November 2006

Dykes on Bikes and the Regulation of Vulgarity

K. Alex Ilyasova

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:

2004-08-23 – Brooke Oliver Law Group submits response to PTO Office Action with evidence about Dykes On Bikes, the word dyke in the LGBT community, and legal argument about the correct legal standard to apply.
2004-10-28 – PTO refuses the application for the second time, this time making it a final refusal (i.e., refusing the application on the same grounds, namely that the trademark is disparaging to lesbians).
2005-04-28 – Brooke Oliver Law Group and the National Center for Lesbian Rights submit a Request for Reconsideration to the examining attorney, together with more than two dozen expert declarations, and simultaneously submit an appeal to the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (TTAB) to appeal the refusal if the examining attorney does not reverse her decision. The TTAB suspends the appeal while the PTO considers the Request for Reconsideration. (Oliver, “Application Timeline”)

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:

2005-05-26 – PTO denies the Request for Reconsideration, making its third refusal of the application and claiming, for the first time, that dyke is “vulgar” in addition to disparaging. Despite hundreds of pages [400 to be exact] of evidence and 26 expert declarations, the PTO said there was little new [evidence], and cited a 1913 Webster’s dictionary definition that had been put on the internet by an independent company and an individual’s Spanish/English translations of vulgar phrases as evidence for its decision.
2005-09-15 – Legal team submits additional evidence (video tape compilation of recent Pride parades in San Francisco and citation to PTO’s own registry for prior marks like “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” and “Queer as Folk,”) and asks the TTAB to remand the application to the PTO to consider the evidence.
2005-11-02 – TTAB remands the application to the PTO examining attorney to consider the additional evidence.
2005-12-05 – PTO reverses its position that Dykes on Bikes is disparaging and approves the trademark application for publication. (Oliver, “Application 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.

Now to be fair, some of you might be saying, “but didn’t the PTO need to really make sure that the mark ‘Dykes on Bikes’ was not considered disparaging, offensive or objectionable to the lesbian, bisexual and transgender communities?” Well, you betcha. So in response to the initial refusal, Brook Oliver Law Office submitted a seven-page letter explaining the following to the PTO for its consideration: a) the history and growth of the SFWMC over the last 30 years; b) the re-appropriation of the word “dyke” that has occurred over the last 30 years; c) examples of cities that have Dykes on Bikes in their Pride Parades; d) awards that use the term “dyke” to honor older lesbians that have made contributions to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) communities; and e) evidence about the more recent development of Dyke Marches, held around the world, which take place a day before the Pride Parades. Additionally, the law firm submitted photos, like the ones here,

Picture of the Denver Dykes on Bikes (DDOB) Chapter, taken by the author at the June 2006 Pride Parade in Denver, Colorado.
Picture of a ‘dyke’ with her bike, taken by the author at the June 2006 Pride Parade in Denver, Colorado.


statements from self-identified dykes with and without bikes, and alternative definitions of the term “dyke.” As might be obvious from the timeline, this evidence along with more evidence that was later submitted in response to the PTO’s refusal for reconsideration, may have only intensified things, ultimately leading to the PTO’s statement that “dyke” was not only disparaging, offensive and objectionable, but vulgar as well.  Arguably, this is where things get interesting. Or more to the point, where it become clear to me why the PTO continued to insist that the mark “Dykes on Bikes” was disparaging, offensive, and finally, vulgar.

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:

Marlon Brando made the motorcycle into a universal symbol of rebellious masculinity in his role in The Wild Ones, but Dykes on Bikes took that rebellious image one step further and gave the rebellion some content in the way of a defiance of gender norms and an embrace of queer identities. Brando famously responded to the question about what he was rebelling against by answering: “what have you got?” His response makes rebellion itself into the activity and specific politics seem beside the point. The members of Dykes on Bikes, however, riding as they do in the Pride parades, indicate that their rebellion is specific, focused and meaningful. (“Declaration” 4).

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.

This is, I think, at least one unstated reason for the refusal by the PTO of the mark, “Dykes on Bikes”—masculine women. I think most of us would agree that there is a strong association between motorcycles and men. To push this a bit further, but by no means is this a stretch of the imagination, the association between motorcycles, men, and masculinity is just as common. As various other contributors have noted, (e.g., Boslaugh, Dulaney, Phillips, Slawinski) these connections are historical, dating back to pre-war and post-war times, and to the iconic images of the Hells Angels made (in)famous by Hunter Thompson. Although times have changed with more and more people taking up riding—including women—one thing that has remained implicit in motorcycling is the association it has with masculinity. Consequently, the main thing that makes “Dykes on Bikes” vulgar to the PTO is the same thing that makes it “vulgar” to mainstream society, and to some within the riding community: the women’s explicit association with motorcycling and their unflinching and unashamed display of their masculinity. As Kris Slawinski has explained, “As a female rider my sexual orientation was questioned, and I was often treated condescendingly or ignored. ‘Dykes on bikes’ was the moniker frequently given to women who piloted their own bike, and many people automatically assumed that I must be gay.” The unspoken threat here is arguably the same one that “exoticized, vilified, and portrayed [bikers] as monstrous” in the first place—the “themes of female predation, sexual license, animalistic behavior, and sexual perversity, usually of a sadomasochistic nature” (Slawinski)—only this time it’s being applied to women, or more specifically, masculine women or dykes.

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).

This type of regulation is not new to the motorcycling culture. As Lily Phillips argued in “Blue Jeans, Black Leather Jackets, and a Sneer,”around the Cold War era, the concern over the cultural response to bikers and juvenile delinquents, both nationally and internationally, influenced to some extent the American national identity.  As Phillips explains, “Subcultures identified with the enemy had a large (negative) cultural capital, and were often seen as powerful enough to merit governmental or police intervention, as juvenile delinquency did. This Othering is strategic, however, because it masks what delinquents and bikers reveal about American culture.” With regard to sexualities, although the state, national and local state policies and public discourses in general may appear asexual, they have always had sexual categories and preferences embedded in them. We only need to think of legislation and policies with regard to abortion, reproductive technology, serving in the armed forces, age of consent, rape and prostitution to see quickly how the state intervenes to regulate and discipline gendered sexualities. With all this in mind, I guess it shouldn’t have been that much of a surprise that the PTO put up such a fight over the “Dykes on Bikes” trademark. As Debbie Epstein and Robert Johnson explain, “Indeed, it is hard to conceive of a version of a nation that does not address its citizens in more or less explicitly sexualized and gendered terms, terms which are inflected, too, by other differences like class and race” (5).

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.

At this point, you might think this story is at an end, and it might have been if not for the internalizing and naturalizing effects that national identity has on some of its citizens. On January 24, 2006, the trademark application was published for public comment. On February 15, 2006, a man in Dublin, California filed opposition papers challenging the registration of the trademark on the grounds that it is “an anti-man, hate march,” obviously conflating Dykes on Bikes with the Dyke March (Adams 1). He indicated in his opposition letter that “I and ALL other MALE Citizens are subject to Criminal Attack and Civil Rights Violations committed by ‘Dykes’ taking part in [a] Anti Male Hate Riot, including attacks often led or inspired by members of ‘Dykes on Bikes’ (Gilcrest, et.al., Motion to Dismiss Opposition). According to PTO regulations and laws, the opposition to trademark registration requires that, “The opposition must set forth a short and plain statement showing why the opposer believes he, she or it would be damaged by the registration of the opposed mark and state the grounds for opposition” (USPTO, Section 2.104(a)). In response, the Brooke Oliver Law Firm filed a motion to dismiss, arguing that “unless [the individual] can make some credible claim that he alone has the right to identify himself as ‘Dykes on Bikes’ or that he holds some other right that would be compromised by the proposed registration—his opposition must be dismissed” (Gilcrest, et.al., Motion to Dismiss Opposition). At the time of writing this article, the motion to dismiss was still being considered. If it has not been approved, the trademark case will probably go through the hearing process and it will take another year before a final decision is reached.

Regardless of the final decision, the women who identify as “dykes on bikes” share a particularly complex history with motorcycling in general, one that has never been exclusively negative. The image of the biker has vacillated between outcast and outlaw, villain and hero, just to name a few, and it continues to change as people—men and women—continue to take up motorcycling. With regard “dyke,” the word itself has never been exclusively negative either, and there are two theories in particular that explain how it has evolved into a term for aggressive or masculine women. The first has to do with a “Celtic queen who organized a revolt against the Roman Empire in early Britain in 67 A.D.” (Halberstam, “Declaration”). Her name was Queen Boudicca, pronounced “buadyke” in some dialects, and her stand against the Romans is sometimes claimed as a model for early versions of female power and toughness in women (Grahn, “Declaration”). Although I do enjoy this version, with regard to the trademark case I prefer the second theory, which claims that the word “dyke” comes from the Greek goddess Dike. According to one source, although “She may have started her career on Earth, [she] quickly moved up to sitting on the Right (Dike means Right) of Zeus as his number one counselor. She was the Goddess of Justice” (Athena). With regard to this role, another source explains that, “she watched the deeds of man, and approached the throne of Zeus with lamentations whenever a judge violated justice. … She was the enemy of all falsehood, and the protectress of a wise administration of justice” (Atsma).

And so, with regard to the motorcycling culture, here’s hoping there’s a little dyke in all of us, and, with regard to this case, here’s hoping there’s a big dyke at the USPTO.

Works Cited

Adams, Bob. “The Right to Own ‘Dyke.’” Advocate.com. 20 June 2006 <http://www.advocate.com/currentstory1_w.asp?id=31685>.

Answers.com. “Vulgar.” 18 July 2006 <http://www.answers.com/vulgar>.

Athena, Ailia. “The Greek Goddesses.” Women in Greek Myths. 15 July 2006 <http://www.paleothea.com/Goddesses.html>.

Atsma, Aaron. “Dike.” Theoi Project Guide to Greek Mythology. 15 July 2006 < http://www.theoi.com/Ouranios/HoraDike.html>.

Cincone, Gia. “Exhibit A.” Applicant’s Request to Remand for Additional Evidence, Part I. Townsend and Townsend & Crew LLP. 15 September 2005 <http://www.artemama.com/>.

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/>.

Epstein, Debbie and Richard Johnson. Schooling Sexualities. Buckingham: Open University Press, 1998.

Gilcrest, Gregory, Gia Cincone, et.al. Motion to Dismiss. Townsend and Townsend & Crew LLP, Oliver Crain, P.C., and National Center for Lesbian Rights. 5 April 2006 <http://ttabvue.uspto.gov/ttabvue/ttabvue-91169211-OPP-8.pdf>.

Grahn, Judy. “Declaration of Judy Grahn 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/>.

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/>.

---. Female Masculinities. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1998.

“History.” San Francisco Women’s Motorcycle Contingent Dykes on Bikes. 10 February 2006 <http://www.sfwmc.org/history.html>.

Moon, Wendy. “Why Motorcycle Studies?” International Journal of Motorcycle Studies. 13 March 2006 http://ijms.nova.edu/IJMS_why.html.

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/>.

---. “Response to Office Action.” Response to USPTO’s Initial Refusal. Brooke Oliver Law Group, P.C. 20 August 2004 <http://www.artemama.com/>.

The Oxford American Dictionary. Version 1.01. Software Application. Apple, 2005.

Phillips, Lily. “Blue Jeans, Black Leather Jackets, and a Sneer: The Iconography of the 1950s Biker and its Translation Abroad.” International Journal of Motorcycle Studies. March 2005 < http://ijms.nova.edu/March2005/IJMS_ArtclPhilips0305.html>.

Slawinski, Kris. “Motorcycles as Political.” International Journal of Motorcycle Studies. March 2006 <http://ijms.nova.edu/March2006/IJMS_RT.Slawinski.html>.

United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). “Opposition, Section 2.104(a).” U.S. Trademark Law Rules of Practice and Federal Statuses. 13 January 2006 <http://www.uspto.gov/web/offices/tac/tmlaw2.html>.

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/>.