Satyr Motorcycle Club's Road Warriors
It's 1953, and Marlon Brando's biker film, The Wild One, has opened. The story of a motorcycle gang that invades a small town, it's a bit of Hollywood baloney that has one good line in it: When asked what he's rebelling against, Brando responds, "Whadda you got?"
Wearing a leather jacket over a tight T-shirt and snug Levis cuffed over boots, cap cocked at an angle a male model would envy, muscular legs astride a Triumph, the actor was defiant sex on wheels, instantly creating an iconic image the world over. For gay men in the audience, the badass leather biker look represented a fantasy of hyper-masculinity. That it's a false image, created by Hollywood for mass consumption, doesn't seem to have been considered, but in their closeted minds, Brando's persona represented a rejection of effeminacy, a push-back at nancy-boy stereotypes forced upon them by a homophobic society. It was a society that embraced McCarthyism and its fear of "homosexuals" as threats to national security, culminating in the harassment and firing of thousands of gay men and lesbians by the State Department in a purge nicknamed "The Lavender Scare." At that dark time in history, hiding your politics and sexuality seemed to make a certain amount of sense.
With that in the air, 1954 saw several friends—all queer, bikers and ex-military, hung over after a drunken orgy the night before—form a motorcycle club. Whether that decision was made out of bravery or horniness is open to debate, but one thing seemed to be pretty straightforward: The band of brothers simply looked to repeat the camaraderie they had in the armed forces, doing publicly what they were already doing in secret. It was hiding in plain sight, if you will, with the rough riders sporting vaguely homoerotic logos on their shirts. Calling themselves the Satyrs, they became what is now the oldest continuously running gay organization in the United States, as well as the inspiration for dozens more such clubs.
Formed as a conservative rebuke to the left-leaning, gay "cell" groups such as the Mattachine Society (an early gay activist group that initially declined to have identified leaders so the government couldn't sabotage its efforts by arresting those in charge), the Satyr Motorcycle Club focused on a strict hierarchy of leadership with set rules. (The first document on display is the club's typed minutes from the first meeting, basically an argument about who should pay dues and who should be exempt.)
Former Satyr president and curator Garry Bowie's fascinating "Rumble: The Long Road to Equality" details the organization's history, creating a modest yet deeply informed timeline of rare photographs and film footage, biker uniforms, and unusual artifacts. Posted at eye level around the room on a painted two-lane highway—broken yellow line in the middle—the club's 60-year existence is broken down by decade, showing both private (sexual) and public (politics) histories. If not all of the time periods transition smoothly—there are gaps in the visuals, and some of what we see needs to be better identified for people not familiar with biker lore—it's not for want of trying. Bowie tells me, as we walk through the exhibit, that what's on display is only a small percent of the collected records the club has, that much had been destroyed through carelessness or calculation (families trashing evidence of the members' activities they considered less than wholesome), with items thrown into a storage box years before and forgotten until someone in the club remembered they were there. After AIDS decimated the once-prolific clubs, Bowie feared their stories might be forgotten. Using his own money (and some small crowd-funding), set about the monumental task of archiving, collecting and verifying documentation, catching the stories of many of the members on video before they passed away, identifying forgotten faces, putting things in order so that when the collection is eventually donated to the ONE Archives Foundation in Los Angeles, archivists won't have to substitute guesswork and supposition for hard information.
There's wistfulness in his voice when Bowie describes much of biking now as a meet-up experience, less lifestyle choice and more temporary hobby, its heyday easily forgotten as it fades away. Assimilation and, ironically, equality are to blame, he believes, watering down the more rigidly defined gay identities of decades past in favor of a blander, more generic personality. He tells me this and shrugs, his passion project an attempt to hold on to a golden past, but also a way of acknowledging that the pendulum swings from one side to the other, with or without our consent. It's reflected in something as obvious as the Satyr's group photographs over the years, the first featuring only those members who agreed to be photographed—one of them pointedly turning his face from the camera—and the latest with everyone facing forward, grizzled but happy. A long road, indeed.
Get the Arts & Culture Newsletter
Find out about upcoming performances, exhibitions, openings and special events happening in the Orange County art and theater scene.