This interview is part of Broadly's Trans Legends oral history project. Read more here.
“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.
Interview has been edited and condensed.
ZACKARY DRUCKER: How did you find your way to a trans identity, into your true self?
JUDY 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 happened 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.
Thirty-five years later, I sold it for almost a million dollars. I started buying real estate and fixing up apartments. And during that time, I got involved with a local block association—Community Board #2, representing Long Island City—and started publishing the weekly newspaper, the Western Queens Gazette, with two other community activists. Then I got pulled into a community board by the congressman and a city councilman. I was on that board for 16 years. And I served on youth and senior programs. I was on the waterfront development committee. But in the earlier times prior to that, I worked in the clubs and I met a lot of people who became my benefactors. They basically supported me.
I started in the dance clubs, like the Tango Palace. It was usually 60/40; 60 percent cis female and 40 percent trans. It was a place where lonely men with problems would go, and they would pay to sit with a girl for an hour. They had to buy champagne and we’d drink water. From there, I graduated to a gentleman’s club in the Times Square area. I was the only transgender person, that I knew of, who worked in that place.
"You should have the right to be who you are and not be ashamed of it."
I would go to Studio 54 three or four nights a week. Most people don’t know this, but Studio 54, there were many transgender people there. Some really famous people went there, including Grace Jones. I used to think she was trans, too. But she’s not. She was the tallest person I knew that went to that club. There, I met the Dupont brothers and Andy Warhol. Andy Warhol used quite a few transgender people in his productions… Holly Woodlawn, of course Candy Darling.
I did some work with Woody Allen. I was an extra. I worked with Diane Keaton on a couple productions. Basically, you just looked for jobs that you could get. Everybody needed money. I would never work any streets, I couldn’t do that—prostitution, because something happened to me when I was 11 years old. My mother had sent me to the store and some man said, “Oh I know your parents, let me drive you home. I’m going in that direction.” So, I said, “OK.” I had a bag of groceries. I got into the car, and when we got to the end of the street going up past my mother’s house, he would not stop. He kept going and drove me way out into the country, and I don’t quite remember what happened in the car, but then he proceeded to get out of the car, and from the trunk of the car, he took out shovels and digging instruments. So, basically, my little mind said, “He’s going to kill me.” And that’s probably what he was going to do. So I got out of the car, and started running for my life.
I still have bad dreams about this event, but it happens to a lot of people in the early stages of being trans, because we could be either male or female. And, basically, we’re not treated too nicely—in school or in the community. That’s why most people go to the big city, so they can find people just like themselves. That’s what was so wonderful about the West Village, Christopher Street, 7th Avenue. There was lots of people like me, so that’s where I flourished, that’s where I gave my reality.
The police were really, really bad. The first time I got arrested, I was at a club in Long Island, and I was running for a beauty contest, and the police raided the place and took everybody to jail. I had bruises that lasted three months. I moved to Christopher Street in 1967, just below the Stonewall [Inn], during the time when people were rising up and saying, “We’re not gonna take this anymore.” That was my salvation. It was basically the trans that were being hit the most by the police.
So you were 23 at that point?
Yeah, that’s about right. And I was still working during the day at an accounting firm at 17th Ave. During the day, I worked as a male, and when I came home, I got dressed and worked at the Tango Palace as Judy. So, you go through the transition sometimes to get work. That was before I discovered that people like me could really make a lot of money, because transgender people, they have a following. I don’t know if you know this, but there are people who are greatly attracted to transgender people.
I don’t understand why. I think it’s because most of us are flirty and we don’t really realize we’re flirty. That’s basically what I’ve been told by other people—that transgender people tend to be more open than most. Most people that are married, their wives won’t do certain things. But trans people, we’re more understanding about people with fetishes. The attorney that I was with for a long time, it was nothing sexual, but he was basically into dominance. He liked to be slapped in public, which was no big deal for me.
Who were the other trans people you were meeting in 1967? What do you remember about them?
Well, I learned a lot from Marsha P. Johnson. I was 5’4” at the time, now I’m 5’2”. Marsha was this big, tall, Black drag queen transsexual, and she was not afraid. I used to watch her before I started talking to her. We were both Virgos—she was born in 1945—and we would go and have coffee sometimes together, and we would talk about the police, and she just wasn’t afraid. In other words, we’re born with a reality that we should be able to express ourselves openly and freely without being punished, and it’s getting worse because of the president. You should have the right to be who you are and not be ashamed of it.
When I moved out of Manhattan and opened up my business in Queens, I lived a very straight life. Sometimes you’ve gotta dissociate yourself from actuality. I got very involved with the community and I got elected president of the Lion’s Club. I was the first woman ever elected president of the oldest Lion’s Club in New York. It was called the Hunter’s Fort Lions Club.
"Back in those days, GLB did not really care much about the T part. Because we were too loud, and basically, we weren’t welcome at their meetings. Hasn’t changed much, either."
Then in 1998, my mother passed away, and [to] the person I have been with for 34 years, I said, “Would you like to move to Florida?” He said, “I don’t want to live in Florida.” I said, “Where do you want to live?” He said “Vegas.” So I flew here and stayed for two weeks, bought a house, went back, and started making preparations to relocate.
But you know, what’s crazy about the GLBT community, they’re so split, especially here. In ‘99 or the year 2000, I was on the board of directors at the gay and lesbian center, and one of the members of the board said, “I don’t even know what you’re doing here, you’re an established female.” I said, “Yes, but I always want to help my community. I’ll always be who I am, but I find ways to help people like me.” And I’ve continued doing so by supporting the shelter and other programs. I get people together and take them out to lunch, and I get them jobs, too. Because you’ve got to be able to be out and be in public and not feel uncomfortable as who you are.
Tell me about the ‘60s when you met Marsha. You were just coming into your trans identity, you were working presenting male during the day, working as a showgirl at night. How did activism enter your life? Did you witness the Stonewall Riots?
I was working. It lasted for several nights, but it was just down the block. I could barely get to my apartment, it was two blocks away. I’ve always been a community activist. I had a group called Transsexuals Anonymous. There was a difference between transsexuals and transvestites. STAR [which Marsha P. Johnson and Sylveria Rivera founded] was Street Transvestites Action Revolutionaries. During my time, there was two divisions: transsexuals and transvestites. Transsexuals were different because they wanted to live as women completely, and transvestites did it part time. That was the division during that time.
What was Transsexuals Anonymous like?
We only had like seven people. We were basically people who had jobs. Dr. Harry Benjamin, he wrote the book Transsexualism, his theory was: You should work and live as who you want to be for at least two years. He was my doctor during those early days, for quite a few years. He wrote a lot of books, and he was the one who really set the standards of care for transitioning.
New York was a place where you could find all the best doctors. All your major cities have great influxes of transgender people because everyone from small, remote towns and cities would go to San Francisco, New York, LA… because those were cities where they could get medical attention.
And did you participate in STAR?
We knew each other. I really respect them for what they did, because they brought focus to the problems, because they were getting the brunt of things, they were basically working the streets. And the cleanup campaign [by police] focused on them because they wanted to get them off the streets. Marsha, of course, you know, was murdered in 1992. She was hit in the back of the head and [found in] the Hudson River. And Sylvia was homeless living on the piers in the later years of her life. That goes to show you that in the LGBT community, there was no great concern about what they had done––because what they had done, they brought focus to the problem, and what we were all going through. But back in those days, GLB did not really care much about the T part. Because we were too loud, and basically, we weren’t welcome at their meetings. Hasn’t changed much, either.
So you were trans, you were navigating this new identity. Were you entering the straight world? How was that?
It was more rewarding for me to live in the straight world; and safer, too. I found myself progressing there because basically, I did not think there was anything wrong with me. To me, there still is nothing wrong with me, I’m just who I am. I survived quite well as trans in the genetic world. I was very involved in the community. I found I was appreciated. See, and if you’re trans, it’s safer for you to fit into society without considering yourself different. If you start considering yourself different, you won’t progress. You’ll have a better chance at having a good life. During that time, there was a film called Imitation of Life where a Black girl passed for white, so she participated in the white world. That was something I related to, because here I am, two-spirited.
What motivated you to give back?
It’s all about survival. If you give up, you’re not going to last long. I have health issues, and I don’t know how much longer I’m going to be here. If I wake up every morning and I feel like there’s a purpose for me, I’ll get out of bed, I’ll take my dog for a walk, and I’ll start my day. This week, I presented another check for the housing project. That was my motivation to get out of bed, because I had to be there to present the check. On my birthday, I opened the trans dorm [here in Las Vegas]. It’s a dormitory where trans people can live together. And we also try to find jobs for them, too. We’re hoping to acquire buildings where we can have 25 units where people can live individually and we can provide job training.
One of the stories you were telling me about was being incarcerated, I don’t remember if it was the 60s or 70s...
In the 60s, yeah. The raids in the clubs are what led to Stonewall. The police had no mercy. They would raid clubs, they would beat people up. I was coming from work at my straight job at 17 Battery, as Judy, and I stopped by this gay club and four police officers came in and finished it. One of them looked at me and said, “What are you doing here? Get out of here!” Like, what are you doing in a gay club? So I closed the door, and as I got onto the sidewalk, they were beating up people in the club. That shows you what it was like.
"Even today, you just have to be careful who you’re open with."
And you were arrested in a raid?
Not that one. It was in Long Island that I was arrested. That was before I moved to Christopher Street. This club we were at, Queen of Hearts, I was living with a friend in Long Island, this is just after I moved to New York. I won the contest that night. They raided the place that night. They threw all of us into paddy wagons and took us to Garden City Jail in Garden City, Long Island. I had five or six hair pieces, so I stayed up all night taking my hair down.
The next day, the people I was staying with came and got me out of jail. They said, “You’ve got to go, you’re causing too much trouble here.” So this meant I had no place to live. So I went back to the club and met Philip Brea. He said he’d let me use his apartment at 16 Christopher while he was away on tour. He probably saved my life, because Long Island was very conservative.
What do you remember about the Stonewall riots?
The accumulation of people, because I would work until like four in the morning at the club. There was a lot of people and police. That was the beginning, before they started planning the first gay pride. I was in the first gay pride, I was representing the transgender community. There were a lot of police that day, so we didn’t know what was going to happen, but they wouldn’t do violent things with you in public. That was the first gay pride. I’m going back next year for the 50th. I’m going to try to stay in the same hotel where I was in last time. It’s called The Marlton. We’ll see how many we can get together. We’re all getting older, there aren’t many left. It’s such a shame what’s happening in the world today. I really thought we’d progress more than we have.
What would you like to share with young people today?
Don’t give up. Get active in your community. Don’t deny your reality. Lots of people who are trans commit suicide. We have a very high suicide rate. You either get murdered or you commit suicide. Just get involved in the community. Just be careful, because it’s gonna get real worse. Did you see what happened in Russia? They’re blocking the word “trans” out of classifications. And it’s frightening, what’s happening right now. Don’t ask me what I think about Donald Trump. There’s something not right with him. He’s trying to make the world hate. He’s causing people to hate each other.
When we were speaking a few days ago, you told me about being in Queens and having a mafia boyfriend. What was that like?
I had some really close friends who were connected. They let me know that if I ever had any problems, don’t hesitate to call. And it was strange because some of the nicest people I ever met were people connected. They were always nice to me because we never really talked about me. Maybe they wouldn’t have liked me if they had known the true me, though.
So you lived stealth then, the people who were taking care of you didn’t know you were trans?
Well, some did and some didn’t. The ones that I had met in the clubs, only one or two knew about me. And the attorneys that I met before—you can’t tell people that you’re a sex change. That’s a nasty word. Because one way to lose friends quickly is to totally, in a relationship, say “this is how it is.” Even today, you just have to be careful who you’re open with.
"I think we develop ourselves. I knew what I liked and what I don’t like."
Yeah. And that’s part of your survival. For so many decades, trans people were not been able to participate in public life?
And the ones who succeeded like I have, they want nothing to do with the GLBT community, because they have established lives. They’re pretty stable with their lives, and to come out would pose great problems. There’s a couple people in Vegas, I was trying to get them to come to an event, they said “Are you crazy? I can’t be seen there!” These are people that are professionals, because people would treat them differently if they knew their reality. See, people have trouble protecting their own reality. We present what we want people to think we are. A lot of people who are leading a double life, if they do speak out, then it’s jeopardizing their life. The whole world’s gone a little crazy, and there’s a lot of things to worry about.
Who did you model yourself after? Who were your archetypes?
I think we develop ourselves. I knew what I liked and what I don’t like. I discovered early in life that you can’t be too outrageous. We have certain guidelines you have to follow. As you go off those, you bring attention to yourself, if you know what I mean. Eccentricity is sometimes better.
When’s your birthday?
September the 3rd. Virgo. Next year, I’ll be 75.
Does it surprise you that you’re still surviving?
Well, that’s the purpose of life: survive as long as you can. But you gotta have something to do to keep you busy. I help a lot of people in their struggles, and I’ll get four or five phone calls a week about people that need help. While I was in New York, I got a text message from trans pride in Vegas and they said, “Someone lost their apartment, they have no place to live.” So I gave them the number to call where they could place her and find her a place to live. But see, our society continues to become more open. Equal employment, it’s easier for people to get jobs now. In my day, it was not easy for people to accept a person that’s transgender. But it’s getting easier and more possible.