Idol Worship: Brenda Howard, Bisexual Curmudgeon and Mother of Pride

Welcome to Idol Worship, a biweekly devotional to whoever the fuck I’m into. This is a no-holds-barred lovefest for my favorite celebrities, rebels and biker chicks; women qualify for this column simply by changing my life and/or moving me deeply. This week I’m getting my pride on with Brenda Howard, a badass bisexual who created these parades we call home. Sort of. We ruined them, though.

Header by Rory Midhani

Brenda Howard might be the LGBT movement’s best kept secret. A “bisexual curmudgeon” who worked as a “distinguished phone sex worker” and later became a lifelong gay rights activist with the Gay Liberation Front and beyond, she is known as the “Mother of Pride” for organizing what may be the first-ever LGBT pride event on record.

Did I mention the bisexual curmudgeon phone sex worker part yet?

brenda howard is on the right

brenda howard is on the right

Howard was born Decmeber 24, 1946 in the Bronx but grew up in Long Island. She was a registered nurse when she became involved in bisexual, sex-positive activism – most notably, with groups and movements like the Gay Activists Alliance, Gay Liberation Front, Stonewall 25 and a handful of groups at New York City’s “Center” for LGBT folks. Before her death in 2005, she also founded the New York Area Bisexual Network and the first Alcoholics Anonymous chapter for bisexual human beings. One of her creations – the Christopher Street Liberation Day Parade, which happened one year after the Stonewall Riots in commemoration of the queens who saved our asses from the rest of history – eventually got cleaned up by mainstream advocates after the GLF and the GAA disbanded. It became the cookie-cutter rainbow-filled thing we now call “Gay Pride.”

The Christopher Street parades helped gay pride grow across the nation nonetheless – through the 1970’s, New York an Atlanta had Gay Liberation Day and San Francisco and Los Angeles found themselves marking their calendars for Gay Freedom Day. The spirit of her revolution, no matter what name or nonprofit it belonged to, lived on even in its meekest forms: gay liberation, a cultural awakening toward queerdom, and, ultimately, free love.

Howard was a firecracker. A chair member in the mostly-male GAA and an energetic “workaholic for the movement,” she stayed up late making phone calls and seeking out supporters for everything from radical queerness to legislation. (In 1986, she was part of a coalition that passed a law banning discrimination based on orientation in New York City; she also helped to organize the first LGBT marches on Washington and headed up the leather contingent.) Her approach was varied and, at the root, a little wild – just like herself. Her last partner of five years, Larry Nelson, supported her endlessly in her professional devotion to gay liberation and her personal commitment to S&M. When she died, Nelson’s obituary for Howard read:

I remember Brenda from many occasions, including at the Leather Women’s after-DOJ building conference party we Michigan festival leather organizers threw at the Watergate during the 87 MOW weekend. But I remember most fondly being in jail with her in Atlanta following an ACT-UP protest at the state capitol in protest of the firing of a lesbian from the state attorney general’s office because she was an unconvicted felon due to the same Georgia sodomy law that was at issue in Hardwick v. Bowers, reading steamy novels aloud to the assembled grrlz and being as much of a pain in the rear as possible so they’d not want to hold us any longer than absolutely necessary.

The jail spokesperson announced to the waiting crowd that they’d soon be releasing us a few at a time with whispered aside by one jail employee that they’d be letting the most irksome of us go first. Everyone speculated that the first woman out would thus be Brenda — everyone except Phyllis, who said, no, that it would be her loving spouse.

The few there besides Phyllis who knew me knew me only as a lobbyist who generally wore skirts and heels and makeup and made necessary political compromises they’d never dream of and thus thought Phyllis a bit daft. I was not only the first woman released but the first person. Brenda, though, followed close behind and we forged a bond of mutual bad girl respect because of it 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.

brenda howard, in the back on the right (glasses)

brenda howard, in the back on the right (glasses)

Howard shaped the gay movement with her own heart, sculpting it uniquely as someone with her own individual sexual experiences and her own unwillingness to be sunk. Every arrest, every setback and every piece of backlash only made the revolution change shape – never direction. She remained committed to the direction. She remained committed to liberation at any cost. When she died, bisexual and queer activists could remember only fond memories of her impressive and personal leadership, unwillingness to surrender, and lifelong devotion to their own freedom: 

She was at the Stonewall Rebellion in 1969, andwas a very vocal and visible bisexual presence in NY gay community for over 25 years. I first worked with her during the mobilization of the 1987 March on Washington for LG Rights. In those days we organized by phone and answering machines. She knew how to work the phone!! Brenda was part of the core group of bi delegates [and some gay activists] who actively lobbied and educated gay and lesbian delegates from around the country who successfully got bisexual into the title of the 1993 March on Washington for Lesbian, Gay and Bi Equal Rights and Liberation. She could be difficult, she could be stubborn, she could be outrageous and she always stood up and spoke out for bisexual people and challenged biphobia even in the most hostile environments. Blessed Be.

brenda howard, second from the right in the front row

brenda howard, second from the right in the front row

I don’t want us to forget Brenda Howard the same way I don’t want us to forget who it was wreaking havoc at Stonewall. History belongs in such unique hands, you know? Our modern-day “gay rights” movement is descended from feisty, fiery queers with an agenda that doesn’t even fit in a folio book and holds dreams bigger than a wedding reception or a nonprofit gala. Our predecessors in the name of Pride are people who may not even be proud of what it’s turned into, or may not have ever been able to comprehend how it is a movement so vast became so narrow over time. When we’re working to keep the spirit of inclusive, intersectional, and truly liberated queerness alive and well, we’re honoring our own ancestors. And next time I’m rallying for my rights, I’m hoping to channel a little more Brenda Howard and a little less modern and corrupted gay rights movement.

all photos from the NY Area Bisexual Network.

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Carmen is the Feminism and Straddleverse Editor at Autostraddle, meaning she helps expand your mind and your queer girl clique. She's mother to the most adorable dog on Earth and hates paying more than one dollar for a good slice of pizza. At times, she self-identifies as "the baddest bitch." You should follow her on Twitter and Tumblr because it makes her feel good about herself when people do.

Carmen has written 583 articles for us.

30 Comments

  1. Thumb up 16

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    Thank you Carmen for highlighting this hero. Bisexuals are important! As a bisexual queer, any positive mention of bisexual people is like manna from heaven for me. So encouraging!

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    carm this article was so thorough and well-researched and really opened my eyes (and heart) to an important queer woman i didn’t know about up until this very moment. thank you for doing queer history justice <3

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    I was explaining to a straight friend on why bi visibility is so important and while I was talking I grew frustrated. After I was done explaining and ranting, I realized why including bisexuality to the everything is more crucial to the advancement of LBGT rights.

    My Feels:

    1a) I feel that when it comes to the queer umbrella most people are pan/bisexual. I know too people who admit to having non-monsexual feelings identify as straight (or gay) because of bi-phobia, heterosexism, homophobia and feeling the attraction to the opposite sex is “not significant” enough to identify as being non-monosexual. I’m strictly talking about numbers!

    1b) With this bisexuals/non-monosexual people should honestly have more influence because duh, numbers, then again, I’m not saying “omg everyone is bisexual/non-monosexual” but damn there are a lot of you sexy people but bullshit gets in the way! I NEED TO SEE YOU! Oh, I also want to selfishly increase my dating pool ;)

    2a) (For the women) Because of heterosexism, numbers of available men vs. queer women , yes a lot of mono-sexual women with find themselves in heterosexual relationships and they are actually happy. Don’t hate.

    2b) If people were more open and less cynical towards non-monosexual people maybe they would be more open to dating people of the same sex. From my experience (too many) nice bi-curious (bisexual?) men were OPEN but they felt that if they made the leap they would be deemed gay or would have to hide their past about dating men with women and vice versa. Also I want to increase my dating pool, I promise I’m not cynical when it comes to bisexual women, hey girl, hey!

    3) Yes heterosexual privilege is real but it only applies when *gasp* one is in a heterosexual relationship! This can apply to all the people! So this “bisexual people have all the heterosexual privilegessssssss” *side-eyes* No, it’s more complicated than that.

    4) Most interestingly I felt this weird “good bi/ bad bi” when a bi person is dating someone of the same sex gay people are like “oh we can take you seriously *cough you’re really gay*” or when a bi person is dating someone of a different sex “oh you tourist! *cynical shit*” or “I guess you’re cool!'”
    This needs to stop!

    I’m trying to say this as gently as possible but bisexual people in heterosexual relationship are sooooo not “straight!” I’ve been lucky to be friends with not one but a couple of queer heterosexual couples. Love is beautiful no matter the parings but dammit for my really queer sensibilities queer heterosexual couple are the bees knees expect when they break up, I hear a fairy dies and it’s quite sad.

    This is my long winded way of saying I really adore Brenda Howard, a figure that does unnoticed in the Gay Inc. Pride festivities. So every time I keep hearing about some gay white dude like Harvey Milk being the end all that is the reason for everything LBGT rights, I will sing her name and others like her who really needs to be known.

    I’m going to salute Brenda Howard for her work and to all the bisexual/non-monosexual people who feel like they are invisible during our LBGT discourse because sadly it is a sentiment I am too well aware of.

    Plus purple is a wonderful color.

  4. Thumb up 4

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    I loved this, very interesting and informative. It made me want to start a riot or something. I definitely think the bisexual articles should continue!

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    Americans / westerners have this strange nostalgia for the radical bad old days, but the truth is that in places where “the bad old days” still haven’t passed, everyone is often disappointingly unradical, since in an attempt to garner any kind of support for their cause (i.e. staying alive) non-western queer people / activists often deliberately tone down non-normative aspects of (their) queerness. For example, last month LGBT orgs managed to organize their first Pride march in Rep Moldova – they called their event “LGBTs for Traditional Values” and insisted their purpose is to show how “normal” LGBT people are – hoping that this would be enough to discourage the right wing groups who showed up and started throwing stones at them on their first attempt to hold a march, or at least gain more public support for Pride events as local authorities in major cities keep passing more and more bans on them.

    All of this kind of leads to the idea that radical / authentic queerness is western by default.

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      I hear you. Though for what it’s worth, I don’t think there’s any wrong way to be queer, so long as you’re being true to yourself. That’s going to differ widely between people and between cultures. It takes all kinds to get things done, though, right? Radicals and public servants and next door neighbors and all. I do my best to remember and respect that, and I hope everyone else does the same.

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      to be fair, i think carmen’s concluding paragraph speaks to a specific thing that has happened to the lgbt movement in the united states / possibly even just on the east coast (maybe also west coast but since i have no experience with the queer california scene i don’t want to speak to that) in that stonewall and a lot of the action surrounding it was very radical but then a lot of things that came after tried to downplay and erase the very radical nature of it, opting instead to capitalize on lgbt bodies and the lgbt movement (often completely disregarding the t, and honestly often ignoring the l and b, too) as one more commercialized selling point, ya know? i think someone being “disappointingly unradical” in a place where it is a matter of life and death to even be a tiny bit out and proud is completely understandable, and i wouldn’t want anyone implying that a radical approach to their specific situation would be any more or less authentic. i think @millbot covers all this much more succinctly than i am right above me, so maybe it’s silly to comment, i guess i just wanted to elaborate that the nostalgia that comes from a lot of young queer humans in urban centers in the united states is a very specific nostalgia for the way things were here, not an implication that the way things were here are the way things should be everywhere. does that make sense?

      @andreea i’ve thought about your comment a LOT since yesterday, and i think you make a really good point about the limitations of what one can do in certain situations and the dangers of applying one method to the entire queer struggle…thank you for the food for thought.

  6. Thumb up 3

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    Loved the article. Loved the comments. No bi-loathing in the immediate vicinity for once. Thank you.

    And special thanks to bra up there ^^^ for including this in her awesome post —

    “4) Most interestingly I felt this weird “good bi/ bad bi” when a bi person is dating someone of the same sex gay people are like “oh we can take you seriously *cough you’re really gay*” or when a bi person is dating someone of a different sex “oh you tourist! *cynical shit*” or “I guess you’re cool!’”
    This needs to stop!”

  7. Thumb up 1

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    Thank you for this excellent post. As Brenda’s former lover (for about 4 years), I was especially happy to see this tribute to her life and work. On the matter of mainstreaming Pride events and other aspects of the struggle for LGBT rights, I think that’s often a price for “progress” – few, if any, areas of social change preserve the original quality and complexity of the movement and its leaders. It’s gratifying to see that some people understand.

    *waves and sends hugs to Larry*

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