(This is the third in a series of posts highlighting the members of the Sirens who graciously sat down with me for interviews as I was preparing to write Everything In Its Place.)
I interviewed Cheryl Stewart in December 2018.
Cheryl is one of the founding members of The Sirens. She saw her first motorcycle, a blue Triumph Bonneville, on the streets of New York City when she was a kid and told her mother, "I'm gonna ride a motorcycle!" As Cheryl put it: "Anything the boys were supposed to do and the girls weren’t supposed to do, in my mind, that’s probably a fun thing. I was a feminist from day one."
Cheryl first started riding in San Francisco, where there were some (not many, but some!) other women riding. On her cross-country trips, though, it was another story altogether:
I may as well have been a giraffe riding a motorcycle, I was so conspicuous and unexpected for people, it was such a shock. There’s this woman riding alone… that was unheard of. You just didn’t know if there were any other women riders. If you met another woman riding on the road you’d stop and have a party!
In 1984, Gin Schear and Sue Slate launched the first of what would become annual women's motorcycle festivals. Cheryl credits Gin and Sue as being role models for other women motorcyclists at that time. Shortly after that first festival, the all-women's motorcycle group Moving Violations started up in Boston, with The Sirens in NYC following the next year.
Cheryl talked about the way lesbians have often felt empowered to venture into what has previously been deemed "male territory":
Mostly straight women would never do something that would make men uncomfortable and men definitely saw motorcycles as their territory…. We didn’t care what men thought about us, so it gave us freedom to do these things that straight women didn’t feel empowered to do and so I think that’s one of the reasons lesbians have always been the vanguards in sports... anything that men have claimed and women have also eventually been able to claim, you can bet lesbians have been in the forefront because we don’t care if men don’t like us! We have that freedom! Even though when we started we had bisexual and straight women in the founding members, our culture was predominantly lesbian from the start. And at that time we were very much outlaws. Our relationships were illegal… Just what we did together in bed was illegal everywhere. There were laws against us. It wasn’t just that we weren’t allowed to marry, we were actively being criminals just for being ourselves. And you know, everybody has a different reaction to that, but sometimes it’s 'Fuck you, I’ll do whatever I please.' If you’re already an outlaw, then you can do whatever you want.
I interviewed Alexander Hsie in December 2018.
Alexandra talked about the mindset that riding a motorcycle puts her into:
You are just there sitting on your bike, controlling your bike, on an open stretch of road, and you are physically moving the bike getting it to go wherever you want to go… all in your own head…. You have to concentrate on what you’re doing in the moment because if you don’t you might make a mistake and you might fall…. For somebody like me who sees a lot of steps in advance, always worrying about the future, to be forced into this moment where I really need to focus is enjoyable for me.
Alexandra first encountered members of The Sirens while volunteering at an Ali Forney Center dance at Chelsea Piers, before she herself started riding a motorcycle. She was drawn to the diversity of the group and the way the members of the club give back to the community.
Alexandra talked about how powerful it has been to be a part of a group that has a sense of history--lesbian history, in particular.
I like hearing from them. I’m 29 and they were around when being gay was illegal, and we’re in the middle of that, so watching them and hearing them talk about Stonewall back when they were fighting against the police, whereas now when we work with the police for the pride parade—it’s fascinating to watch. This is so weird! Especially now that it’s, like, cool to be gay in a way. We don’t face the same hurdles they did. Having members of the group that have lived through that is really powerful. I hear stories I’ve never heard otherwise.
I interviewed KT Ballantine in January 2019.
KT has always loved speed. "My dad had a Corvette growing up. I need speed, I love fast things--I love being adventurous, living on the edge." But it wasn't until she met (and fell in love with!) Sirens member Jen Baquial that KT got into motorcycle riding. Two years after they met, KT got her own bike.
One of the things that impressed KT about the Sirens when she was first introduced to the group was the diversity in size and body shape of its members. KT had assumed that as a short female she wouldn't be able to ride a motorcycle, but quickly realized this was not true.
KT says she's shy in her everyday life, but when she's riding with the Sirens, particularly for the Pride parade, it's a different story. One year at the parade, she was approached by a shy Asian girl who told her: “I want to be like you one day!”
KT takes great pride in being part of the growing number of women motorcyclists in the country: from 8% to 19% of motorcyclists in recent years. "I feel great being a woman on a motorcycle," KT said.