(This is part one of a series of pieces about “People You Should Know”, but first a foremost a tribute to a woman who has been my personal hero for a while.)
June 28, 2017 was the 48th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, a series of demonstrations triggered by police raids and long-time discrimination of the Stonewall Inn, an LGBTQ+ bar in Greenwich Village. Sylvia Rivera (a trans and queer woman), Marsha P. Johnson (a black trans woman), Stomé DeLarverie (lesbian and popular drag performer), and Raymond Castro (a gay Latino man), are just some of the participators of these riots. These men and woman put their lives on the line as they face a mob of police officers and did what they could to protect each other. Many were arrested and fought back, others did what they could to help their friends resist arrest and harm, and all lit the fire in the hearts of LGBTQ+ individuals across the nation.
One woman, who’s fire was already lit, took the torch and led the first march in honor of the brave people at Stonewall. She was a bisexual, Jewish, “leather”, polyamorous woman.
Her name was Brenda Howard.
Brenda in Life
Brenda Howard began her life on December 24, 1946. She grew up in Syosset, New York in a Jewish family, and attended Syosset High School (1964), later moving on to the Borough of Manhattan Community College graduating with an AAS in Nursing (1978).
Brenda’s activism efforts began in the late 1960s, after she graduated high school, with her involvement in the movement against the Vietnam War. During this time, Brenda lived in an urban commune filled with draft resisters and anti-war activists. Because of the overwhelming dominance of men in many anti-war circles, Brenda quickly aligned herself with the feminist movements at the time, all the while continuing her activism.
In the 1970s, Brenda was a chair of the Gay Activist Alliance, and a member of the Gay Liberation Front. In 1970, Brenda coordinated the anniversary march and rally in remembrance of the Stonewall Riots, the Liberation Day march, which has continued as an annual tradition of PRIDE marches across the country. Some also credit her with the creation of “Pride Week” celebrations.
Brenda did not stop there, and in 1987 she cofounded the New York Area Bisexual Network. In 1988, 1990, and 1991, Brenda was arrested in Maryland, Illinois, and Georgia (respectively) advocating for various groups including women, people of color, and those diagnosed with AIDS. On April 25, 1993, Brenda was a member of a group of bisexual activists that successfully fought for bi inclusion in the title of the 1993 March on Washing for Lesbian, Gay, and Bi Equal Rights and Liberation.
She again worked to honor Stonewall in 1994 for the 25th anniversary of the riots, and in 1996 she spoke at the Northeast Regional pride meeting of various pride groups in the Northeastern United States.
In addition to her work as a bisexual activist, Brenda was also a known “leather” advocate, representing not only her sexuality, but her sensuality at the pride events she went to. In the 1980’s, Brenda facilitated the “Polymorphous Perverts and Switchables” event at TES, and was the female co-chair of the leather contingent for the 1987 March on Washington; all while being actively involved in the National Leather Association’s local chapter.
Sadly, on the very same day as the 37th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, and on the 36th anniversary of the march Brenda had coordinated and lead, she died of colon cancer.
David Feinberg, a friend of Brenda’s, said that “As a knowledgable Jew, Brenda would have readily recognized that 36 is a multiple of 18. In Jewish numerology, 18 is equivalent to the Hebrew word “Chai”, which means “alive.” Now if you consider that 36 is 2 times 18, and that the prefix for the number two is “bi”, as in bi-coastal or bi-lateral, or, more appropriately, bi-SEXUAL, we can see very clearly that, on the mystical level of reality, Brenda lived the complete Bi life.” She was described to be a “proud bisexual and a proud leather person. She would not let anyone take the community’s diversity for granted” by her friend Hayyim Obadyah.
Brenda was not one to let her religion get in the way of her activism, and was known to combine the two during prayer and within the synagogues she attended. Obadyah said that “she knew that for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Jews to pray together as Jews and as lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people [it was] both spiritually fulfilling and politically revolutionary.”
Brenda’s husband, Larry Nelson, called her “his Earthgirl”.
Her good friend Dorothy Danaher-Gilpin, Ed.D, wrote this poem in honor of Brenda’s passing:
In Honor of Brenda
When I was in pigtails
You were already marching
Voice firm and loud
Banners held high
I, blissful in suburbia
Years from sexual maturity
Watched you on TV
What all the fuss was about.
I grew older
And tired of the nonsense
I moved to the Big City
In search of
Many spirits were trampled
Yours was emboldened
You strode harder
A leather vest and buttons
Your simple uniform
Tireless hours on the phone
To help you hold
You leave us now
With a Legacy
Fight for what’s Right
Brenda was a force to be reckoned with; spunky, annoying (in the best of ways), funny, full of life. She was a bisexual activist till the day she died, a constant advocate for the rights of those around her, and a true “Mother of Pride”.
More information about Brenda, including speeches written for her memorial, can be found here: http://www.brendahoward.org/