Kathy Sowden, former LGBTQ activist and former president of Bisbee Pride, said she didn’t know what a lesbian was until she was in high school.
“We didn’t talk about it then,” the 66-year-old Sowden said, sitting in her Bisbee home, overlooking a spacious garden and stone patio, in the mountains just above the city's historic downtown.
Although Sowden said she is not much of a Pride party person, she was approached by the group’s first organizers for help as she had many years of experience in putting together events.
She dedicated much of her time running Bisbee’s Pride celebration for nine years, turning it from a small gathering to the large, multiday event it is now.
“We used to go to Pride in San Diego like once every five years,” Sowden said, about when she and her partner lived in San Diego. “I’m more of a person who would do the animal shelter. That’s more my thing.”
So how did Sowden, who preferred cats and dogs to Pride parties, change the face of Bisbee’s Pride celebration?
“I ended up with it,” she said matter-of-factly.
Sowden noted while Pride was just one big party in San Diego, in Bisbee, it was more of a community event.
“In Bisbee, everybody attends Pride. It’s the whole town,” she said, noting that St. John’s Episcopal Church participates every year. “It’s just a really welcoming community,” she said.
Sowden focuses on growing Bisbee Pride
When Sowden began working to grow Pride, the group was not yet a nonprofit and had no money. Not long after she joined, the group grew from an informal gathering of friends to the multiday extravaganza event it is now.
“We started expanding it over the years, and doing more events, and working more with businesses so they had events,” she said. “We had huge events going on everywhere.”
Ramon Garcia, the current president and CEO of Bisbee Pride Inc., the nonprofit that runs the annual celebration, said Sowden has been a big part of the community, making change for the better.
“The impact she has had not only on Pride, but the community as a whole, has been changing for the community,” Garcia said, adding that Pride has “become something bigger than the community and definitely if it weren’t for Kathy, I don't think we'd be where we are with Pride.”
She invited famous guests to the event, like Sherry Vine who has performed with famous drag queens like RuPaul. Sowden also invited well-known lesbian comedians like Sandra Valls to perform.
Sowden credits Scott Pierce, aka Pandora DeStrange, a Phoenix drag queen, with the wide variety of performers who graced the bars and stages of the small southern Arizona town.
Sowden would send DeStrange to Phoenix with flyers in hand, marketing Bisbee’s Pride celebration. DeStrange not only helped outreach for the event but invited friends and other drag queens down for the celebration.
With Bisbee’s progressive and open-minded community, getting businesses and residents to support Pride was easy, Sowden said.
This progressiveness and open-mindedness are also what attracted Sowden to the area over a decade ago.
In 2005, Sowden moved to Bisbee from San Diego in search of a smaller, quieter life. One day, as she was looking for homes online in Colorado and Arizona, a listing for a house in Bisbee popped up.
She drove east to Bisbee with her partner, Deborah Grier, and their toy hauler. After looking at multiple houses, they decided on the first house that brought them to Bisbee, a cozy home surrounded by trees and nestled in the Mule Mountains.
Sowden, a former IT director for hospitals in San Diego who later became an antique dealer, opened an antique shop with her partner called Finders Keepers. They ran the business until the COVID-19 pandemic spurred their decision to close the store. Their merchandise can still be found online in their Etsy shop, and in Bisbee at Acacia Collectibles and Miners & Merchants Antique Center.
Arizona authorizes civil unions
After eight years of living in Bisbee, this historic, former mining city in the mountains became the first to allow civil unions between same-sex couples.
"(Former Mayor Adrian Zavala Badal) did two major things when she was mayor,” Sowden said of Badal. “One of them was that she pushed for the civil unions and the other one was a plastic bag ban, and the second one caused more of an uproar than you can imagine."
The day civil unions were authorized in 2013, Sowden and Grier were the first couple in Bisbee — and Arizona — to have one.
Knowing how Bisbee residents do not often show up on time, Sowden wanted to get there early to show the mayor’s effort “was not in vain.”
“It’s not like we wanted to run out and get married, it’s just the way life is. It was in support of our town,” Sowden said.
Sowden had been with her partner since 1992 and said not getting married was something the couple was used to.
However, she explained the legal benefits to marriage were so important, such as getting Social Security if a partner dies and being able to visit them in the hospital.
When Sowden worked at hospitals during the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, as people were dying in hospitals, often doctors would not allow patients who were gay to be visited by their partners because they were not considered immediate family.
“During AIDS, that was when we really saw it. They couldn’t be with their partners; it was pretty apparent that something had to happen,” Sowden said about legalizing same-sex marriage.
Sowden recalled many of her friends did not survive the HIV/AIDS epidemic.
“I probably knew 100 people that died,” she said. “It’s a humbling situation to see how life can change for everybody.”
At that time, she was a medical technologist at one of the largest hospitals in San Diego.
“We didn’t know what to do. We didn’t know what precautions (to take), we didn’t know how it was transmitted. We just knew that all these young guys were getting this disease that old Italian men got,” she said.
The disease she was referring to was Kaposi Sarcoma. According to The Cleveland Clinic, Kaposi Sarcoma is a cancer that can affect people with weakened immune systems.
“The AIDS epidemic really did bring the LGBTQ community together much more,” she said, adding that the lesbian community stepped up to help form “Blood Sisters,” groups of volunteers who hosted blood drives for HIV/AIDS patients. The movement was founded in San Diego in 1983.
Committed to her community
In Bisbee, Sowden spends a lot of her time giving back to her community.
She highlighted one of her biggest accomplishments: making the Bisbee Animal Shelter a no-kill shelter and helping to start the nonprofit Friends of Bisbee Animal Shelter that runs the shelter to this day.
A no-kill animal shelter does not euthanize healthy animals even when full. They only euthanize animals that are sick or aggressive, Sowden said.
Sowden was also a part of iBisbee, a community development group that worked to improve the city. Some issues the group worked on included rebranding Bisbee and getting senior housing in town.
“We have a huge senior population, but we don’t have a senior residence,” she said.
Garcia, who met Sowden through organizing Pride, said she has done a lot for the community outside of Pride.
“She has done things within the business community that also promote business and commerce in Bisbee,” he said.
Garcia underscored Sowden’s work in starting a monthly event called Business after 5, where shops would stay open after 5 p.m. and attract customers with music and other types of events. He said she was also instrumental in bringing Sidepony Express Music Festival to Bisbee.
What pushes Sowden to be so involved in her Bisbee community is the simple fact that she lives there and wants to stay there.
“You feel like you can make a difference in a small town. In a big city, you feel like you’re a little dot,” she said.
“I want to stay here.”
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This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Former LGBTQ activist Kathy Sowden gives back to her Bisbee community