“Back in those days, GLB did not really care much about the T part. … Hasn’t changed much, either.” Transgender activist Judy Bowen recalls growing into her advocacy in 60s New York alongside Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera.
by Zackary Drucker
Nov 29 2018
I’m so proud of you” were the first words Judy Bowen spoke to me, affirming me before we even got to names. We met at the The LGBT Community Center in New York, where we were both being filmed for a documentary. I was captivated by her dynamism and self-effacing beauty as she unravelled stories about life on Christopher Street, the home of the Stonewall Inn, in the 60s, and later in Queens as a (mostly) non-disclosing trans woman. When telling stories, Judy has an exciting tendency to spontaneously change directions mid-stream, and in listening, I felt that I was always being transported somewhere unexpected.
Judy was raised in the South in a religious home, and worked as a reporter for an evangelical newspaper. She was unable to conceal her transgender identity in her youth, and moved to New York after witnessing racist and transphobic violence in Knoxville. In New York, Bowen lived in Greenwich Village before the Stonewall riots, and became an organizer and community activist. In the years following the riots, she started two transgender support organizations in New York City. Today, at 74, she is a active member of The Center in Las Vegas, which supports the needs of LGBTQ people, as well as a champion of the Safety Dorm for transgender individuals at The Salvation Army, which houses and provides professional support for homeless transgender people in Las Vegas.
Ms. Bowen’s story is one of the many remarkable and unique journeys of a 20th century trans pioneer, who survived by always following her instincts and, when necessary, blending seamlessly into cis society. “You should have the right to be who you are and not be ashamed of it,” she landed on in our interview. Indeed, trans people’s lives are shaped by the shame of difference—of existing on the fringes of dominant culture, or outside of it all together. Judy exclaiming her pride in me, and our collective pride as a community, feels like magic conjured in a vacuum, against all odds.
ZACKARY DRUCKER: How did you find your way to a trans identity, into your true self?
UDY BOWEN: I was always me. I can never, never not remember being me mentally. But of course, physically, I was not happy with myself. I grew up in a religious environment in Virginia and Tennessee —church three times a week—and you know what? I think it was because of my beliefs in a greater spirit that I’m here today. My whole progression is basically a tribute to my faith, and believing in myself. Of course I had to be very careful, because those were not good times, it still isn’t good times. I had a lot of horrific things happen to me because I’m me, but I somehow overcame it.
What were some of those obstacles for you?
Well, in high school, I had to go to boy’s phys-ed, and I hated it. So eventually, because I had asthma, I was able to get a doctor’s permit to get out of it. And what’s really, really wonderful is a lot of my high school and college friends are now friends with me on Facebook! It’s kind of nice, they come to Vegas and they visit me sometimes. And they’re proud of the fact that I did progress, and are kind of shocked that I’m so active. I’ll be 75 in September.
Some of my friends in high school went on to be college professors and famous musicians. But my whole being was geared towards community service. Of course, you know, there was Stonewall—a whole era of nightclubs—and my focus then was making lots of money.
When I was like 22 years old, I started buying real estate. Most all the clubs I worked in were mafia [owned], and I had to be very careful, but one of my dear friends, who was an attorney, he finally told me one day, “You’ve got to get out of here. The FBI’s closing in. You’re going to be called to FBI headquarters because you’ve been around these people for a long time.” So he suggested that I go into some other kind of business, so I found a restaurant and catering business, which I purchased for very little money.