The first time I saw Dykes on Bikes thunder by, opening the San Francisco Pride parade, I was filled with awe. Hundreds of queer women, some in leather, claimed their space at the kickoff of the parade with an exhilarating display of their enthralling power. The word "dyke" had until then terrified me. (“I’m a lesbian, not a dyke,” I would say, curtly.) But that day, it hit me, the magnificence of a word that in some mouths is a slur but in our own can be a reclamation. It’s a formidable word embodying power and often female masculinity in its rawest sense. Even as a femme, it defined me too. That we’re still debating the word, decades later, speaks to the power one syllable can wield.
This Pride, Dykes on Bikes, the San Francisco organization that has led the parade since the nation’s bicentennial, will be celebrating a 2017 U.S. Supreme Court victory. After a 14-year battle and two trips to the highest court in the land, the organization was finally able to register “Dykes on Bikes” as the trademarked name of the group that helped transform an epithet into a symbol of queer pride.
In 1976, Dykes on Bikes was a mere 25 women bikers who came together to lead the San Francisco Pride parade, unwittingly launching a tradition that lives on today. Over four decades later, the Supreme Court, in an 8-0 decision, struck down part of the Lanham Act, which granted U.S. Patent and Trademark Office examiners the right to refuse to register trademarks they considered “disparaging.”
The Matal vs. Tam decision found that Simon Tam, lead singer of the Asian-American rock group The Slants, could patent the moniker in order to “reclaim the term and drain its denigrating force as a derogatory term for Asian persons.”
San Francisco Dykes on Bikes Women’s Motorcycle Contingent had filed an amicus brief in The Slants’s case. Attorney Brooke Oliver, founder of the law firm 50 Balmy Law P.C., has been arguing the Dykes on Bikes trademark case pro bono at various levels of the judicial system for the past 14 years. Oliver coauthored the amicus brief with Tobias Barrington Wolff, Mark Lemley, and Michael Feldman, claiming that under the First Amendment lesbians should have the right to political speech, including using the self-referential term “dykes.” The brief also pointed out that other reclaimed slurs were already registered, including “Bitch” and “Queer as Folk.”
“Dykes on Bikes uses its trademark to promote civil rights and social justice,” said Oliver. “Trademark registration makes it easier and less expensive to stop others from profiting commercially by infringing on the mark. Our argument on freedom of expression is very much like that of The Slants. The USPTO should not be deciding what is derogatory and what is not, and them doing so is the essence of viewpoint expression.”
Oliver admitted the decision had one downside; it vacated an earlier ruling that canceled the Washington NFL team’s federal trademark registrations. Oliver made it clear that “Dykes on Bikes does not endorse the use of the term ‘Redskins’ for a football team.” She called on the team to abandon the name.
“Both Dykes on Bikes and The Slants have reclaimed self-referential terms … in order to remove the sting of an epithet. The Washington Redskins … uses what is widely acknowledged to be a racist epithet against Native Americans when it is not a part of that group, and in doing so deepens the pain of the epithet.”
When Dykes on Bikes began in 1976, one of the women coined the name and the San Francisco Chronicle ran with it. The group’s first meetings were held at a private home and then moved to a room above the legendary lesbian bar Amelia’s. When Amelia’s closed, the meetings moved to the Eagle leather bar, where they are still held today. The group’s secretary emeritus, Soni Wolf, pushed for the trademark. She had ridden at the front of the San Francisco Pride parade every year for over 40 years, but 2017 turned out to be her last. She died earlier this year, shortly after being named commuinity grand marshal of San Francisco Pride.
“Soni leaves an indelible mark on history…,” says former president Kate Brown. “Soni steadfastly refused to accept ‘dyke’ as an epithet. She blazed the trail for the rest of us in courage and LGBTQ pride.”
In 2003, organizers voted to change the name to the San Francisco Dykes on Bikes Women’s Motorcycle Contingent, which now organizes over 400 riders for the annual event. While there are currently 16 chapters of Dykes on Bikes worldwide, San Francisco’s remains among the most vibrant and diverse (women of color, trans and bi women, and femmes join more stereotypical butch dykes on the backs of motorcycles).
Dykes on Bikes may lead the way, but they aren’t the only riders in the Pride parade: there are other motorcycle clubs including a gay men’s club, and a mixed gender club. But Dykes on Bikes hold a unique place in queer culture (like Hell’s Angels, without the crime), and often act as leather-clad bodyguards for the entire parade. After the Pulse massacre in 2016, they were a reassuring vision of safety for hundreds of thousands of resilient LGBT folks.
Is the use of the term still controversial? It depends on who you ask. “No lesbian has ever said in official proceedings that they’re offended by the name,” wrote the Dykes on Bikes’ amicus brief.
Indeed, it seems that queer women are the least likely to be offended by the word “dyke,” and lesbian publications like Curve magazine, AfterEllen, and Autostraddle have used the self-moniker frequently. Long before Fun Home made her a household name, Alison Bechdel’s queer comic strip, Dykes to Watch Out For, ran for 25 years in LGBT and left-leaning media, its popularity never waning.
This winter, when Facebook began suspending women who used the word “dyke” too many times in their profiles, there was a small revolution among queer women of all stripes.
Sure, the word is still used pejoratively by men like Steve Bannon, the crusty homophobe who once said that the women’s movement was made up of “a bunch of dykes that came from the Seven Sisters schools” (as though that was a bad thing). Male editors at LGBT magazines (yes, even at The Advocate) are still wary of using the phrase.
But dyke has long been an identity moniker meaning “strong” and “empowered” for many lesbians. When the Lesbian Avengers (a protest group that began in the 1990s) pulled together women for the 1993 March on Washington, they dubbed it the Dyke March. That led to the foundation of dyke marches in most major cities, which often occur the evening before the larger Pride parades. The events are both confrontational and collaborative and, yes, sexual, as topless women march with boobs freed from the patriarchal tyranny of bras and laws.
Dyke marches have certainly had their problems in recent years. According to Windy City Times, Chicago march leaders kicked out marchers who carried rainbow flags emblazoned with a Star of David, in a move that many found anti-Semitic since the star is a religious symbol (not merely one signifying Israel and its policies). While some dyke marches welcomed a redesigned rainbow flag with black and brown stripes (to be inclusive of people of color), more conservative gays protested the change and argued that the flag was already meant to include queers of all flavors.
Still, as the larger LGBT community continues to debate terms and identities, many lesbian, bisexual, and queer women will fight to keep the word "dyke" as a badge of empowerment and sexuality.