Dykes on Bikes and the Regulation of Vulgarity
In July 2003, the San Francisco Women’s Motorcycle Contingent (SFWMC) or, as they are better known, Dykes on Bikes, filed a trademark application with the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO or PTO). The “mark,” as it is referred to in the application, has been used by the organization at least since June 1976. Dykes on Bikes started out as a small contingent of women riding in the San Francisco (SF) Pride Parade. Through the years as their numbers continued to grow, they changed their original name—Dykes on Bikes—and became “the Women’s Motorcycle Contingent Dykes on Bikes to be inclusive of all women who rode motorcycles and wished to participate in the SF Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Parade” (“History”). They are most recognized for the unmistakable rumbling they create when hundreds of them start their motorcycles at the same time, and begin the Pride Parades that typically occur at the end of June each year all across the United States. In 2004, in San Francisco for example, approximately 400 dykes on bikes began that parade by starting their motorcycles, and rattling the city awake as the noise from their engines bounced off buildings and permeated the streets. As Soni Wolf, the secretary for the SFWMC explains, “the thunderous roar of Dykes on Bikes riding down Main Street in San Francisco galvanizes and inspires … many spectators. The display of pride exhibited by the Dykes on Bikes motorcycle contingent in the Pride Parade is literally earthshaking” (Wolf).
The pride and strength displayed by these women at such moments seem obvious to any person, as well as any “reasonable person of ordinary sensibilities” (Oliver, “Response to Office Action”), or so I thought. However, on February 20, 2004, the PTO refused the registration of the “mark” under Trademark Act Section 2(a), which explained that a reasonable person of ordinary sensibilities would recognize that the term “dyke” is disparaging and objectionable to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities. In other words, the PTO told the biker organization that the name the women self-selected and have used with pride for almost 30 years is offensive and objectionable to them—the same women who use the term. I’m not sure if I should be more offended by their refusal of the application or the implication that those who use the term “dyke” are not, at least, reasonable people of ordinary sensibilities. Either way, the PTO’s refusal seemed at best an ignorant decision and at worst blatant discrimination. Luckily, the PTO had another chance, and another, and another to get it right. The following is a timeline of what happened with the SFWMC’s application:
Meanwhile, back at the PTO, reasonable people of ordinary sensibilities had approved the following trademarks: “Crippled Old Biker Bastards,” filed May 16, 2002 and approved December 30, 2003; “Biker Bitch,” filed March 4, 2002 and approved March 30, 2004; and my personal favorites, although they don’t have “biker” in the name, “Whore,” filed September 11, 2003 and approved May 31, 2005, and “Evil Pussy” filed March 29, 2002 and approved January 7, 2003 (Cincone). Even if you were thinking that the term “dyke” was really the problem, consider that the PTO received a trademark application in June 2000 for “TechnoDyke” and approved it on October 16, 2001 (Cincone). Back to the timeline:
With the initial decision reversed, the last hurdle to overcome required that the application be published for public comment, usually for 30 days, after which, if there weren’t any objections, then the trademark would proceed to registration and would then be protected. But, before this tale ends, aren’t you just a bit curious about what the hold up was and why it was rejected in the first place?
According to the documents received and written by Brooke Oliver Law Office, the main law firm that represented the SFWMC, there are a few things regarding Trademark Section 2(a) and the evaluation process worth noting, that seem to make painfully obvious the absurdity of the PTO’s initial decision. Trademark Section 2(a) was cited by the PTO in denying the application. According to Brooke Oliver, “the test for determining whether matter in a trademark may disparage a religious, racial or other non-commercial group is whether, at the time of registration, a substantial composite of the referenced group would consider the matter disparaging in the context of the mark as a whole and in connection with the goods and services offered” (Oliver, “Response to Office Action,” 3). Additionally, and I think more importantly, “In determining whether or not a mark is disparaging, the perceptions of the general public are irrelevant. Rather, because the portion of Section 2(a) proscribing disparaging marks targets certain persons, institutions or beliefs, only the perceptions of those referred to, identified or implicated in some recognizable manner by the involved mark are relevant to this determination” (Oliver, “Response to Office Action,” 3). So, in other words, the only appropriate gauge for determining whether a mark is disparaging and/or offensive is the perceptions of the individuals referred to and/or identified by that mark. In this particular case, it is women—or more specifically lesbians, bisexuals and transgender women—who ride motorcycles in the Pride Parades and who would be using the term.
First, let’s get out of the way the idea that the PTO’s refusal had simply to do with the word “dyke” itself. As is clear from the approved trademark application for “TechnoDyke” in 2001, the word “dyke” had already been approved in a trademark. Additionally, more hotly consented terms within the LBGT communities, such as “homo” and “queer,” had also been allowed to register (e.g., Homo Depot, 2000; Queer Shop, 2004; Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, 2004; and Queer as Folk, 2005). So what was the issue? The issue I think was the combination of “dyke” with “bike.” And this became clear as soon as the Trademark Attorney for the PTO used the word “vulgar” to describe the mark. So that we are all on the same page, I want to list some definitions orcommon uses of “vulgar” here. “Vulgar” typically means “crudely indecent,” whether in what we say or in how we display it and/or ourselves (Answers.com). Additionally, “vulgar” is also used in situations that result in something being made explicit that is oftentimes left implied. More specifically, “vulgar” oftentimes refers to “making explicit and offensive reference to sex or bodily functions” (Oxford American Dictionary).
What does all of this have to do with “Dykes on Bikes”? As Wendy Moon stated in the section on this website titled “Why Motorcycle Studies?”: “motorcycling … can throw the issues of class, race and gender into a new and valuable light by examining, at any given time, who is riding and why they ride and to what degree society approves of it.” To her list I would add sexuality and ask those questions again. We know the answer to the first one, who is riding—women, or more specifically lesbians, and bisexual and transgender women. As to the why they are riding, well it’s a pride thing—connected strongly to issues of rebellion, visibility, life, community, and freedom. As Judith Halberstam more eloquently explained in her declaration to the PTO:
Lastly, regarding society’s level of approval, this is where I think some valuable light is shed, where sexuality mixes itself in and highlights certain ways motorcycling and sexuality connect together as well as to other categories such as gender and class. I’m reminded of a joke I read as I looked over the numerous pages of declarations for this case: “What’s the difference between a dyke and a lesbian? $30,000 a year and a degree in women’s studies.” As the writer of this joke goes on to explain, “there is a potential class bias to the word dyke, a working class bias. That is not negative either. ‘Dyke’ may be a ‘hard’ word, but ‘lesbian’ is no walk in the park either. Both can be challenging to come to terms with as marks of identification but neither word is inherently bad or derogatory” (Duff). However, typically, one more than the other evokes images of masculine women—think of diesel-dyke or bull-dyke as examples—and implies that there is something wrong with that image. As Judith Halberstam explains in her book Female Masculinities, men are not the only ones who can be masculine.
Now I know, some of you might be thinking that not all women who ride in Dykes on Bikes are masculine, and more broadly, not all women who ride think of themselves, or are perceived, as masculine either. True. However, it is not really about how many of these women riders are or aren’t masculine, or mannish, or butch, if you will. What it is about is the audacity of some of these masculine women to make explicit what has been implied for so long—that they exist. In other words, they break with the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy of societal gender expectations. In the case of Dykes on Bikes, their display of masculinity as well as their sexuality, is to some, well just “vulgar.” What is left unstated by such reactions is that “a ‘homosexual’ life or act must leave unchallenged the dominant sexual and [gender] categories,” masculinity, femininity, heterosexuality, marriage, “and the great law of quiet private life, all components of a complexly constructed and [proper] cultural society” (Epstein and Johnson 25).
And here’s, at least partially, the reason why—because nationalities and sexualities have always been and always will be conjoined. Among other things, the ability of a nation to regulate or re-enforce sexualities affects its national identity. In essence, national identities are dependent on the everyday social identities and experiences of its citizens. With regard to Dykes on Bikes, it seems vital for the United States to not be known as a place “where men are men and so are the women.” As a result the “practices of the state or of other institutions that take the national voice, continuously regulate the citizens in their places; it defines who belongs and who doesn’t … some social groups and identities find themselves plentifully recognized and endorsed, others marginalized or stigmatized” (Epstein and Johnson 19).
In spite of all this regulation, dykes on bikes make it unquestionably and uncomfortably clear that women—lesbian, bisexual, transgender and straight—can be and are masculine. They challenge the dominant sexual expectations of what a woman is, what she does, and who she does. This is a legacy that motorcycling in general has or is perceived to have—the rejection of the norms of middle-class, middle-America. With their motorcycles between their legs, and their girlfriends riding behind, these women, along with many others, are making it easier to conjure up the image of “strong women, self-mobilized, independent, iconic and rebellious” (Halberstam, “Declaration”). Conversely, without such displays it becomes all too easy to slip in the word “men” for “women” again and return to the dominant cultural history associated with motorcycles—masculinity and men.
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Answers.com. “Vulgar.” 18 July 2006 <http://www.answers.com/vulgar>.
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Duff, Lou. “Re: DOB.” Email to Pablo Manga. Response to USPTO’s Initial Refusal, Exhibit F. Brooke Oliver Law Group, P.C. 20 August 2004 <http://www.artemama.com/>.
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Halberstam, Judith. “Declaration of Judith Halberstam Under 37 C.F.R. § 2.20.” Exhibit 15. Declarations in Support of Request for Reconsideration. Brooke Oliver Law Group, P.C. 18 March 2005 <http://www.artemama.com/>.
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Oliver, Brooke. “Application Timeline.” Dykes on Bikes Trademark Application Description of Services and Timeline. Brooke Oliver Law Group, P.C. 6 December 2005. <http://www.artemama.com/>.
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Wolf, Soni. “Declaration of Soni Wolf, Exhibit E.” Response to USPTO’s Initial Refusal. Brooke Oliver Law Group, P.C. 20 August 2004 <http://www.artemama.com/>.