Motorcycle Leathers and the Construction of Masculine Identities Among Homosexual Men

A scholarly paper I presented at the Annual National Conference of Popular Culture Association and American Culture Association held in Atlanta, Georgia in April 2006.

The following paper was presented as part of a panel discussion on the role of motorcycles in American popular culture, held at the Annual National Conference of Popular Culture Association and American Culture Association held in Atlanta, Georgia in April 2006.

The leather-jacketed man on his motorcycle has been an archetypal image in American culture since the release of the movie The Wild One in 1953.[1] Marlon Brando’s character, Johnny Strabler, in white t-shirt, leather jacket and Harley cap, immediately became synonymous with aggressive masculinity and disregard for social norms (below, top left). Subsequent films, including Easy Rider and Chrome and Hot Leather, perpetuated the image of the biker as a free-spirit, an outlaw, and a renegade.[2] More recently, Arnold Schwarznegger re-popularized biker macho and its associated attire in the Terminator movie series. Bikers were and are stereotyped as overtly masculine, hard-fighting, sometimes hard-drinking, ‘real’ men. And almost as soon as Brando donned his Harley cap, numbers of homosexual males appropriated biker imagery for use in a small segment of gay culture, utilizing the associated leather costume to construct for themselves a deliberately and calculatedly masculine social and sexual identity.

The homosexual ‘man in leather’ remains one of the more disproportionately visible and controversial members of the LGBT community. He is the antithesis of the feminized drag queen. He seeks to defy the stereotype of homosexual men as effeminate, limp-wristed, and ‘nelly.’ The leather-clad man presents himself as self-assured, assertive, dominant, or ‘butch.’ In 1964, Life magazine published an article entitled ‘Homosexuality in America’ that dealt at some length with the topic of the biker bar and gay men in biker leathers.

These brawny young men in their leather caps, shirts, jackets and pants are practicing homosexuals. They are part of what they call the ‘gay world.’ Outside the entrance stand a few brightly polished motorcycles, including an occasional lavender model. Inside the bar, the accent is on leather. The walls are covered with murals of masculine-looking men in black leather jackets. A metal collage of motorcycle parts hangs on one wall. The effort of these homosexuals to appear manly is obsessive — in the rakish angle of the caps, in the thumbs boldly hooked in belts. [The owner of the San Francisco bar The Toolbox] says, ‘This is a place for men, a place without all those screaming faggots, fuzzy sweaters and sneakers. Those guys — the ones you see in the other bars — are afraid of us. They’re afraid to come here because everything looks tough.[3]

But despite his notoriety, the leather–man has been largely ignored by both mainstream socio–cultural historians and those in the field of LGBT studies.[4] This brief paper will therefore attempt to document the evolution of the phenomenon of the biker-leather-wearing homosexual male in late-twentieth-century American culture. For the purposes of this paper, a leather-man will be defined as a homosexual male who wears biker-style leathers regardless of whether or not he actually owns a motorcycle, and who is not a participant in sadomasochistic sexual behaviors. The fetish aspects of wearing leather for S&M purposes are beyond the scope of this paper.[5] It concentrates instead on those men who appropriate the biker image and biker leathers solely to construct a masculine sexual identity that stands in opposition to the stereotype of the effeminate homosexual.

The homosexual leather-man has at least two cultural origins. The first of these is images of masculinity portrayed in American film. Emulation of figures from the world of entertainment is a common enough phenomenon, regardless of sexuality. Homosexual males are sometimes perhaps more overt in assuming the identity of figures that they either admire or for whom they feel sexual attraction. Thus Brando’s character in The Wild One became for some not only a figure to lust after but also a figure to be. And just as one did not have to know how to sing in order to dress like Judy Garland, it was not necessary to own a motorcycle in order to dress like a biker.

During the Gay Liberation Movement spanning the 1960s and 1970s, many homosexual men cast off society’s clichéd view of them as effeminate, and gay culture became as a whole more consciously masculinized.[6] The biker archetype was one of many influences in a trend toward hyper-masculine dress styles for homosexual men. These influences included the cowboy, the construction worker, the soldier, the policeman, and of course the biker. The macho biker look implied hyper-conformity to male gender role expectations.[7] It presented a particular mode of decidedly masculine dress in a highly stylized form, subverting the identity of masculine (and heterosexual) male biker and appearing more ‘real man’ than any heterosexual male might ever want to appear.[8]

Yet even within homosexual culture, dressing in biker leathers frequently did (and still does) create social tensions. Homosexual men whose public identity more nearly conformed to mainstream constructions of masculinity referred to leather-men as ‘butch.’ The leather–man’s presentational strategies were and are regarded by some as deviant and unacceptable, especially to those homosexuals eager to ‘pass’ as ‘normal.’[9] Leather–men were and are frequently marginalized within their own supposed community.

Leather–men, in general, had no intention of ‘passing’ as heterosexual, however, or so Shaun Cole, author of Don We Now Our Gay Apparel, has argued. The appropriation by gay men of hegemonic images of masculinity, in this case the outlaw biker, instead opened up radical and transgressive possibilities.[10] I would argue, however, that the wearing of biker leathers also shielded the wearer, to some extent, from a restrictive and restricting larger society.[11] In American culture the biker is usually assumed to be heterosexual. The biker-leather wearer undoubtedly faced less likelihood of harassment and arrest by law enforcement officials when in public than did his less overtly masculine counterparts.[12] The wearing of leathers was therefore simultaneously transgressive and normative.

The second source for the evolution of the homosexual leather–man is biker club culture. Motorcycle clubs are as old as the motorcycle itself. They increased significantly in numbers after World War II, however as motorcycle corps troops returned home. By the 1960s real–life outlaw biker clubs such as the Hell’s Angels supplemented film images of bikers as renegades of an aggressively masculine type.[13] The clubs were largely homo–social, however, in that full membership was limited to men. Women participated only peripherally, usually in the highly marginalized status of sex objects (so–called ‘biker bitches’). The biker club was a world of ‘manly men doing manly things.’

Homosexual leather–men copied their heterosexual counterparts and formed their own motorcycle clubs beginning in the 1950s, especially in California.[14] Such clubs allowed for easy socialization and sexual contact between masculine men and their admirers. The members often came from widely disparate backgrounds, united by their common sexual and cycling interests. The clubs also had an additional significant non–sexual advantage. Because formal club activities were often conducted outside of the urban gay bar scene, they were usually able to avoid the kinds of surveillance and interference by law enforcement so common in the gay community even into the 1980s. Copying the ‘runs’ of heterosexual biker clubs, homosexual clubs frequently sponsored bike runs to rural areas where the members camped, literally, for a weekend and engaged in a variety of activities. These gatherings were often visually indistinguishable from similar gatherings of heterosexual bikers, except perhaps for the conspicuous absence of women. They drank, often to great excess, they held riding contests and games, they engaged in bragging and one–upmanship … and they engaged in sexual activity.

But being seen in a large public gathering comprised solely of men was socially acceptable when the gathering involved motorcycles. Motorcycling was so inextricably associated with heterosexual men that there was significantly less risk of arrest than, for example, entering a mainstream gay bar in the 1950s and ’60s. And the outlaw image associated with heterosexual biker clubs served to reflect for homosexual clubs the outlaw nature of homosexual activity in the US prior to 2003. Homosexuals, as sexual outlaws, became self-empowered through the construction of a socio–sexual identity that incorporated the highly masculinized outlawry associated with heterosexual biker clubs. And since membership in homosexual biker clubs frequently did not specifically require ownership of a motorcycle, there was a certain egalitarianism to them. A potential member did not even necessarily need biker leathers before participating in club activities.

The biker outfit itself was rapidly incorporated into and celebrated by homosexual male erotica as early as the 1950s, transforming a masculine socio-sexual identity into a specifically masculine sexual identity. One of the first to utilize biker imagery in male erotica was the Scandinavian artist known as Tom of Finland (three examples below).[15] In the mid 1950s he began producing images of hyper-masculine men for American physique magazines, the forerunners of modern homosexual pornography. Tom’s most famous images involve men in biker leathers, usually in the conspicuous absence of motorcycles themselves. A typical Tom of Finland man has all of the required physical features associated with overt masculinity: a heavy square jaw with prominent chin, broad shoulders and slim hips, muscular development verging on caricature, a wide stance, and exaggerated genitalia. The Tom of Finland man is always sexually aggressive and animalistic, never sensual or romantic. Within homosexual male culture, the Tom of Finland leather–man is one of the most easily recognized and most often imitated images. The type can be found in all manner of media and advertising directed toward gay culture. Tom of Finland is arguably more responsible than any other single individual for popularizing among homosexual males the image of a man in biker leathers as a highly desirable masculine sexual object and as someone to emulate.

As physique magazines evolved into erotica and pornography, the biker image remained a highly popular one. One of the premier producers of high–production–value male erotica, Colt Studios, has utilized leather-man imagery since that company was founded 1967. It annually produces an issue devoted exclusively to men in biker leathers, as well as a similarly themed wall–calendar. The costumes worn by the models are, for obvious reasons, often limited to a Harley cap or riding chaps. The sexual objectification of specifically the leather-clad male biker is nonetheless readily apparent. Most of the other studios producing gay male erotica incorporate some type of leather-man imagery into their product line. The heterosexual and subtly erotic biker portrayed in American film, appropriated by homosexual male culture, has evolved into a homosexual and overtly sexual icon.

From the outset, homosexual men in biker leathers often congregated in select bars, whenever such establishments were tolerated by local officials. These bars often had decidedly masculine–sounding names: the Spike, the Anvil, the Ramrod, the Strap, the Ripcord, and the Cell Block.[16] Even today many major cities, including Atlanta, still have a bar called the Eagle, a reference to the Harley–Davidson logo. Many of the early leather and biker bars had less than subtle logos, however, despite the legal strictures of those eras. The Why Not of San Francisco, for example, utilized a Tom–of–Finland type character in addition to the suggestive name.[17] Similarly, Febe’s on Folsom Street famously transformed Michelangelo’s ‘David’ into a leather–sexual icon for advertising purposes, becoming the bar’s official trademark.[18] By the late 1970s, many of these bars began holding contests, loosely based on female beauty pageants, to select a patron who looked best in biker leathers. Those local contests fed an international contest network that still culminates annually in the International Mister Leather contest in Chicago, Illinois. The convention associated with that event is one of the largest in Chicago, drawing an average of ten thousand men and a few women annually at Memorial Day weekend.

The types of contests, bars, and clubs described herein continue to exist into the twenty–first century, though they are in decline. As homosexuality in America has become less stigmatized in comparison to the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s, the need or desire for homosexual men to construct a socio–sexual identity that incorporates or celebrates hyper–masculine outlawry has been reduced. The delineation between heterosexual and homosexual is less clear cut than it was thirty or forty years ago, now that commercial advertising and mass media have begun celebrating the male body as a sexual object in almost equal measure with the female body. The six-foot-tall Abercrombie and Fitch window posters at the local mall produce similar visceral reactions in both homosexual men and heterosexual women. And at the same time, young American males, both hetero– and homosexual, spend millions of dollars annually in an attempt to be the A&F model of store windows and catalogues. The homosexual male in subversive hyper–masculine biker leathers has been rendered largely obsolete by the advent of the metrosexual. The former is fast becoming a cultural anachronism that we may all look back on, some fondly, some questioningly. But he was for half a century an integral part of homosexual male culture as that culture struggled to define itself in the face of new freedoms and opportunities.


J. Stephan Edwards, PhD
27 April 2006



  1. ‘The Wild One,’ directed by László Benedek (Columbia Pictures, 1953).
  2. ‘Easy Rider,’ directed by Dennis Hopper (Columbia Pictures, 1969); ‘Chrome and Hot Leather,’ directed by Lee Frost (Metro Goldwyn-Mayer, 1971).
  3. Paul Welch, ‘Homosexuality in America’ in Life 26 June 1964, p.70.
  4. Two notable exceptions to this are Shaun Cole, ‘Don We Now Our Gay Apparel’: Gay Men’s Dress in the Twentieth Century (New York: Berg, 2000) and Martin P. Levine, Gay Macho: The Life and Death of the Homosexual Clone (New York: New York University Press, 1998). Levine’s study, based on his PhD dissertation from the early 1980s, is somewhat dated but still useful in many respects.
  5. Leather as sexual fetish clothing is covered with remarkable objectivity by Valerie Steele in Fetish: Fashion, Sex and Power (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996). Martin Levine has noted that homosexual men often ‘utilize the signifiers of the S/M world without actually engaging in the practices, wearing some black leather, but making sure no one [gets] the wrong idea. “I’m not into that heavy stuff like whipping and hot wax. But wearing leather….that’s hot”.’ Martin P. Levine, Gay Macho: The Life and Death of the Homosexual Clone (New York: New York University Press, 1998), 95.
  6. Levine, Gay Macho, 7.
  7. Cole, Don We Now, 94.
  8. Cole, Don We Now, 95.
  9. Levine, Gay Macho, 57.
  10. Cole, Don We Now, 95.
  11. There were 3069 arrests for suspected homosexual behavior in Los Angeles in 1963 alone. These arrests were for activities that included dancing with a person of the same sex, public displays of affections (kissing, etc.), cross dressing, soliciting for consensual non-remunerative sex, male prostitution, and a host of other charges not involving explicit physical sexual contact. See Paul Welch, ‘Homosexuality in America’ in Life 26 June 1964.
  12. It is important to note that cross-dressing remained an offense subject to arrest in many US states into the 1990s.
  13. Hunter S. Thompson, Hell’s Angels (New York: Penguin, 1970); Ralph ‘Sonny’ Barger, Hell’s Angel: The Life and Times of Sonny Barger and the Hell’s Angels Motorcycle Club (New York: William Morrow, 2000).
  14. The first such club was the Satyrs of Los Angeles, founded in 1954.
  15. Valentine Hooven III, Tom of Finland: His Life and Times (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993); Guy Snaith, ‘Tom’s Men: The Masculinization of Homosexuality and the Homosexualization of Masculinity at the end of the Twentieth Century’ in Paragraph 26: 1/2 ( Mar-Jul 2003), 77–89.
  16. For a study of one such bar, see Ira Tattelman, ‘Staging Sex and Masculinity at the Mineshaft’ in Men & Masculinities 7:3 (Jan 2005), 300–309.
  17. The Why Not was opened by Tony Tavarossi at 518 Ellis Street, San Francisco, in 1962. It attracted a large biker clientele as well as non-bikers attracted by masculine biker culture.
  18. For a discussion of the centrality of Folsom Street in the San Francisco gay culture, especially its biker/leather culture, see Gayle Rubin, ‘The Miracle Mile: South of Market and Gay Male Leather, 1962-1997’ in Reclaiming San Francisco: History, Politics, Culture (San Francisco: City Lights, 1998).