on Bikes® as well as individual members, past and present, who embrace with dignity their identity as dykes every time their motorcycles rumble down Market Street, an audible and visual confirmation of LGBTQ+ equality.     

    Kate Brown, Ph.D., is the President of San Francisco Dykes on Bikes® Women’s Motorcycle Contingent.

    Published on August 26, 2021