Outside the LGBT Center in Chelsea, a smattering of parked motorcycles lines the street. Inside, their owners call a meeting to order, per Robert’s Rules of Order.
Roll call. Executive news. Member news. New business.
The formality seems a bit out of place considering the group of men here are bikers.
But this isn’t the typical biker club. This is the Empire City Motorcycle Club, the nation’s oldest gay motorcycle club.
The club’s mission is virtually identical to any other biker club: to provide a brotherhood for men who just want to ride their Harleys, BMWs and Triumphs. These men just happen to be gay.
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“When people see this back patch, they know exactly who we are. They know what we stand for,” said Chaz Antonelli, club president, referencing the massive blue and orange Mars symbol patch stitched into the back of their leather vests. “We’re a brotherhood. A family.”
There was a time when gay motorcycle clubs were seen as protectors of the gay community, offering security outside of bars, for example. That mindset has changed as the number of gay bars in the city has dwindled and the need for protection has all but been eliminated with a more progressive police force like the NYPD, which even has its own LGBT unit.
“Stonewall and the gay movement was really pushed by drag queens, and the only place to meet were gay bars. For those that were more closeted, these motorcycle clubs provided a safe and inconspicuous meeting space,” said Mark Wind, who joined Empire City in the mid-1970s and has been a member longer than any of his fellow bikers.
The club operates as a nonprofit group, doing charity work and raising money for the leather community while also maintaining a biker bond of brotherhood.
“This group provides a family, especially for those of us that don’t have a family,” said Mike Matles, 67, whose been with Empire City for nearly four years. “Sometimes even your blood family won’t even help out. These guys will.”
“When you identify as queer, there is an experience where you have your blood family, and then you have a chosen family; the ones you surround yourself with and call your own,” said Scott Laney, a six-year veteran of the club. “This is mine.”
But being in the Empire City family isn’t just about owning and riding a Harley. There’s an intense vetting process that goes into becoming a brother.
“We are a very close-knit group of people, and we only allow a certain number of people in [the club]. You need to be able to work well within it,” said “Evil” Ed, vice president of Empire City.
For some of the new recruits, the club reaffirms their feeling that being gay doesn’t have to be a stereotype.
“When people think of bikers they don’t necessarily think gay, and when they think gay they don’t necessarily think bikers,” said Loki, the newest brother of the group. “But here we are.”