Wolf was the group's longtime secretary and historian, and led the fight to trademark their name and reclaim the term "dyke."
Marilyn Drew Necci | May 2, 2018
If any of you lesbians out there have ever referred to yourselves as a “proud dyke,” you’ve been influenced by Soni S.H.S. Wolf, whether you know it or not. One of the co-founders of San Francisco’s Dykes On Bikes, Wolf passed away last week of natural causes. She was 69.
Dykes On Bikes began when a group of motorcycle-riding women led the 1976 San Francisco Pride Parade. After one of the women joked to a San Francisco Chronicle reporter that they were “dykes on bikes,” the name stuck. Wolf was one of those women on motorcycles at the head of the Pride Parade, and became a driving force behind the group’s activities.
In the ensuing years, the group grew into a formidable force, always with Wolf at the forefront. According to the organization’s website, Wolf “helped the organization evolve into a 501(c)3 nonprofit, spearheading the group’s mission to create a national and international community of women’s motorcyclists supporting philanthropic endeavors in LGBTQ communities.” There are now 16 chapters of Dykes On Bikes around the world, including the founding San Francisco chapter.
When Dykes On Bikes sought a trademark on their name in the early 2000s, the US Patent and Trademark Office initially refused the claim on the grounds that “dyke” was “disparaging to lesbians.” Wolf worked to fight this decision, working with the National Center For Lesbian Rights to obtain statements from scholars, activists, and legal experts to the effect that “Dykes On Bikes” was a symbol of lesbian pride and empowerment, and that “dyke” had evolved to be seen in a positive light within the LGBTQ community. The organization were finally allowed a trademark in 2005. Years later, Dykes On Bikes filed a “friend of the court” brief in a Supreme Court case that ultimately stripped the US Patent And Trademark Office of its right to reject any names on the grounds that they were “derogatory.”
“Soni steadfastly refused to accept “Dyke” as an epithet,” Dykes On Bikes spokesperson Kate Brown said on their website. “She blazed the trail for the rest of us in courage and LGBTQ pride.”
“On her motorcycle, Soni Wolf blazed a new path forward for women and lesbians by defying gender stereotypes and boldly demanding recognition of our community on our own terms,” Kate Kendell, executive director of the National Center For Lesbian Rights, said in a statement. “NCLR was honored to represent Dykes on Bikes, and Soni, in its challenge for recognition, and today, we mourn this loss for our community.”
Wolf was scheduled to appear as a grand marshal at this year’s San Francisco Pride Parade. Now that she has passed on, her place will be filled by friends who will carry the gas tank from the motorcycle she rode at the head of the 1976 Pride Parade. “We look forward to celebrating her life by continuing the tradition she was so instrumental in establishing over 40 years ago,” Pride executive director George F. Ridgely Jr said in a statement. “Soni was an integral member of the San Francisco Pride family, and she will be missed.”
San Francisco Dykes On Bikes have established a Soni Wolf memorial fund on GoFundMe. While a minority of the money raised will go toward memorial services for Wolf, most will go towards creating a permanent archive of the documents relating to the history of Dykes On Bikes and the larger LGBTQ community that were in Wolf’s possession at the time of her death.
A public recognition of Soni Wolf’s life and contributions to the LGBTQ community will take place at the San Francisco Pride main stage on June 24. Those with memories of Soni they wish to share are encouraged to send their stories to Dykes On Bikes at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo by Katherine Saunders via GoFundMe