Bisexual rights activist, sex positive feminist, polyamorous, and ‘mother of Pride’: Brenda Howard is one of the most important figures of the modern LGBT movement you might never have heard of.
This week at the Politics section, we deviate from strictly LGBTQ politicians, and shine a light on a perhaps known but lesser discussed central figure to the 1970’s Gay Liberation Movement. The personal is inherently political after all.
Known as the ‘Mother of Pride’, Brenda Howard is a fierce LGBTQ icon within the community. Alongside a host of other activists including Craig Rodwell, Thom Higgins, Ellen Broidy, and Linda Rhodes, Howard fought fervently for gay liberation as a bisexual women and a strong feminist committed to eschewing gender and sexual norms and stereotypes from the late 1960’s onwards.
A fixture in New York City’s LGBT Community, Howard was active in the Coalition for Lesbian and Gay Rights which helped guide New York City’s Gay rights law through the City Council in 1986 as well as ACT UP and Queer Nation.
Howard was arrested in Chicago in 1988, while demonstrating for national health care and the fair treatment of women, people of color, and those living with HIV and AIDS. She was arrested in Georgia in 1991 for protesting the firing of a lesbian from the state attorney general’s office due to Georgia’s anti-sodomy law. She was arrested multiple times for social justice causes, but she always kept fighting.
Only a handful of activists in the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender movement were there at Stonewall or were part of the community at Stonewall, and never stopped their advocacy work until they died. Brenda Howard was, until her death, one of the most impassioned and committed LGBT activists within the entire movement. A bisexual women aiming to promote the rights of all members of the LGBTQ community, she also brought a huge amount of visibility to open bisexual women within the community, and is remembered extremely fondly for her leadership and loving within the bisexual community as well as the wider LGTBQ community. Many activists create bespoke, specific groups within a wider community that reflect their own specific identify while actively being involved in all aspects of the wider movement.
Howard was a trailblazer of her movement, in the early days often one of the few female members of specifically gay activist groups. Women’s participation in LGBT rights movements was still restricted by the patriarchal confines that prevented them from participating in huge numbers in practically anything at the time. The gender roles of women at the time, while definitely improving, were still rigidly perpetuated by society, with expectations of women to remain within the home environment instead of the activist sphere a very real reality. Financial and social agency were not always within a woman’s grasp. Still, there were many female activists within the movement in spite of this.
A beloved figure and friend to many, Howard is remembered also for her fierce, uncompromising activism and dedication to making the world a better place, and her lively and taboo-breaking approach to sex, gender, BDSM, and relationships. She lived the lifestyle honeys.
Pride celebrations as we know it wouldn’t look the same without her.
Pride events in cities all across the globe tend to have certain characteristics in common. Primarily, the notion of Pride being a week-long series of events as opposed to one singular day. That’s Brenda Howard’s influence: she originated the idea, which soon became the genesis for the annual LGBTQ Pride celebrations that are now held around the world every single June, in many ways to mark and honour the pivotal Stonewall riots of 1969 so precious to the LGBTQ movement, where drag queens, transgender women queer femmes, lesbians, and gay men openly defied the police and made history. Amongst some of these pioneers are Marsha P. Johnston, Stormé DeLarverie, and Sylvia Rivera.
The year was 1969. It was illegal for LGBT people to get together and have a drink or dance with same-sex partners. Enough was enough.
Howard was instrumental alongside her fellow Gay Liberation Front (GLF) in co-ordinating the first ever Pride parade. Friends with many of the Stonewall rioters and impassioned by their resistance to police brutality and commitment to sexual and gender freedom, she created a one-month anniversary rally of the Stonewall Riots viewing then how important the resistance was for the movement. She helped to iconify the events, an started the tradition of commemorating it as a pivotal shift in LGBT activism.
One month after Stonewall, she and a committee of dedicated individuals planned Gay Pride Week, and the Christopher Street Liberation Day Parade. Howard’s week and parade evolved into the annual New York Pride celebrations we are so familiar with around the world.
In 1987 Howard helped found the New York Area Bisexual Network to help co-ordinate services to the region’s growing Bisexual community. She was also an active member of the early bisexual political activist group BiPAC/Bialogue, a Regional Organizer for BiNet USA, a co-facilitator of the Bisexual S/M Discussion Group and a founder of the nation’s first Alcoholics Anonymous chapter for bisexuals.
On a national level, Howard’s contnued activism included work on both the 1987 March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights and the 1993 March on Washington for Lesbian, Gay and Bi Equal Rights and Liberation where she was female co-chair of the leather contingent and Stonewall 25 in 1994.
Brenda Howard left an unquestionable legacy within the LGBT and feminist movements, from friends sharing beloved stories, to the very tangible Brenda Howard Memorial Award. The Brenda Howard Memorial Award was created in 2005 by the Queens Chapter of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG).
It was the first award by a major American LGBT organization to be named after an openly bisexual person. The award, which is given annually, recognizes an individual or organization whose work on behalf of the bisexual community and the greater LGBT community best exemplifies the vision, principles. and community service exemplified by Brenda Howard, and who serves as a positive and visible role model for the entire LGBT community like she did.
It is important to note that this author does not believe in erroneous ‘Great Man’ or ‘Great Women’ history; that is, the phenomenon and tendency to observe individuals in a vacuum, to perceive their successes as a solo venture. Often this is not the case, with many individuals enabled to create or enact change through relationships with others and resources given by others. Brenda Howard’s title as ‘Mother of Pride’ is not to discredit the contributions of the litany of activists all activists worked with. It was a network. Brenda Howard did not create Pride alone in isolation, but was a founding mother of the event and a key contributing figure with whom without Pride would look very different today. Fundamentally, historical LGBTQ activism took place within a community and during a time of much more oppression, where individual accreditation was presumably the last thing on their minds.
Brenda Howard died in 2005, at the age of only 58 years old after a battle with colon cancer.
She was succeeded by her partner, Larry Nelson.
“You needed some kind of help organizing some type of protest or something in social justice?” recalls, Larry. “All you had to do was call her and she’ll just say when and where.”
Her fellow LGBT activist Marla R. Stevens summarised her feelings on the matter: “We forged a bond of mutual bad girl respect…that lasted through the years, including the production of the 1993 March and the work to create Stonewall 25. I miss my colleague in crime. The worst part of growing older is that such missing grows right along with it.”
Featured Image Credit: Advocate