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Something unexpected pops up while I'm riding bitch on a motorcycle: an erection. I'm on the first run of the season to Cold Spring, New York, with members of the City Cruisers, one of two gay motorcycle clubs in New York City. It's a cool, gray morning as seven motorcycles make their way past groups of spandexed bicyclists along Route 9W toward a leisurely lunch in the sleepy Hudson River Valley hamlet. The frequent stopping and starting—first in city traffic, then at traffic signals—lends a sexual rhythm to trying to hold on to the 600-pound street Harley and the black-jacketed driver in front. Each jerk of the brake brings crotch to ass and makes hanging on during white-knuckle acceleration an absurd Kegel-style exercise in trying not to slide off the end of the backless passenger seat.
But even without all the bucking, doesn't a sexual response to a motorcycle seem apt? Consider such über-gay signifiers as Marlon Brando's low-slung muir cap in the 1953 film The Wild One; outsize sexual organs in Tom of Finland's jodhpur-clad cops; and Kenneth Anger's description of his 1964 film Scorpio Rising ("Thanatos in chrome and black leather and bursting jeans").
For gay men, taking to the open road has never been a straight path, but rather what tattooed Cruisers president Paul Yannuzzi likes to call a journey of "twisties." The macho gay male archetype first gunned its throttle as a rejection of 1950s suburban conformity, when the first gay motorcycle clubs were formed. Empire City Motorcycle Club, the country's first gay organization for which a motorcycle was required to join, was founded in New York way back in October 1964—five years before Stonewall. The macho archetype peaked with the mustachioed post–gay liberation clones of the 1970s, but motorcycles remain an integral part of the mystique—witness all the porn shot with a motorcycle as a prop. Since then, the hyper-sexualized, leather-clad biker has gone the way of the sexual outlaw, as "gay" has come to mean less an outsider than a pillar of the community, and "daddy" no longer an older macho man but an honest-to-Pete father.
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Despite the name—a pun on the national gay pastime—the Cruisers are a case study in gay mainstreaming. They were founded as—and remain, first and foremost—a recreational club that sees motorcycling as a sport, and a solo one at that. Even their annual trip to the notorious Poconos campground Hillside finds most members opting out of any promised bacchanal. Sex, in fact, was the reason that the Cruisers emerged from Empire City as a splinter organization 13 years ago. "Empire City was a traditional leather motorcycle club," Paul Jeanneret, one of the original Cruisers who broke off from Empire City, explains. "They were much more involved in the leather community, and we really wanted to be a club that was focused around the riding and not so much around the leather activities at other clubs."
Mark Wind is about the riding, too, but even more about the destination—especially when that destination has "leather activities" on the bill. The treasurer of Empire City, Wind joined in 1975, when the club was already more than a decade old. A psychologist and interfaith minister, he still has an obvious affinity for the leather scene.
Wind fondly recalls roaring up to the old Ramrod, a bar on the West Side Highway, on the back of a hog in the early 1970s, and turning more than heads. "Back then, it was pre-HIV, so the worst thing you could get was something you needed a shot for, or A200," he notes. Over the years, the group has lost many members to AIDS. But attrition has taken a larger toll, especially the formation of the breakaway Cruisers in 1996. Empire City currently has only seven or eight members, including associates, to the Cruisers' 40.
The two groups are currently fighting over who will follow the Sirens, the women's motorcycle club known as "Dykes on Bikes," who have been opening the Gay Pride March since 1986. So how did a female bike club come to represent LGBTs on bikes? Candida Scott Piel, who ran the organization that puts on the march during the mid-'80s, says that placing the gals' bikes at the head of the March was a purely logistical decision. Motorcycles tend to stall in stop-and-start traffic. "If there was drama, it didn't come across my desk," Piel says. "It was strictly about who was organized enough to come to a training so we could tell them how they're supposed to tune their engines. The male bike clubs never reached out to us; the women's did."
Besides, back then, men's motorcycle groups were happy to march with the leather contingents. "There were a lot of bike clubs," Piel notes, "but there weren't that many that were actively biking." Wind, too, recounts a bygone era of "motorcycle clubs," whose members dressed the part while never riding, much less owning, hogs.
Today, both clubs are all about the motorcycles, which is why they require all members to have one. "Everybody avoids someone on the back," LaCapra, an architect and Cruisers member for the past seven years, says. "I think a lot of them have boyfriends, but I don't usually see the boyfriends. It's a way to get away and think. It's a good way to get into your own head. It's nice that you're with people, but you're not really with them."
In Wind's office, framed pictures of his Harley Road King surround a photo of his partner, who seemed only to squeeze into the frame because he's perched on Wind's hog. When a member of the Cruisers fishes a photo from his wallet and beams proudly, it's not of a boyfriend—it's of his bike.
"It's really about the riding, meeting up and going on the ride, then going out to dinner," LaCapra says. It's a world away from the Hell's Angels image still cherished by many straight bikers. If there are queer bad-boy bikers, they are a dying breed. "The older guys—the ones who started it—are more into the leather," LaCapra agrees.
He also sees any sort of sexual response to biking culture as something that's typified by an outsider-looking-in gaze, and one that won't last. And what about that hot flash I experienced on the Cold Spring ride? LaCapra empathizes, but not a lot. "It's very stimulating," he says, shrugging. For him, it's less about sexual frisson and more about mechanical vibrations. "You can just throttle and go super-fast. It's like having your own roller coaster."