As a longtime biker and an openly gay man, Tom Hood says there likely always will be a place for motorcycle groups that cater to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender members.
Those groups, he says, aren’t as necessary as they were years ago. But they’re still a place where LGBT motorcyclists can relax and be themselves without fear of scrutiny or criticism.
“That’s not possible for some people in a mixed or straight environment,” Hood said.
Originally from Platteville, Hood is president of the Riders Motorcycle Club in Boston, one of the nation’s oldest gay men’s motorcycle groups.
The club was formed in the early 1980s when the biker community didn’t welcome LGBT riders who openly expressed their sexuality.
Now, LGBT bikers say things are much better, although there are exceptions.
“I personally would be very cautious” in some situations, said Terri Coughlin, a lesbian motorcyclist and former Harley-Davidson Inc. employee.
“But for those of us who want to come out and live our lives authentically, motorcycling is another expression of personal freedom,” Coughlin said.
Harley-Davidson is a sponsor of this week’s PrideFest Milwaukee, a celebration of the LGBT community that runs Thursday through Sunday at Maier Festival Park.
Coughlin says she’s grateful Harley has taken that role, since years ago she had a hurtful experience while volunteering at one of the company’s motorcycling events.
“I am very impressed and happy that they’ve come a long way since then,” she said.
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This will be the first year PrideFest has a motorcycle parade, with several hundred bikes expected to participate Saturday.
“It’s definitely not exclusive to LGBTs. You won’t be crashing the party if you don’t have a rainbow flag,” said Cormac Kehoe, one of the organizers.
Parades like this are a sign of better times, according to Hood, who attended Lawrence University in Appleton from 1985 through 1987.
Years ago, he belonged to an outlaw biker club, but as a gay man, he has since made Riders his group.
Some outlaw clubs — known as “1 percenters” because 99 percent of bikers don’t belong to them — have a strong anti-gay bias.
Yet most people in motorcycling pay little or no attention to someone’s gender or sexual identity, according to Hood.
“I can go on other rides and not feel like I am under any scrutiny or pressure. Generally, the way it works in the motorcycle world is, if you give respect you get respect,” he said.
Trying to build motorcycle ridership and attract new customers, Harley-Davidson has stepped up its marketing aimed at younger people and racial minorities.
LGBT bikers say the company has a mixed record in reaching out to them.
When he was a Harley Owners Group member, Hood said, “there was never anything in their publications that even mentioned LGBTs at all.”
Yet Harleys are popular with lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender bikers, said Chaz Antonelli, past president of the Empire City Motorcycle Club, in New York, the oldest gay men’s biker group in the nation.
“They are already marketing to us in their own way, saying this is your freedom, your ability to do what you want, when you want,” he said.
Still, not everyone has embraced some of the changes.
Four years ago, a Salt Lake City police officer got into trouble when he objected to riding in the motorcycle brigade at the front of a gay pride parade, saying it was a violation of his religious liberties.
Eric Moutsos said he was unfairly labeled a bigot because he simply asked to swap roles and work a different part of the parade in June 2014.
Moutsos, a Mormon, said he felt uncomfortable doing what he considered to be celebratory circles with other motorcycles leading the parade. But he said he never refused to be part of it.
He was placed on leave and later resigned. The police department said it would not tolerate “bias and bigotry,” and that it did not allow personal beliefs to enter into an officer’s decision to accept an assignment.
Moutsos said he was offended by the notion that he would treat gays and lesbians differently than anyone else.
“It is unquestionably my duty as a police officer to protect everyone’s right to hold a parade or other event, but is it also my duty to celebrate everyone’s parade?” he said in a statement in 2015.
Many motorcyclists not part of the LGBT community say someone’s gender or sexual identity is their own personal business.
“The world is a big place. Play nice with others,” said Ted Palmatier, a longtime member of the DMZ Motorcycle Club, for veterans, in Burlington.
“Personally, I wish a lot of people would just loosen up their underwear. … It’s a little too tight,” he said.
While there will probably always be a place for LGBT motorcycle groups, Hood said, over time there will be less need for them as society becomes more accepting.
At one time, Riders Motorcycle Club had 140 members; now it’s down to about 55.
Hood said he thinks the LGBT community can claim a victory when it’s no longer a big deal for sports stars and celebrities to announce they aren’t heterosexual.
“And the fifth thing down the list you would use to describe a person is their sexual identity.”