Remembering Brenda: An Ode to the ‘Mother of Pride’

By Eliel Cruz

Originally published on Advocate.com June 17 2014 7:00 AM ET

The year was 1969. It was illegal for LGBT people to get together and have a drink or dance with same-sex partners. Most bars wouldn’t allow queers into their establishment, fearing police raids and fines. But there was one place where everyone could gather — all the fairies, drag queens, queers, trans people, and gender-nonconformers — The Stonewall Inn. Then, as now, Stonewall was a bar in New York City’s Greenwich Village. Back then, it was run by the Mafia, and was one of the only places that would allow these so-called degenerates inside the doors. When it comes to crime syndicates, queer money is as good as straight money, it turns out. 

The police knew that gays went to Stonewall. They would raid the bar, arrest the queers, and fine the establishment. Many times, the raiding officers got rough, making police brutality a common occurrence at Stonewall and other LGBT-focused watering holes around the country. Until June 28, 1969, when those fairies, drag queens, queers, trans people, and gender-nonconforming folks said “Enough is enough.” The three-day standoff that ensued, infamously known as the Stonewall Riots, launched the modern-day LGBT rights movement. 

A month after the riots ended, New York City saw one of the country’s first public marches where LGBT people proudly, publicly claimed their identities: The Christopher Street Liberation Day March. The parade influenced other cities around the world, laying the ground work for Pride parades internationally. And while Stonewall has become an iconic moment in our collective LGBT history, many are unaware that the first Pride parade, the Liberation Day March, was organized by a bisexual woman. A year later, the same woman coordinated the one-year anniversary of the Christopher Street Liberation Day march, sparking what would become a lifelong passion for the late Brenda Howard.

“You needed some kind of help organizing some type of protest or something in social justice?” recalls Howard’s partner, Larry Nelson. “All you had to do was call her and she’ll just say when and where.” 

Born in the Bronx, Howard had a heart for activism, and was involved with antiwar and feminist movements in earlier years, Nelson tells The Advocate. She was friends with many of the individuals who were inside the bar that night the Stonewall Riots began. Her advocacy for the community started then, but it continued for more than three decades. Her lifelong advocacy ended when she died in 2005 — during New York City’s Pride Week.

She was militant and was a voice for all minorities. “She was an in-your-face activist,” Nelson said. “She fought for anyone who had their rights trampled on.”

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.

While she was undoubtedly an accomplished activist, some of the work closest to her heart was in the bisexual community. Howard cofounded the New York Area Bisexual Network in 1988, an organization that, to this day, serves as a central communication hub for bisexual and bi-friendly groups in New York City and the tri-state area. She successfully lobbied for the inclusion of bisexuality in the 1993 March on Washington, at a time when the movement was focused primarily on gay men and lesbians.

Howard was a hands-on, grassroots activist who fought for the rights of the minorities. And even if her name isn’t as well-known as some other LGBT pioneers, her accomplishments can’t be forgotten. That’s because every year around the world, gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender individuals march proudly, celebrating their individuality, their families, and their freedom. We march today because a bisexual woman marched then. 

All images via Facebook.