28 June is the 54th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, which were a series of protests that took place in New York and served as a catalyst for the gay rights movement both in the United States and worldwide.
It is also the 18th anniversary of Brenda Howard’s death. How are these two things linked and relevant today? If you haven’t heard of Brenda Howard, this may not be clear at first.
Brenda Howard was an American bisexual rights activist who helped to organise and plan the first ever Pride week and parade, which was organised to commemorate the one year anniversary of the Stonewall riots. Despite being called “the Mother of Pride” to recognise her involvement, she tends to be forgotten in Pride celebrations and doesn’t receive the recognition that she should. Today, let’s take the time to remember Brenda Howard and her impact on LGBTQ+ activism and Pride as we know it.
Howard was born in 1946 in the Bronx, in New York City, and grew up in a Jewish family, before studying nursing. In the late 1960s Howard began to take part in the movement against the Vietnam war, and in 1969 she lived in a commune of anti-war activists in Brooklyn. It was at this point that she began to develop an interest and involvement in the growing feminism movement, founded in a criticism of the domination of the anti-war movement by men.
Her main interest and activism lay in LGBT rights, which she helped to plan and participated in for over three decades. She also campaigned for national healthcare, equal treatment for people of colour, and rights for those affected by AIDS.
She was described by her long-term partner, Larry Nelson as “an in-your-face activist, she fought for anyone who had their rights trampled on.”
Howard was one of the pioneers in bisexual inclusion. It is partly because of Howard that we have the inclusion of bisexuality in Pride events, as she worked to get “Bi” added to the name of the 1993 National March on Washington for Gay and Lesbian Rights so that it was called the “March on Washington for Lesbian, Gay, and Bi Equal Rights.”
Howard was part of the committee which organised the first Gay Pride Week and Liberation Day Parade, which was created to commemorate the one year anniversary of the Stonewall riots.
In order to organise the parade and pride week, the committee met at the first gay and lesbian bookstore in America, the Oscar Wilde memorial bookshop, and used their mailing list to spread word of the parade.
This first Pride parade took place on 28 June, 1970, 53 years ago today. Only a few people showed up for the 2pm start time, but as soon as these marchers started the parade, hundreds joined them. The parade was set to travel 51 blocks, from Greenwich Village to Central Park. The marchers formed a mass of thousands of people that was around 20 blocks long.
The great success of this first Pride parade is what we have to thank for the Pride parades and celebrations that we know today. New York Pride today welcomes about 2 million people.
In 1987 Howard founded the New York Area Bisexual Network (NYABN), which still exists today. The NYABN established a sense of community for bisexual people in New York. Howard was the voice on the NYABN answering machine and returned thousands of messages left on the line, creating space for people in and out of the LGBTQ+ community to connect with others.
Howard often wore a pink badge that simply expressed her unapologetic way of expressing her sexuality – “Bi, Poly, Switch – I know what I want.” Alongside all the other causes she advocated for, she worked for decades to improve the understanding and visibility of kink and polyamory.
Howard was in a long-term relationship with a heterosexual man but remained fiercely proud of and vocal about her bisexuality, ensuring that she and her memory does not suffer from the degree of bi erasure that it perhaps could. After her death, Nelson said of her “Beside the fact that we were together and I am straight, I know if she was alive, she would be here holding a sign saying ‘I’m #stillbisexual,’ so I will hold one up for her. She was never ‘confused’ about her sexual identity, and wanted others to acknowledge that she and those like her knew themselves, and that their sexuality was and should be seen as legitimate.”
It is 18 years since Brenda Howard passed away from colon cancer, 54 years since the Stonewall riots and 53 years since the first Gay Pride Week and Liberation Parade but Howard remains an important role model and icon in the LGBTQ+ rights movement.
Without her, it’s impossible to know what LGBTQ+ rights would look like and how or even if we would celebrate Pride.
We have still not achieved full equality or equal gay rights, not in the US or the UK and certainly not worldwide. Let’s remember Howard’s legacy and continue her fight.