Center Legacy Award
Judy Bowen is a trans pioneer, and an avid activist for the LGBTQ+ community, and a local treasure. Judy grew up in small, rural areas of Tennessee and Virginia. She began transitioning in high school, at a time when there was no support. When she learned of someone “like her” in a neighboring town, they met and became friends. With the help of a journalism scholarship, Judy got out of her small town and lived with her friend-in-common through college to avoid living in the gender-restrictive college dorms.
In 1967, Judy moved to New York for opportunities, though it was still illegal at the time to be transgender. In New York, Judy worked in accounting and sales, and always had good-paying jobs, but had to dress as a boy. At that time, Judy competed in a beauty contest that was raided by the police and was arrested with 17 others. She said at that time police brutality was a serious problem, still is, and we must work to correct things that are wrong and build respect for everyone.
After being released from jail, the people she was living with kicked her out to avoid the risk of living with her. She went back to the bar she was arrested at where she met Phillip Raia, a young member of the Gay Activist Alliance, who provided a safe place on Gay & Christopher Street for her over the next several years. He introduced her to Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P Johnson and introduced her to a life-long connection to activism. Other trans women in the community let Judy know about work in the dance halls and gentlemen’s clubs in the red-light district, and she began working with them at places like Tango Palace, the Commodore, where she made “so much money it was scary.” Working in these clubs brought her into a focus with Studio 54 and a whole new life of upper Manhattan and providing money for costly medical procedures. She was a patient of a doctor that brought many trans people to New York, Dr. Harry Benjamin.
In the time leading up to Stonewall, everyone knew that things were about to boil over. At the advice of a professor client of hers who let her know that there was a risk of the FBI coming in to arrest people again, Judy took her money and invested in an Italian restaurant with 8 apartments attached, “Judy’s Café & Art Gallery.” This began the “straight phase” of Judy’s life, living stealth and serving on very public service positions. She served for 16 years on the Community Board #2 representing Long-Island City, and 4 years as the 108th Precinct Community Council.
In 1999, Judy relocated to Las Vegas with her husband, Eric, where she bought a house and began focusing on support the local LGBTQ+ community. She hopes to help organizations light Bright Star and the LGBTQ Center of Southern Nevada to continue the important work of fierce and long-standing LGBTQ+ advocates like Claude Raffin and Jon Gathercole, to secure long-term housing and economic support for LGBTQ+ youth at risk.