By Zamná Ávila, Assistant Editor
Walk into a gay bar these days and you are likely to see men greeting each other with a hug and a kiss. Not unlike any other bar, people mingle and freely flirt with one another over drinks and music.
But it wasn’t always that way.
“You’d walk in, you’d see people and maybe you’d nod to them,” said 69-year-old Riley Black, about his experience in the late 60s and early 70s. “Unless, you knew someone and if they introduced you to someone else, you wouldn’t just walk up and hit on someone, because you didn’t know if it was an undercover cop.”
Black lived in a time where gay men were not even allowed to touch at bars. Bars were frequently raided. Police officers would come, beat their night sticks on the bar, order that the bartenders turn the music off and turn on the lights. Then, they’d have everyone get against the wall.
“They would just start, ‘Well, we’ve gotta count heads to see if you are over fire capacity,’” Black recalled.
As people would go out the door, someone would stand at the door, and maybe every fourth one or every fifth one, they’d say, “You, lewd conduct.”
“It was your word against the cop,” Black said. “Your name would end up being in the paper and they would call your employer. People lost jobs…. I was in bars when they came in and did that. Fortunately, it wasn’t my number [they] called.”
But in 1969, he found a retreat from the harassment that gays endured all too frequently. A group of motorcycle riders opened their arms and a whole new world opened up to him. Members enjoyed camping trips and bike runs together away from the bar scene.
“I liked camping. I liked being around the guys and just the camaraderie of it,” he said.
Today, Black is the president of the Satyrs Motorcycle Club, the oldest, continually existing gay men’s group in the United States. The Satyrs Motorcycle Club formed in 1954. Former military men from Long Beach and Los Angeles formed the club at the peak of Sen. Joe McCarthy’s “un-American activities” hearings–a witch hunt for Communists and homosexuals.
Prior to these men coming back from active military duty, the only gay organizations that existed were the Society for Human Rights, founded in 1924, and the Communist, Los Angeles-based Mattachine Society, formed in 1950.
When the Satyrs formed they didn’t want to be linked to Communism. There were no rules; there were no uniforms. Bikers were just bikers and few people knew they were a gay motorcycle club by just seeing them.
“There were no rules in the 50s and 60s,” said past-president Garry Bowie, about the fashion of the time. “These were guys who were just out of the military….They created their world.”
To the Satyrs and the other motorcycle clubs that sprung up after them, being a part of a motorcycle club was just another way to bond with other men, while embracing their masculinity.
“It’s a brotherhood,” said Bowie, 53. “For us its about bonding with like-minded men, who appreciate motorcycles, No.1, and No. 2, we get along because we’ve become family, like the military or like the Marine Corp. And, once you become a member you are sort of a member for life….It’s a special bond that happens.”
That is why joining the club is like joining a family: gradual. People who join the club are usually people who go to the Satyrs events, such as precision competitions and their big summer camping run, Badger Flat Run, and see themselves become a part of that group.
If the participant is willing to partake in the labor of being a Satyr, someone will sponsor the person and tell them what it takes to be a member. Then, members have a secret vote and during a public event the member will put a vest on the new member and say, “Welcome to the club, you are now a Satyr.”
“You can’t get a free ride,” said Bowie, a member since 1999. “You got to contribute to the club as a member…. We are looking for people who become family, people who pitch in together, people who bond together.”
Badger, for example, is a group effort. Members put in the labor in planning, building the campground, chop wood, set up their shower system, set up their industrial cooking ovens, contests, entertainment and food.
The club is presenting a photo and memorabilia exhibit entitled Rumble: The Long Road to Equality, throughout the month of May. The exhibit, of which much of the collection belonged to Black, will take visitors on a ride through the leather-clad motorcycle history of gay men in their journey toward civil rights and the influence of Los Angeles and Long Beach on gay culture, leather fashion and motorcycle clubs.
The displays showcase archived photos, video, documents, audio recording, uniforms and artifacts from dissolved groups and the existing motorcycle clubs, while examining pre-Stonewall gay rebellions against police brutality, the AIDS epidemic, gay culture and politics.
“It’s important [to know that] if we don’t realize where we travelled the long road toward equality, the pendulum always swings,” said Bowie, who came up with the idea of the exhibit and helped with archiving and curating Rumble. “We can end up going backwards with our equality…. If we don’t realize what these went men went through, we are doomed to repeat the mistakes of history.”
After the club’s official 60th anniversary Nov. 29, the Satyrs will hand over the archived and curated collection to the ONE Archives Foundation at USC Libraries.
Rumble is on exhibit through May 31, at the Cultural Alliance of Long Beach, 727 Pine Ave., Long Beach. Admission is $3 and $5.