If you’ve been followed my bike travels, you may have noticed my extreme love for an event I participated in while I was in Minneapolis: Babes in Bikeland. I ended up there through a series of incredible people telling me how I should spend my time in their city. A barista first told me about it and wrote down the name of it on a small piece of receipt paper. Later, when I was attempting to assemble Laura’s bicycle at a bike shop, the extremely helpful mechanic brought it up. He told me that there was also an event planned the night before Babes, and if I wanted more information, that one of the organizers for it was sitting right in the bike shop!
I approached Low–because when you’re traveling, you put yourself out there and there is never a need to feel awkward–and found them to be welcoming, enthusiastic, and casually radically inclusive. After I had such a great experience at Babes, I had the opportunity to interview Low about their experience in the bicycling worlds of Minneapolis.
MAT: What are you up to these days? Personally, professionally, politically, creatively?
Low: Professionally, I just started working at the Minneapolis Bicycle Colation (mplsbike.org), which is a non-profit that advocates for the best possible bike transportation options for a broad range of cyclists in Minneapolis. I’ve been here about a month. I work with a great team, and we are focused on getting protected bikeways integrated into our bike network, hosting Open Streets (main streets are closed to cars, like a ciclovia or car-free street festival), and forming partnerships with local groups that work on health, diversity, and bike issues.
In my spare time I like to organize Grease Rag, a group of friendly women, trans*, femme cyclists, with a whole bunch of other talented volunteers. Everything from helping organize our 6th Annual Winter Biking Skill Share, to supporting our open shop night locations, writing on the blog and encouraging others to submit their work, craft parties, party parties, group rides like our monthly Full Moon Ride… That’s where my heart is, and a huge part of my social network. I care deeply about the people in the group, and I’m invested in encouraging beginners, creating community for WTFs (women, trans*, femme folks), and gender identity issues.
MAT: How did you start working with the WTF bicycling community?
Low: I had just started riding my bike 12 miles to work, because I couldn’t afford two daily rush hour bus passes with the part time work I had at the time. I was just figuring out that I needed lights, a helmet, and was starting to figure out vehicular cycling, sharing the road. And then… I saw that people were riding together for fun. I rode with a few guys, but I found it kind of stressful because I didn’t know my way around very well by bike, and I always felt like the newb along for the ride. I saw a post on a bike forum for a short group ride with an “open shop” at the end. I knew, in theory but not practice, how to change a flat tire, but I figured there were other things I could learn, and was really hoping that I could meet other people to ride with so I could be a part of one of those groups of bikers I would see, riding in a smiling pack, looking like they were having all the fun in the world.
July 7, 2009 was the first Grease Rag, at Sunrise Cyclery. I learned how to adjust my rear derailleur limit screw from the mechanic, Shayne, and it changed my whole world. Before then, I just thought, “Well, my bike won’t shift anymore. So I have a single speed! This is my new reality.” After Grease Rag, I realized, “I can fix that! And if I can fix the shifting… what else can I fix?” It just showed me what was possible.
Shortly after the founder of Grease Rag, Durkee, left for SFO, and some of us, including my pal and roommmate Kat, felt Grease Rag was too important to let fade, and we took to formally organizing the group.
That was one path to my work with WTFs. Another path was through rejection by some people I wanted to ride with. Another path was my first alley cat race, Babes in Bikeland 4. Another path was feeling abused and talked down to by the cis-male bike bro culture.
MAT: And that last bit–cis-male bike bro culture–is, I’ve found, so consistent, and consistently hard to deal with. I was impressed, then, that for Babes in Bikeland, you were all able to recruit so many supportive cis-guys to participate by volunteering, cheering, and working the stations. How did that come about?
Low: Intent. I mean this in two ways.
1. I intentionally do not go to parties, events, races, or shops where I have had problems in the past or where I know the organizers and crowd are not going to be WTF-focused/ -friendly. Maybe 10 years ago this might have limited my social life, but because there is such a bustling community of queers, women, and WTFs putting on events with safer spaces in mind, I am never left wanting.
2. Those supportive cis-men? They are our friends, and they want to support us, grow bike culture (whatever the heck that is), and INCLUDE WTFs. Because they are decent, kind humans! But honestly, being decent and kind is not enough. When you are dealing with marginalization and oppression, you can’t just “leave the door open” and expect people to feel welcome, and come in to join you. You have to do more. At Babes, we had a few strategies for making the intent of the event really clear, and giving our volunteers tactics to take all of their kindness and decency, and translate that into active support and inclusion.
MAT: What kinds of tactics did encourage the volunteers to use?
Low: Here are some things we did at Babes to create a safer space during the race.
1. Volunteer captains. We had a volunteer, wearing a different colored shirt from other volunteers, that was in charge of each stop. They were in charge of their volunteers, and we held them responsible for what happened at their stop. We encouraged them to invite their most responsible friends to volunteer with them at stops. We held a mandatory Captain’s meeting before the race to solidify their commitment to show up, and we used the space to do some WTF inclusion/ safer space training.
2. We asked that volunteers not get drunk. Yes, it needs to be said.
3. Racers see us organizers at the beginning, and end of the race. For the 3 hours they are racing, they only see volunteers, so they are the FACE OF THE RACE. Their lives are in your hands, dude.
4. Instead of, “Go Ladies!’ (Ugh.) or, “Ride fast, girls!” use non-gendered language. “Good job!” “Way to go!” “Looking fresh!”
5. If someone rides up and obviously looks like a woman, you’re going to stamp their mani, right? And when someone rolls up that obviously looks like a man… STAMP THEIR MANI. ALWAYS STAMP THE MANIFEST. If they have a manifest, they self-identify as WTF. Your opinion on their gender is irrelevant.
Those were the basics.
And you know what? During that meeting, you could hear a pin drop. The guys were really listening, taking it in. They really cared. And they did a great job. I felt really supported, and I know our racers did too.
MAT: That’s amazing. And in relation to the either the Minneapolis Bicycle Coalition or Babes in Bikeland, what kind of racial representation is there? And what barriers have you found to increasing racial representation within the bike community?
Low: I’m going to split that into two answers, because that is two questions.
1. Babes: Unfortunately, because the internet is easy and gets results, we promote Babes through the whitest, most middle class channel: Facebook. So it follows that most of the people that are coming out to Babes are going to be white WTFs, around 30 years old. However, while word of mouth is broadening the age category and there is a more and more diverse crowd every year, we do not make specific efforts to make the race more racially diverse. We could definitely do more.
My goal for next year is to encourage more trans* identifying folks to the race.
2. The Bicycle Coalition is member-supported and volunteer-driven. Meaning, we have 3 full time staff, and a huge group of volunteers that focus, lead, and execute the work that we do. And what types of people are typically involved in advocacy, and volunteering around urban planning or policy issues? White men. And we struggle with that, although I would say our volunteer base has more gender diversity than I expected.
As the community organizer, it is my job to create partnerships and relationships with a diverse group of organizations. Those organizations help us connect with the diversity within their organizations. Everyday I’m hustlin’.
For me, “diversity” at the Bicycle Coalition is typically focused on class/ socio-economic issues and race, and “diversity” within Grease Rag usually means gender-identity and age.
MAT: Hmm, that’s interesting. When actively working to make spaces more inclusive, it sounds like the group focuses their energy in specific ways. But those groups aren’t exclusive, right. Even if that’s not represented within the biking world, I can see how biking, as a form of empowerment and democracy, can work for people who are marginalized on multiple fronts. Everything’s connected.
Low: Intersectionality is the first thing I think in the morning when I wake up, and the last thing on my mind when I lay my head to rest.
MAT: So, we’ve talked about intentionally getting away from spaces that are not WTF inclusive, and creating space for WTF participation in bike culture. That’s a lot of physical labor, and emotional labor. In a world of your choosing, who do you ideally surround yourself with?
Low: Thank you for recognizing that making safer spaces is work. It’s real work! But when things go according to plan… it is the most rewarding work. Because it takes a lot of people to make a space safer, and that means that we all share in the joy and enthusiasm when we achieve it. It’s magical.
In my dreams, I’m surrounded by all of the WTFs I know that are working to make the world a better place. Working toward diversity, equity, ending animal cruelty, safer streets for cyclists and pedestrians, immigrant law reform, refugee trauma… I want to surround myself with the WTFs that I’ve met through Babes and Grease Rag that are movers and shakers, because they inspire me to do more with my time. To push harder against the misogyny and racism and transphobia that we have to deal with everyday, and to celebrate our wins even harder, because those wins take WORK and sacrifice, and we deserve a little horn-tooting back-pat when we make ground.
MAT: That’s so real. Something you’d written on the Babes page afterwards, about how we know that if we want to be represented, we need to be writing our own histories and documenting what we’ve gained. Within bike culture (and all culture), WTF are constantly invisibilized. It’s important to say, sure, the dominant bike culture is a certain thing (middle aged, middle class cis-men), but there are reasons for that. And what is dominant does not represent everyone. Just because that’s dominant doesn’t mean we’re not here. We are here!
Low: The Grease Rag blog is a side project of mine, with the goal of showing that different people and narratives exist. Women are not just sexual objects to pose next to a sexualized/ objectified bike in marketing material. We are not some homogeneous “market” to be catered to by the bike industry. We are a spectrum of individuals, and we can speak for ourselves, thank-you-very-much.
MAT: I’m basically gushing from how much I love this. This is awesome.Thanks.
Low: You are gushing because it’s universal! Because it is one of those things that most WTFs recognize! We feel marginalized because we ARE marginalized. Naming it is the first step. Making art and speaking and writing and spreading the word is the next step. Step 3 is ??? but Step 4 is global domination.
MAT: Fuck yeah it is. So one last question, one that I think is really important to the fact that dismantling cisheteronormative white supremicist capitalist patriarchal society is WORK. How do you incorporate self-care into your life?
Low: Some work you have to do for money. Some work you have to do because of some weird expectation or obligation that you do it. And Some work makes you a better, stronger, happier person, with friends all over the world because you read each other’s blogs or you passed through town when they were throwing a WTF alley cat race. (The biggest in the universe*, btw.)
Grease Rag is how I care for myself. All of my friends have at least one degree of separation from the Grease Rag. My roommate Kat and I met at the first Grease Rag, and we have been living together and organizing all sorts of stuff together for the past three years. Grease Rag has become a litmus test in my life, for the types of people that I want to spend time with. Grease Rag has shown me that even though I feel completely inadequate and incompetent and inferior at times, I can *do* something. I did a thing! I’m a part of something, and I care about the people involved, and that is a huge part of my self care.
When I need a break, I ask other members to take on tasks, I take bike rides by myself, I remind myself that whether or not a planned Grease Rag event happens is not life or death, and I love to cook elaborate meals, make refrigerator pickles, go to the farmers market, and watch Netflix with my two best cuddle buddies, Sookie and Sofi my two black witch sister cats. =]
MAT: That’s powerful, Low. You are working in sustaining Grease Rag, but then you can directly benefit from it’s results. It feeds you back.