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Dykes on Bikes founding member Soni Wolf dies

by Cynthia Laird

Soni S.H.S. Wolf at the 2015 San Francisco Pride parade. Photo: Jane Philomen Cleland
Soni S.H.S. Wolf at the 2015 San Francisco Pride parade. Photo: Jane Philomen Cleland  

Soni S.H.S. Wolf, a lesbian and founding member of the Dykes on Bikes Women's Motorcycle Contingent, died Wednesday, April 25, the organization announced May 1.

Ms. Wolf was 69 and died of natural causes, the organization said in a news release.

Brooke Oliver, an attorney who represented Ms. Wolf and Dykes on Bikes in a high-profile trademark case, said Ms. Wolf had been ill for about the past year with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, and pneumonia.

"It was really a shock that it got so bad so quickly," Oliver told the Bay Area Reporter in a phone interview Tuesday.

Dykes on Bikes members mourned the loss.

"Soni leaves an indelible mark on history, and especially, on those who shared her daily life," Dykes on Bikes spokeswoman and past president Kate Brown said. "Soni steadfastly refused to accept 'dyke' as an epithet. She blazed the trail for the rest of us in courage and LGBTQ pride."

Ms. Wolf had recently been named a community grand marshal for this year's San Francisco Pride parade.

"Soni's legacy looms large at San Francisco Pride," George Ridgely, executive director of the San Francisco LGBT Pride Celebration Committee, said in a statement.

Ms. Wolf was best known in recent years for successfully fighting to trademark Dykes on Bikes. Over 14 years Ms. Wolf worked with a team of lawyers, including Oliver at 50 Balmy Law, who took the case pro bono to successfully argue, all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court twice, that the trademark Dykes on Bikes signifies pride in the LGBTQ community and is protected as political speech.

In 2005, Dykes on Bikes announced that the U.S. Patent and Trademark office reversed its initial refusal to trademark the name Dykes on Bikes. The trademark office had twice rejected the group's application for a trademark on the ground that the name Dykes on Bikes was allegedly disparaging to lesbians. According to a news release from the National Center for Lesbian Rights, which assisted Oliver in the case, the attorneys submitted more than two-dozen expert declarations from scholars, linguists, psychologists, and activists demonstrating how the word "dyke" has evolved to become a positive term and that lesbians viewed Dykes on Bikes as a symbol of pride and empowerment.

"Forty years ago, it was very difficult to stand up and call yourself a dyke," Oliver said. "It was dangerous, it invited loss of job, it invited social ridicule, it invited attack by the police."

In those days, Oliver said, bars were the main social outlet for lesbians.

"I think a lot of younger people don't have a concept of being brave on a motorcycle, calling yourself out and proud, and rolling down Market Street," Oliver added. "Soni did that."

Oliver said that the LGBTQ community has lost "a founding mother."

"Dykes around the world found their voices as Soni and her sisters rumbled down Market Street at the head of Pride for 40 years," Oliver said in the news release. "Chapters around the world spread that tradition. We have lost a sister, a mentor, and an inspiration who started an epic cultural shift. Her legacy lives on at the front of Pride parades everywhere."

Important legal strategy
Last year, Dykes on Bikes' legal strategy helped overturn an unconstitutional law, part of the Lanham Act, in what was hailed as one of the most important freedom of expression case in years. In Matal v. Tam, a case involving the Slants, an Asian-American band, the justices ruled 8-0 that the trademark office violated the group's First Amendment right to freedom of speech when it denied it the right to register a trademark on the name.

According to Dykes on Bikes, Ms. Wolf began riding with fellow women motorcyclists at the front of the San Francisco Pride parade in the late 1970s, shortly after the movement for women's empowerment and visibility brought Dykes on Bikes to the parade's front.

"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," outgoing NCLR Executive Director Kate Kendell 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."

Ms. Wolf helped Dykes on Bikes 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 currently 16 chapters worldwide, throughout the U.S., Europe, and Australia.

At next month's Pride parade, Ms. Wolf, who formerly served on the Pride board, will be represented by her closest friends carrying the historic and beautifully painted gas tank from the motorcycle Ms. Wolf rode in the first Dykes on Bikes contingent in San Francisco.

She mentored may Dykes on Bikes riders and was sainted by the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence in 2016.

Brown wrote in an email that Ms. Wolf was born in September 1948 and grew up in Rhode Island. She served in the Air Force in Texas, where she was a stateside medic during the Vietnam War.

She moved to the Bay Area in the 1970s. In her professional life she managed copy centers for Charles Schwab and various other law firms.

"She was with Schwab for many years," Brown wrote.

In addition to Ms. Wolf, several others started the Women's Motorcycle Contingent, the news release stated. They include LB Gunn, Kalin Elliot-Arns, Christine Elliot, Sabine Balden, and Mel, whose last name was not available to Brown.

"She was an incredible advocate for lesbian pride and dignity and gave courage to generations," Brown told the B.A.R.

A public recognition of Ms. Wolf's life and contributions to the LGBTQ community will take place Sunday, June 24, on the SF Pride main stage. The San Francisco Dykes on Bikes created a special email address (rememberingsoni@dykesonbikes.org) where people can send their thoughts, memories, and goodbyes to Ms. Wolf.

A private memorial for Ms. Wolf is also planned.

The Soni Wolf Memorial Fund has been established for those wishing to contribute. Ms. Wolf was Dykes on Bikes' long-standing secretary and historian and, in 2016, was granted secretary emeritus status. According to Brown, it was Ms. Wolf's wish that the documents and materials with historical significance to the Dykes on Bikes and larger LGBTQ community in her care be archived and the fund will be used in part to support these efforts. Donations are tax-deductible and can be made via http://www.gofundme.com/soni-wolf-memorial-fund.

Contact the reporter at c.laird@ebar.com.

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