The Hell's Angels, the world's most famous biker gang, are known for their hyper-masculine image. Famous for drug busts, biker chicks, and taking out a hit on Mick Jagger, the gang has become an icon for outlaw behavior. They also have a surprising history of fluid sexuality and homoerotic behavior. The Angels differentiated themselves from society by kissing each other on the mouth as a greeting and an opportunity to shock passers-by.
Hell's Angels and other outlaw biker gangs rebelled against the rigid social norms of the 1950s and 1960s. They loved Harley Davidson bikes, hard-drinking, and fighting. "Being in an outlaw motorcycle club, the biker lifestyle back then, was definitely counterculture," says Ed Winterhalder, a former Bandido, author, and producer of several television shows about biking. "It was 100 percent the opposite direction that mainstream society was going in." Hell's Angels and other outlaw gangs proudly called themselves "one percenters," a riff on the head of the American Motorcycle Association's statement that 99 percent of bikers were law-abiding citizens and one percent caused trouble
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The bikers' kisses became immortalized in Hunter S. Thompson's book Hell's Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga. '[Kissing] is a guaranteed square-jolter, and the Angels are gleefully aware of the reaction it gets," he wrote. "The sight of a photographer invariably whips the Angels into a kissing frenzy."
Life photographer Bill Ray witnessed the Angels' attention grabbing display. After capturing a photograph of two men in a deep embrace in 1965, he said, "That's the sort of thing they would do all the time, just to freak people out. As if to say, 'What're you looking at? You got a problem with this?'"
The hyper-masculine atmosphere of male biker clubs might have allowed for more sexual fluidity and expression amongst the Angels. "If you look at the last century and a half, all-male subcultures that were particularly hypermasculine are often the subcultures that also allow men more flexibility in their gender behavior," says Randy McBee, a professor at Texas Tech and author of Born to Be Wild: The Rise of the American Motorcyclist. "Because these men participate in very aggressive, physical and masculine behavior they can participate in other behaviors that are not typically viewed as masculine, or in some cases heterosexual. Men in sports can be very aggressive on the field and be very competitive, but can also slap each other on the ass and be very emotional after a victory or a loss—behaviors that are less common in a middle-class, white collar office setting."
Homosexuality also remained a part of the underground in the early years of the Hell's Angel. Gay culture existed outside the public consciousness, allowing for more freedom of behavior. "The line dividing heterosexual from homosexual became more rigid after WWII, but it didn't happen overnight and it varied by class, race and ethnicity," McBee says. "While the Hell's Angels and other motorcyclists were attracting attention for this behavior and questions about homosexuality were becoming more prominent, the line dividing gay from straight wasn't as rigid as it would be in the following decades." Gay culture and biker culture often blended together. Gay men adopted the same uniform as the Hell's Angels, dressing as leather daddies modeling themselves on rebel heroes like Marlon Brando and James Dean, and creating further confusion between what was classified as "gay" or "straight" behavior.
Hell's Angels viewed their freedom to kiss as an assertion of masculinity and the ultimate proof of their confidence in their heterosexuality: "The performative kissing of the 1960 Hell's Angels marks an important moment in straight white male homosexuality, one in which homosexual contact is presented to the public as an expression of such extraordinary hetero-masculine rebelliousness that it defies categorization as gay," Jane Ward writes in her book Not Gay: Sex Between Straight White Men. The Angels viewed themselves and their aggressive behavior as so hyper-masculine that no behavior, no matter how homoerotic, could erase their inherent heterosexuality.
The Hell's Angels would probably agree with Ward's assertions. When asked what a Hell's Angel would say to someone who asked if kissing a fellow biker counted as a gay kiss, Winterhalder said, "They would probably knock the guy out. Being gay in the outlaw motorcycle world is not accepted at all and is not a part of the culture at all." Gays have formed their own biker groups, like the Satyrs, to participate in biker culture.
Still, in 2016, straight bikers continue to kiss each other. Winterhalder says men in the Outlaws, Pagans, Bandidos, Vagos, and Mongols all kiss each other as a traditional greeting more so than to shock strangers. Bikers have become part of mainstream culture, with 739,000 people attending the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally and Harley Davidson selling $60 T-shirts, but the traditional values of the Hell's Angels and other outlaw gangs continue today.
"The general attitude [is] to have the most fun that you possibly could and live your life the way you wanted to live it and not do what you're told," Winterhalder says. "Do what you want to do."