The year was 1996 and President Bill Clinton had signed into law the Defense of Marriage Act, allowing individual states the ability to refuse to recognize same-sex marriages. That same year, John Howard was hired as the first director of Duke’s University Center for Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Life.

Over time, the name of the center has changed to reflect greater inclusion. Today it is known as the Center for Sexual and Gender Diversity.

One of Howard’s many challenges in his new position was dealing with university politics. Given the political climate at the time, Howard learned quickly that little had been done to engage the LGBTQ community at Duke, and it was up to him to figure out how best the center could serve them.

To that end, he conducted a “campus canvas” to familiarize himself with the concerns of the day. He also extended the center’s hours from a just few a week to Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Four months into his tenure, Howard began incorporating recommendations from his campus canvas into the center’s programming. He organized a Hump Day lecture each Wednesday from nationally recognized educators on LGBTQ issues and helped launch the Rainbow Triangle Oral History Project, which documents the life in the Triangle area’s LGBTQ community.

Lammy-winning author Jewelle Gomez at Duke Center for LGBT Life, 1997
John Howard and Duke Vice President for Student Affairs Janet Smith Dickerson, 1998

Howard announced he was crossing the pond two years after taking on the job to teach Twentieth Century American History at England’s University of York.

These days, Howard is emeritus professor of arts and humanities at King’s College in London. He’s also the author of several books including “Men Like That: A Southern Queer History,” as well as numerous articles. He also helped produce two feature-length documentary films.