How Down And Dirty Are Gotham's Gay Biker Gangs?
by Tony Phillips
Something unexpected pops up the first time out riding “bitch” in a phalanx of seven motorcycles: an erection. The City Cruisers Motorcycle Club is on its way to Cold Spring, New York. They are an association whose membership criteria – Cruisers must be gay, male and a motorcycle owner – pretty much define it as a group. Luckily, the trip to Cold Spring, their first run of the season, isn’t called for the overcast, slighty misty weather. A little rain may have stalled Stonewall, but the Cruisers are more rough-and-tumble than that. A few kisses hello and one hug for a member who’s kicked cigarettes six months ago are probably the only surface affectations that distinguish them apart from their straight counterparts.
It’s a gray morning as the formation makes its way past groups of spandexed bicyclists clotting Route 9W. The picturesque road is dampened slightly by fog and mist, but there is some payoff: wild turkeys by the side of the road. The frequent stopping and starting – first in city traffic, then at 9W’s many traffic signals – turns the white-knuckled act of attempting to hold onto a 600-pound street Harley, and its black-jacketed driver, into a sexual rhythm. Braking brings crotch to ass while breath-taking acceleration engages the PC muscle in a desperate Kegel exercise trying to grip the short, backless passenger seat.
But even without all the bucking, is an involuntary sexual response to motorcycles really so surprising? The mile markers when gays roar down that highway make it quite apropos. Marlon Brando’s low-slung muir cap in the 1953 film The Wild One. Outsized sexual organs on the motorcycle cops in Tom of Finland’s drawings. Kenneth Anger’s description of his 1964 film Scorpio Rising as “Thanatos in chrome and black leather and bursting jeans.” These junctions have hardly been straight rather, but rather hyper-scenic hairpins tattooed Cruisers president Paul Yannuzzi calls “twisties.” Sure, their hetero counterparts outnumber gay bikers ten to one, but there’s a strange kind of hegemony to the motorcycle mystique that’s more qualitative than quantitative.
The macho gay male archetype has been around as long as gay culture, bubbling up as an active rejection of post-World War II American values when the first gay motorcycle clubs formed and reaching a crescendo in the mustachioed post-Stonewall clones of the 1970s. Motorcycles have always been part of that allure. Still, the hyper-sexualized cult of rough trade done up in motorcycle leathers has been dying a slow death as gay becomes less synonymous with outsider and “daddy” is no longer an idealized older man, but instead an honest-to-Pete father.
And though their name harks back to the national gay pastime, the Cruisers are not about sex. They’re almost a case study in the mainstreaming of gay. They are, 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 Pocono campground Hillside, with all of its promise of a Tom of Finland drawing come to life, is dismissed as what those “other” motorcycle clubs do. “If you go up to Hillside,” Cruisers President Yannuzzi asks, “are you really going to be able to fit everything you need on the back of your bike?” A tent can be tied down to the backseat, but the de riguer Hillside sex toys? He goes on to say that only about five of their 40-plus members attend the Hillside run. So much for Bacchus. The Cruisers are still a macho bunch, but they’ve let a lot of the trappings fall away. It’s an almost laissez-faire attitude toward the leather subculture. The club isn’t about guy-on-guy sex; but rather guy-on-bike solitude.
On the third floor of The Center, Manhattan’s for-the-people, by-the-people queer hang, nearly two-dozen men cram into a tiny white room that, despite double-height ceilings, could easily pass for a broom closet. Bikers take up every available chair and pack side by side on the window sill, forming a makeshift horseshoe. The second-Thursday monthly meeting of The City Cruisers Motorcycle Club has just gotten underway. The only seating that’s left is on the floor and the view is of plenty of black motorcycle boots with silver rings, but the guys wearing them are more Betsy Ross than Marlon Brando as they discuss their banner for Gay Pride.
If their ride was somewhat asexual, this meeting gets downright prissy. Old business molders for a healthy chunk of the hour-long meeting even as someone complains they’ve been discussing this for the last six months. Light blue is dismissed as “too wussy” and red as “too revolutionary.” Purple is nixed because it’s “very lesbian,” while half the spectrum is scratched in one fell swoop because “light colors get dirty.” It’s hard not to wonder what the Cruisers are planning to do with this banner before they finally arrive at a sensible, butch combo of royal blue and yellow.
The Cruisers sprang out of The Empire City Motorcycle Club thirteen years ago, when six of its members had enough of feeling shackled by the strict regimentation inherent to an SM-based organization. “Empire City was a traditional leather motorcycle club,” Paul Jeanneret, one of the Cruisers’ original founders, explains after their meeting. “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.” Jeanneret talks with his hands and it’s difficult to hear him over the leather creaking each time he raises the arms of his streamlined racing jacket for emphasis. Jeanneret may deny his passion for leather, but the cock has crowed.
“Traditionally our club had six officers,” says Mark Wind, treasurer of the Empire City Motorcycle Club, “right now we’re in a concentrated, forming stage as our philosophies are changing. We now meet once a month. We now have associate memberships.” And though these moves have made them much more like their rival gang, the Cruisers, when Wind joined Empire City in 1975 when the club, which predates Stonewall, was already more than a decade old and much different. Hel turned 62 this August and has about a generation on most Cruisers. Wind is a psychologist and interfaith minister and has been the president of Empire City eight times, first in 1981 and last in 2006. He’s speaking from his tidy office on a good block in Chelsea, where he specializes in queer addiction issues. “There are an inordinate amount of gays and lesbians who are involved in substance abuse,” Wind states, matter of fact, “that goes back to our history. The only places we were allowed to congregate were in bars.”
Wind holds a steady, owl-like gaze and speaks in measured tones. He self-deprecates about a childhood accent garnered in the Bronx that’s been difficult to lose when his accent comes on a little thick. He now lives in Hunterdon County with two cats and his boyfriend. His office is serene and a fish tank dominates the décor. End tables and shelves are dotted with framed pictures that upon closer inspection reveal his Harley Road King. A brief tour of the space turns up more bike photos, including one of his significant other that seems to be there mainly because his partner is poised on the Harley.
Wind estimates Empire City’s current membership at about seven or eight members, including associates, while members of The Cruisers say that number is closer to two, with the other member turning up at the Cruiser’s last meeting. Wind will also cop to being an SM top who has kept slaves. These days, he’s mellowed, but is still fond of the structure Robert’s Rules of Order lends to Empire City meetings. “I was intrigued with the whole mystique of leather and SM was part of that,” he admits, “I tried it. I was into it. I was good, I guess, but as I’ve gotten older I’m more into just biking and planting shrubs and cutting down trees and dealing with the lawn.”
But Wind wasn’t always so fond of rules. He can remember roaring up to the old Ramrod on the back of a hog when he first joined Empire City. “Back then it was pre-HIV so there were no rules,” he says. “The worst thing you could get was something you needed a shot for, or A-200,” he adds, referring to the magic bullet Penicillin and the double-dose of Pyrinate shampoo used to combat crabs. The most important milestone for the organization is one Wind recalls by its pre-AIDS terminology GRID: Gay-Related Immune Deficiency. “Over the years I would say we’ve lost about 20 members to HIV,” he explains, “I’ve officiated at two memorial services.”
Another problem that’s plaguing his group is attrition. “The different splits in the organization over politics,” he explains, “or what I call hissy fits. People have issues and egos. I believe very strongly in what we’re about and what we symbolize. We’re more than just a motorcycle club. We’re history. We’re family. We’re friends.” With that, he’s up to feed the fish he keeps in his tidy office. He explains that one gave birth and he had to separate the baby so it wouldn’t get eaten, but he’s recently returned her to the tank. “Nobody’s eaten her,” he says, “she seems to be holding her own.” He has pretty much summed up the symbiosis between his own group and the Cruisers and it’s easy to cast Wind as the little fish.
That fish tank is writ large with both motorcycle clubs wrangling for placement as Gay Pride looms. The Cruisers are currently in negotiations about who’ll follow The Sirens, the women’s motorcycle club most people just call “Dykes on Bikes,” at the head of the parade. Empire City stresses their 45-year history while the Cruisers are stressing sheer numbers in the face of Empire City’s dwindling membership. Yannuzzi’s not terribly optimistic about changing a lineup the Sirens determine and one that seems almost pre-destined, or at least dates back to 1986, when the Sirens made their debut at Gay Pride. “One year a bunch of women basically just pushed in and took over the front of the parade,” Yannuzzi remembers.
That’s not the way that Candida Scott Piel, who ran the organization that puts on Pride during the mid-80s, recalls it. “If there was drama,” Piel inisits, “it didn’t come across my desk.” She argues that placing bikes at the head of the march was a purely logistical decision having to do with a motorcycles tendency to stall in stop and start traffic. “It certainly wasn’t something as nefarious as sneaking in,” 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 had. Dykes on Bikes had traditionally led the San Francisco parade and it was always a good opener.” Piel also remembers the men’s motorcycle groups being happy to march with the leather/Levi contingent as gay motorcycle clubs at that time were much more about the couture of SM. “There were a lot of bike clubs,” Piel says, “but there weren’t that many that were actively biking.” That’s changed.
Less than two weeks after their monthly May meeting, the Cruisers assemble at the Mobil gas station nestled beneath the historic High Line near the 14th Street pier for the Cold Spring run. Both the Cruisers and Empire City Motorcycle Club hold most of their city-based events a straight line with a radius that can be traced north along the piers to The Eagle and south to Christopher Street. It’s hallowed ground for the city’s two gay motorcycle gangs, but also clearly real estate that’s been bought and sold out from under them. As if to underscore that point, a German tourist and her husband wander up to ride captain Paul Jeanneret, who is in the middle of a safety demo, and ask him to point the way to pier 46. Three decades ago, this pier would have been such a locus of homosexual sucking and fucking, even in the cold mist of this early hour, the Germans would have run. Today, they’re looking for a charity ALS walk.
Empire City’s first ride of the season takes on a different cast. They meet on Christopher Street at a tiny café that was once part of the bar trail. Breakfast chit-chat includes a detailed comparison of club drugs by hemisphere. Exploits of the night before are detailed and one member even shows for breakfast with last night’s trick. The ride out of New York under and along the Pulaski Skyway is much less scenic than the Cruisers ride up the Palisades and evokes nothing so much as the opening credits of The Sopranos. This is definitely the motorcycle club with some dirt under their manicures.
Chazz is somehow managing to chain-smoke and shout mantra-like instructions like “sack of potatoes” toward the back of the bike. He’s a pledge with Empire City and before that ordeal is over, the general membership will vote by secret ballot on whether or not he gets the official Empire City leather jacket with the club’s name spelled out in metal rivets on the back, which members affectionately call “the cheese grater.” The pressure doesn’t really keep him on his best behavior. He keeps his Yamaha pegged well over the speed limit and tosses out bon mots like “you just want him to fuck you” when another member pulls alongside in traffic and models his comfy-looking passenger seat trying to lure Chazz’ “sack of potatoes” into jumping ship.
Chazz is riding safety in a tight formation of five bikes. It’s his job to bring up the rear, but also to change lanes before the rest of the entourage, thereby blazing a trail so the bikes can remain unbroken by cars, or worse, cabs. Later Chazz says that riding in formation, something the Cruisers see as prissy and have likened to “synchronized swimming,” requires more concentration than piloting an F-15. Chazz also tells a story he places in the back parking lot of his hometown, Rochester biker bar. He mounts his bike’s center stand so that both wheels are off the tarmac and then mounts a bottom on the back of his bike with the instructions “rev the throttle when you’re about to cum.” It could be that Chazz just likes to tell stories, but at least they’re good ones.
Chazz is a surprise, but so is freelance hottie Skip Daily, who shows up at Empire City’s bike blessing the night before on Christopher Street and joins them for their ride out to Mark Wind’s house in Flemington the next day. He’s not a member, or even a pledge, but is strangely more welcome in this strictly regimented group than he might be in the more free-form Cruisers. At the blessing, Daily is trying to explain how christening his Harley with the name Winchester had roots going back to the Civil War. His plump lips move, bobbing his blonde, bushy handlebar moustache up and down as he speaks. It’s if he’s just slid down Tom of Finland’s pencil, fireman-style. Even Wind comes out to greet the bikes arriving in his ample driveway in just a run pin festooned biker vest and shorts. Many of the guys will lose even those to dip into Wind’s pool. If there is an effort to parse the sex out of cycling, it’s not something Empire City engages in. This is a swell party, much more about the destination than the ride.
Architect and former City Cruisers vice president Damon LaCapra follows a different blueprint. “It’s really about the riding,” he contends, “meeting up and going on the ride, then going out to dinner and stuff. The older guys, the ones who started it, are more into the leather.” LaCapra, a sport bike rider and Cruisers member for the last seven years, also sees any sort of sexual response to biking culture as something that’s probably only prevalent when gazing jjfrom the outside in and also one that won’t last. “It could happen because of the vibrations,” he supposes of sexual arousal en motogrante. “It’s very stimulating. You can just throttle and go superfast. It’s like having your own rollercoaster.” But LaCapra’s bike isn’t built for two. “Nah, we don’t’ want that,” he says when the idea of “riding bitch” on the back of a bike comes up, “when you have a passenger, all of a sudden it’s not a ride about you. It’s a ride about them. And if they don’t put their weight the right way, it’s just a whole different experience on the bike. Your helmets start banging when they lean forward.” His scenario quickly replaces a passenger with a heavy bag. That’s all bitches are to sport bikers: baggage. “I like going alone,” LaCapra says, “It’s a lot easier.”
Alpha wolf posturing is part of both clubs’ “I’m a loner, Dottie, a rebel” Pee Wee Herman geek appeal. Members of these clubs fish motorcycle photos from their wallets and beam proudly the way others would with a partner’s pic. And though the recent, short-lived FX-channel motorcycle drama Sons of Anarchy even had a name for biker groupies, there aren’t many “crow eaters” in gay biking culture, at least not “packing double” on the back of a bike.
“Everybody avoids someone on the back,” LaCapra continues. “I think a lot of them have boyfriends, but I don’t usually see the boyfriends.” Motorcycling isn’t as much of a shared activity for gay bikers. It’s why both groups require members to own motorcycles. And for LaCapra, who limits his passengers to less than 150 pounds and under 5’7”, that’s largely the appeal: a group activity you can do more or less alone. “It’s a way to get away and think, he says. “I do all of my thinking on the bike. 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.” If these men do form attachments, it’s to their machines.