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Trans pioneer Judy Bowen looks back at community changes
by Owen Keehnen
2016-11-30

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Trans activist Judy Bowen, 72, has seen a lot. She moved to New York from the South in the mid 1960s and quickly immersed herself in the Greenwich Village scene. She started organizations, became an entrepreneur, and was a community leader. She eventually moved to Las Vegas in 1999 and is still there today with her partner of 33 years.

Recently Judy was in Chicago to assist with the Legacy Project dedication of the Sylvia Rivera plaque on North Halsted Street. After hearing a little about her life experiences, I wanted to hear more.

Windy City Times: Tell me about growing up.

Judy Bowen: I lived in the country in Virginia and came from a religious background. I went to church three times a week and I was a reporter for the local evangelical newspaper, The Daily Beacon.

WCT: Was it rough growing up?

JB: My mother saved me. She truly understood me. One time I tried to commit suicide and the doctor said to her, "Let him do whatever he wants to do." My father did not like that, but my mother let me do anything I wanted in high school.

WCT: So what was the experience like when you started to realize you were different?

JB: I never tried to hide. I was always just myself—it was in my clothing and the way I walked. I could never be what society was telling me I was supposed to be. At the time, being myself meant pretending I was Jean Harlow or Marlene Dietrich.

I was confused. I felt so much like a female that when I was an adolescent I even thought I could get pregnant. After high school I went to the university on a journalism scholarship and was going to have to live in a boy's dorm. I was there one night. That was not going to work. At University of Tennessee I got involved with the civil-rights movement and found that Black people accepted me more.

WCT: What brought you to New York?

JB: In Knoxville, I was at a racially mixed party and there were a few transsexuals there, and three white guys came in and started stabbing people. Blood [was] everywhere. I jumped out of a window. We couldn't call the police because Blacks and whites weren't even supposed to associate. We were as afraid of the police as anything. We even had to take the people that got stabbed to the hospital in separate cars.

A friend was graduating from school and moving to New York and he said, "You know they hate you here, and if you stay they'll eventually kill you." By moving to New York, I think I did save my life. I moved with him and we lived in Long Island. I started going to transgender clubs. One night I was crowned Queen of Hearts at one of them and we all got arrested. My friend was a teacher and couldn't be around me anymore out of fear of losing his job.

WCT: And then came the Village?

JB: Yes; that's when I moved to Gay Street to a third-floor studio. There ended up being four of us there. Greenwich Village was so beautiful in the 1960s and 1970s. There were so many transsexuals and transvestites there. Tour buses used to come to the area and we would treat the sidewalks as our personal runaways. Giving the tourists a show while they took pictures from the bus was always fun.

In 1967, I started seeing Dr. Harry Benjamin and he was a huge influence on how I saw myself. Gender dysphoria was his focus. He wrote the book Transsexualism. He helped me so much.

WCT: What did he advise?

JB: Dr. Benjamin believed that a trans should live and work as a female for two years before a psychiatric evaluation leading to sexual orientation.

WCT: So tell me about working at the time?

JB: Something that was different about me was that for a long time I was working as a male. I had long hair and breasts, so I had to keep my jacket on. I could always get temp jobs. I always needed money.

Soon, I found a much better way. The dance halls in Times Square were dominated by the transsexuals at the time. Men would buy tickets and we'd sit and talk with them, or dance with them. I think they felt comfortable because they could tell us anything. Those clubs were run by the mob but they had front people, so if anyone was going to be arrested it was the front man. They really loved you if you made a lot of money for them, and I did. There was tipping, too.

We always dressed nice. I had all the clothes I needed. I had a wealthy benefactor who liked me in five-inch high heels, so I always had top-of-the-line shoes. Transsexuals worked there because it was easy money. There were three or four doctors that were popular at the time and every Saturday their offices would be full of transsexuals who worked in the clubs because everyone wanted to be better, everyone wanted an upgrade because that's where the money was. Silicone, shots, nose job—lots of us have the same nose. Or any other procedure. It was expensive so we always needed the money.

WCT: Was survival tough?

JB: Sometimes. I've been beaten up and slapped around, but I just walked away and put it behind me. Sylvia Rivera worked the streets which was very scary back then. She was much braver than I was. Many of us were involved in prostitution or finding benefactors or the dance clubs back then. That was just the reality of it.

WCT: Were you at the Stonewall during the riots?

JB: No, I was working. I only went to clubs for dancing. I do not drink. The Stonewall was not trans friendly. The riots that night started because the people were just tired of the raids and the physical abuse. Those people decided to fight back. That lasted 4-5 days. The Black Panthers even came out to support the cause. They were under siege too.

WCT: You were also an organizer.

JB: Always working for community.

WCT: You helped start the group Transvestites and Transsexuals in 1970 and then that broke into Transsexuals Anonymous and STAR ( Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries ).

JB: I started Transsexuals Anonymous because we needed to talk and we had to be anonymous or we might be murdered if someone found out. As transsexuals we were motivated to become as close to genetic females as possible. Transsexuals were living, working, and transitioning into female roles. That's what made us different from transvestites. Some transsexuals go through with the surgery, and some don't. In that group [TA] we basically gave each other confidence. We helped each other with jobs and school. That sort of thing. Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson had STAR. They had no desire to become female.

WCT: Tell me something about them.

JB: Sylvia Rivera was not always happy. Marsha was much more upbeat, and that's why I think Marsha was murdered and did not commit suicide. [Johnson's body was found floating in the Hudson River shortly after the 1992 Pride March. Police labeled her death a suicide.] Marsha was a happy person. She just loved everybody. Sylvia was not that way. Sometimes she was mad at the world. Running into them, it was always Marsha who would be smiling. Sylvia was mad at the Gay Activist's Alliance, she was mad at the police, she was mad about a lot of things.

WCT: Tell me about the the first gay pride march, The Christopher Street Liberation Day Parade in 1970.

JB: We had to meet at 6 a.m.—I remember that.

After Stonewall, there was some division. Philip Raia, at the Gay Activist's Alliance, wanted our community to be all-inclusive and wanted to include transgender people, but some of the gay men and lesbians did not want that. They did not want us. They wanted to negotiate for themselves and not for transgender people even though we were the ones getting killed. That's was one of the reasons Sylvia was so angry.

I was at the march representing the transgender group. The police came and they had billy sticks so we didn't know what to expect, but they were afraid to do anything in public. They'd beaten us up in club raids, but in the streets they were more careful especially with media and cameras around. Afterwards at the "gay-in" in Central Park we had a kissing marathon.

WCT: What did you wear for the event?

JB: Three hairpieces and a leopard top.

WCT: What do you think was reason for all the emerging trans power around the time?

JB: We were finally coming together and because of that we were making strides. We were able to see doctors. We were starting to be able to afford to be what we wanted to be.

WCT: So what happened as the 1970s went on?

JB: By the time I was 26 or 27, the FBI was closing in on all those [dance hall] places because they were mob controlled. Eventually, a lawyer said to me that I had to get out of there. He didn't want to see me arrested. Girls were being found dead. Every month they made us take lie detector tests to be sure we weren't talking to the FBI. My attorney friend asked me what I'd go into if I could start my own business. I said restaurant/catering. I ended up owning an Italian restaurant in Queens for 35 years. I added an art gallery. Eventually I had four buildings on the block and started publishing the Western Queens Gazette, a community-based paper which is still going today, and the Long Island City News. I raised money for youth and senior programs and I got appointed to the community board. I worked to get a gymnasium converted into a youth center to keep the kids off the street. I was and am very community minded.

WCT: What advice would you give someone like yourself at 15 or 16?

JB: I'd advise them to be honest with their parents. Thank God I had a good mother. She was my rock. I would suggest they get involved with their community. Get involved with community groups. Giving back to society is so important. Make a difference.

As transgender people we have so much to contribute to society. We are sensitive and gifted human beings. I'd tell them to get involved with their church. I've always been a Christian. I believe that God put us here and we are supposed to be whatever we want to be and to be happy. Don't let anyone stop you from being yourself. Lastly, I'd say, don't be ashamed of yourself. Shame will kill you.


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