Only a handful of activists in the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender movement were there at Stonewall and never stopped their advocacy work until the day they died.
Brenda Howard, 58, who died in Queens on June 28 of colon cancer, was one of those genuine articles and her memorial at the LGBT Community Center on July 31 brought together all the different aspects of her life as trouble maker, strategist, editor, Jew, friend, lover and distinguished phone sex worker.
Howard met Larry Nelson, her eventual partner, at a 1996 Queens LGBT pride march. Before he gave her a pink necklace, he started tying knots in it. “She said, ‘If you’re going to do that you have to take me home,’” Nelson recalled.
They became partners in 2000 through a mutual devotion to s/m bondage and activism.
“It was the best five years of my life,” he said.
Howard was also cited for her leadership and loving in the bisexual community, including the founding of the nation’s first Alcoholics Anonymous chapter for bisexuals. A statement read from BiNet USA called her “one of the original bisexual curmudgeons.”
Lisa Verruso, who hired Howard over the phone to work at her phone sex service in 1985, recalled “how much fun Brenda had with phone fantasy. She was able to voice what people wanted.”
“They’re all crazy!” Verruso recalled Howard saying of the callers. But Howard was “always up for something creative.”
Sheila Lambert of BiPAC called her “my role model for a bisexual activist” and “a workaholic for the movement.”
“She got other people to do things they didn’t want to do” for LGBT rights, said her friend Arnie Levin.
Poet Fran Winant said that Howard had a “great sense of humor,” but was considered a “dangerous person in a world that is incredibly dangerous to all of us.”
Danny Dromm, the founder of the Queens Lesbian and Gay Pride Committee, praised Howard’s activism in that borough, including work with the chapter of the Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays.
Steve Ault, who worked with her on the early national LGBT marches on Washington as well as the effort to discredit the 2000 march, said she was “principled and never took any shortcuts.”
Howard was particularly famous for driving people crazy on the details of grammar and punctuation placement on fliers and missives.
Howard was active with Ault in the Coalition for Lesbian and Gay Rights that passed the city law banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in 1986.
Joe Kennedy, now active with the Metropolitan Community Church, said that Howard was a stalwart at the Gay Activists Alliance (GAA) in the early 1970s, despite the fact that the group was predominately male. She worked with him on the Agitprop Committee that got members to go out and give talks about LGBT issues to high school and colleges.
“We were writing the book on what gay lib was,” Kennedy said.
Howard’s friend Diana Vera recalled leaving a club with Howard who said when they got in the cab, “We didn’t find anyone decent to whip all night!” That led to a very satisfying evening with the cab driver.
Rich Wandel, the LGBT Community Center’s archivist/historian, worked with Howard when he was president of GAA. “It was a movement about people,” he said, “not stars.”
Marilyn Suffet said she met Howard at Hunter College through their mutual involvement in the anti-war movement in the late 1960s and lived with her in a commune.
“She’s one of the people who made the world good,” said Suffet, whose husband Stephen talked about getting arrested with her at the draft office on Whitehall Street in Lower Manhattan in 1967.
Rosita Murulanda recalled sharing her lover Spryte, her partner of 18 years, with Howard, saying that it helped open Spryte up. “She was not trying to take Spryte away from me,” she said.
Howard’s brand of grassroots street activism has all but disappeared from the New York scene—unless her many friends and comrades decide to revive it in her memory.