Soni Wolf wanted to reclaim the word "dykes" from homophobes. (Courtesy Dykes on Bikes)
Soni Wolf, a founding member of the iconic Dykes on Bikes whose motorcycle contingent has led the LGBT Pride Parade for four decades, has died at the age of 69.
The organization said Wolf died in Daly City last week, surrounded by friends.
Wolf, a native of Rhode Island who served in the U.S. Air Force during the Vietnam era, moved to the San Francisco Bay Area in the 1970s. Her first ride with Dykes on Bikes occurred in San Francisco's Pride Parade in 1976. It was not an especially hospitable time for LGBT rights.
"Even the term dyke -- are you kidding me? –- people wouldn’t say it," recalls Tom Ammiano. "It was so affirming to have it used and also disarming. It was one of the bridges to the straight community."
Wolf wanted to reclaim the word "dyke" from those who used it as an epithet, said Brooke Oliver, a friend of Wolf's and an attorney for the group.
"She figured that riding down Market Street on her motorcycle with 20 or 25 women rumbling down would make an impression, and it did," Oliver recalls. "Her message was simple: We're proud of being dykes. We're out and loud and proud and they rumbled down Market Street and started an international movement."
Wolf spent the next 40 years not only riding at the start of the Pride Parade, but also helping to build chapters of the group around the world. In addition to U.S. cities like Chicago, Minneapolis and Monterey, there are now Dykes on Bikes chapters in Iceland, Australia and England.
Mark Leno, who is seeking to become San Francisco's first openly gay mayor, said Wolf was tenacious in her advocacy of queer rights.
"Soni was a force of nature and a powerful leader who led by example," Leno said. "We will miss her dearly. But we will continue to honor her by picking up where she left off -- fighting for equality and unconditionally giving to our communities."
As Leno suggests, Dykes on Bikes was much more than a once-a-year contingent in the Pride Parade. The group also did philanthropic work for LGBT causes and organizations around the world.
"She blazed the trail for the rest of us in courage and LGBTQ pride," said Kate Brown, a former president of the group. "Like the roads we ride, our lives take many twists and turns. I am forever grateful for the route that brought Soni into my life."
Ammiano, who eventually went on to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and the state Legislature, was one of the few openly gay teachers when the group was formed. He says that in 1976, before Harvey Milk was elected as the first openly gay candidate in the United States, Dykes on Bikes were an early symbol of empowerment.
"They were out there, and they inspired other things to happen," Ammiano told KQED. "They were quite an inspiration and they did it with such spirit!"
That spirit will continue in June when the Dykes on Bikes lead the now-massive LGBT Pride Parade up Market Street, as they have for more than 40 years.
Wolf was selected by the celebration committee to be a Grand Marshal for next month's Pride Parade. While Wolf won't be there in person, her life will be remembered June 24 at a public memorial in Civic Center after the Pride Parade. A memorial fund has been established in her honor.