Should they all be dykes on those bikes?

Community members debate the future of the Portland Pride Parade’s biker contingent

How the head of Portland’s Pride parade is going to look in the years ahead is far from settled. Photo by Julie Cortez, PQ Monthly
How the head of Portland’s Pride parade is going to look in the years ahead is far from settled. Photo by Julie Cortez, PQ Monthly
By Julie Cortez, PQ Monthly

For those who line the streets of downtown Portland and cities across the nation every year, the roar of engines followed by the sight of leather-clad bodies astride gleaming motorcycles have become an instantly recognizable signal that their wait is over — the “Dykes on Bikes” are here, and the Pride parade has begun.

It’s a dramatic entrance by a contingent that, until recently in Portland, drew little drama or much notice about how it came together — or who was invited to ride.

In some cities, many of the riders are patched members of a Dykes on Bikes® motorcycle club — such as in San Francisco, where the tradition began in 1976; in others, participants are often referred to as Dykes on Bikes despite the lack of an official DOB chapter. Portland fell into the latter category until last month, when the Dykes on Bikes® Portland, Oregon Chapter was officially approved by the San Francisco Dykes on Bikes® Women’s Motorcycle Contingent.

However, a heated debate erupted on Facebook shortly before this year’s Portland Pride Festival in June and continued at a subsequent public meeting in July, revealing that there are some deeply-felt differences of opinion about what Portland’s contingent should be called, whether anyone other than female-identified “dykes” should participate, and what roll an official Dykes on Bikes® chapter should play in the parade.

“My concerns are that a nearly 40-year-long tradition that is the Dykes On Bikes lead off to Pride is going to be swallowed up in the egos of a motorcycle club,” says Tobin Britton, who engaged in the online debate and attended the meeting in July. “One of the very ‘in your face’ statements that queer women had every year was rolling the thunder down the middle of a street, topless and loud and unapologetically.”

The debate seems to have been sparked by the realization that Portland’s riders were being referred to as Dykes & Allies on Bikes — with critics saying Pride Northwest and volunteer biker contingent organizers Melanie Davis and Gabriela Kandziora (respectively the owner/publisher and the business development manager of PQ Monthly and El Hispanic News, as well as the secretary and president of Portland’s new Dykes on Bikes® chapter) had suddenly, without community input, changed the name and begun including trans men, allies, and other people who do not identify as dykes.

Kandziora says the “& Allies” was added when, realizing that the Dykes on Bikes® name was trademarked, a group of about 25 riders “from all over the state” met for breakfast on the Sunday of Pride weekend in 2010 and agreed to include “allies” in the name to avoid trademark infringement.

“Only officially recognized chapters of the SF Dykes on Bikes® WMC can use the phrase in promoting their chapter & in the wearing of their colors (e.g., patches),” Vick Germany, president of the San Francisco Dykes on Bikes® WMC, told PQ Monthly via email. “We have and will take legal steps to prevent the unauthorized use of the phrase. Having said that, we also recognize that when a group of lesbians on motorcycles ride in a parade, they are often referred to as ’Dykes on Bikes.’ … As long as the group of riders are not saying or publicizing that they are Dykes on Bikes®, then we generally do not take action. We evaluate the situation on a case-by-case basis.”

According to Kandziora, the inclusion of trans men and other allies is in keeping with tradition here, where, she says, Portland’s relatively small contingent has not been limited to dykes in the past.

“I have six trans guys that all want to ride in the Pride Parade and I’m not going to tell them or our allies they can’t,” Kandziora says. “… I’m not going to tell someone they can’t do something — that’s just not my style.”

Debra Porta, president of Pride NW, asserts: “To be very specific, there are no exclusions in registering for Dykes on Bikes and there never were.” Pride NW allows riders to register to ride in the parade through its website for a $15 fee to help cover parade costs. There are no questions about identity, sexuality, or what kind of bike the registrant rides. “You go online, you register [for the parade]. There are no questions you have to answer other than, ‘Do you have insurance?’”

According to Porta, prior to 2005 or 2006, riders were allowed to just show up and ride in the parade without any kind of registration. “It was really disorganized [and] confusing,” she says. “I’ve heard people use the ‘cluster F’ word for it.”

Britton, who as “a crusty old-school stone butch dyke” prefers male pronouns, recalls those less-organized days fondly. The president of Black Out Leather Productions and president and co-founder of Boys/Bois in Leather Service – Rose City, Britton also thinks Kandziora and Davis, in forming an official club and so explicitly including trans men and allies in the Pride contingent, have “underestimated how connected to certain traditions a segment of the gay population is.”

That tradition, according to Britton, is one “of women showing up on parade day to ride, loud and proud. It was a political statement then [in 1976] and remains a political statement in a climate that is trying to return women to the Stone Ages. Small town girls, big city, for that one moment when those bikes fire, get the same thrill.”

Britton is currently gauging community interest for an all-female-identified motorcycle club, which, he asserts, would not be an attempt “to take over Dykes on Bikes and the [all-female] MC won’t be riding officially in the parade. We will join all the other dykes on the open ride that is riding in the Dykes on Bikes contingent.”

Britton estimates he has ridden in the Portland Pride Parade for 16 years. “It’s only been in the last few years where the Dykes on Bikes contingent has seen a real jump in the numbers of trans riders and even more men,” he says. “There were many years where it really was female-identified and butch dykes.”

“I will just emphasize this,” he adds. “…I don’t begrudge them their club; they can have their club. I just don’t want their club to take over a community tradition. For me it boils down to that right there.”

Gus Wolter, a trans man who serves as treasurer of the new Portland Dykes on Bikes® chapter, remembers the parade history differently.

“My first parade as a Dyke on a Bike was in San Francisco [in] 1987,” he recalls. “In 1994, I moved to Portland and rode the parade here for the first time. I remember it vividly because my first time riding in Portland was extremely different from San Francisco. In SF there were over 400 bikes. In Portland, in 1994, there were six. I remember all five of those other dykes and the bikes they rode.… Of those six riders in 1994, four of us are (or were) trans men. I transitioned in 1998.”

Britton says he doesn’t “know why men would want to ride in a contingent called Dykes On Bikes in the first place,” be they trans or cisgender, but adds that he welcomes trans women. “Trans women are women and if they dyke identify, then cool,” he says.

Wolter argues identity is more complex than that. “I was born into a female body with two X chromosomes and an ‘F’ on my birth certificate,” he says. “I was raised, socialized, and lived most of my life walking through the world and being seen as a woman. I’m proud of my history, and, I don’t feel I have to give it up…. I came out as a dyke in the mid ‘80s. I was, and still am, a butch. As an out butch dyke, I’ve heard pretty much every foul epithet there is for being a butch dyke. … I’ve walked the streets and taken that heat for myself and my community for almost 30 years. Now that I’m an out FtM [female-to-male] it’s just slightly different heat. Some if which, to my dismay, comes from within my own community…. But, I’m hopeful that as minds expand, so do hearts and attitudes. Bottom line: I’ve earned my right to ride in the parade with Dykes on Bikes®. I’ve been doing it for almost 30 years. And I’m going to do it until I physically can’t anymore.”

Taking into account the push and pull of tradition, identity, and inclusion — and the formation of an official Dykes on Bikes® chapter as well as Britton’s planned all-female club — how the head of Portland’s Pride parade is going to look in the years ahead is far from settled.

Porta says Pride NW will depend on feedback, gathered through community meetings in the months ahead, to gauge “what does the community want this to look like … within the mission and culture of Pride NW and Portland.”

But, she asserts, “This isn’t all going to be fixed by June.”

According to Kandziora, the Dykes on Bikes® Portland, Oregon chapter will approach Pride NW to discuss their ideas for the parade lineup. “We would prefer riding with everyone,” she says, “including other motorcycle clubs.”

Porta credits a recent increase in interest and participation in Portland’s biking contingent for the disagreements that have come to the surface of late.

“I think the growth has brought up new questions that Portland hasn’t had to deal with before,” she says. “ … We can’t complain about that. If that’s something the community is paying attention to, that’s great.”

The meeting in July made it “more clear to me … how much there are large parts of our community who don’t feel engaged, who don’t feel respected, who don’t feel included,” Porta says. “… We forget that it’s not easy for people to come on in and get engaged. We have to go out and ask them.”

At the same time, Porta says respect is warranted for those in the community who take the initiative to volunteer their time and leadership. Kandziora and Davis volunteered to organize the ride at a time when no one else would, and, prior to this year, Porta says, no one had openly expressed opposition to their approach.

“Whether we agree with the way our community person does something,” Porta says, “the point is that person stepped up.”

If you wish to be involved with the process for shaping the future of the biker contingent in the Pride parade, email Debra Porta at president@pridenw.org. For information on the Dykes on Bikes® Portland, Oregon Chapter, visit dykesonbikesportland.com or facebook.com/DykesonBikesPortland/. For more information on Tobin Britton’s all-female motorcycle club, email him at daddiruff_pdx@yahoo.com.