In the 1960s at a gay bar in Long Island there was a beauty contest, in which a petite Southern-raised glamorous blonde, Judy Bowen, took first place.
Immediately after, she was arrested, beaten and later released. Suddenly, having nowhere to live, Bowen, then in her 20s, returned to the bar where she’d been arrested. Luckily, she ran into a friend from the Gay Activist Alliance who moved her into his apartment on Christopher Street in Lower Manhattan.
It was considered back then a “safe area,” if there was actually such a thing. “Special laws were created to make our lives miserable,” says Bowen, now 75. “That was basically where the derelicts of society could be free. That’s when I became me. I wasn’t afraid anymore.”
But the dancer in high-end clubs around the city and passing as a cis woman, was more likely to be at Studio 54 and enjoying “the finer things in life” with the other “girls,” rather than the seedy gay bars of the neighborhood with peephole entrances and boarded windows. She’d been beaten by police and lived in fear.
The night of the riot, she says she lived a block from the Stonewall Inn and witnessed the crowds and police presence that night, along with everyone else in the area. This was during the time she was friends with Marsha P. Johnson and other activists.
Bowen, a former patient of the late endocrinologist and sexologist Harry Benjamin, known for his clinical work with “transsexualism” in the early days, says, “People don’t realize what it was like. Nobody knows how it was for us to survive. We were basically illegal. We were not even recognized by our own community.”
She and others marched in New York City’s first Gay Pride Parade, organized by the Christopher Street Liberation group, finding safety and a voice. “They weren’t going to beat you in the street,” she says.
But Bowen, who would become a legendary and celebrated trans pioneer, spent the next few decades of her life as a cis straight woman, opening a restaurant and art gallery on Long Island, which she says she ran for 35 years while also active in the community serving on committees and in organizations, such as Lions Club International. “The less they knew, the better,” she says.
Now Bowen is a voice for the trans community, raising more than $2,000 for the Transgender Safety Dorm operated by the Salvation Army of Southern Nevada. She supports Gender Justice Nevada, and in the past three years, has been speaking at colleges and universities. More recently, she was photographed for the Alice Austin House exhibit, “Stonewall at 50,” features intergenerational LGBTQ portraits by photographer Collier Schorr. She recorded the voiceover for the documentary released this month, “Stonewall Forever,” directed by Ro Haber. On June 12, she will be featured on “Full Frontal with Samantha Bee” on TBS, discussing trans issues.
Meanwhile, back in Las Vegas, Bowen says the fight continues. She’s working on bringing the Legacy Wall here and bringing awareness to the need for housing for LGBTQ seniors.
She agrees that 2019 is the year of the trans community in which, “now, the doors are opening.”
But, she says, “It’s not over, more people need to be unified in one effort.” Nearing her own life’s final years, Bowen explains, “I feel I have to do whatever I can. I want to help them know it’s not hopeless.”