Even after passing away from cancer last December 6, the Puerto Rican transgender actress and singer Holly Woodlawn is solidifying her legacy as a philanthropist. Her estate has established the Holly Woodlawn Memorial Fund for Transgender Youth at the Los Angeles LGBT Center. “Holly Woodlawn’s last wish was to establish a legacy in her name for youth at risk,” says the Center’s Chief Development Officer Bill McDermott in a statement to The Advocate. The fund, a joint project of Woodlawn’s estate and the Center, will benefit a number of its programs, including Trans Pride L.A., Trans* Lounge, Transgender Economic Empowerment Project, and its trans health care services.
“At a time when trans people globally are victimized or killed for simply being their true selves, this fund will help to empower and inspire trans youth to be relentless, courageous, and strong,” said McDermott.
Woodlawn’s seed money of $25,000 will help the Center expand its already significant work for youth. According to the statement, the Center is the nation’s largest provider of services for LGBT youth.
Woodlawn was one of the gay pop artist Andy Warhol’s most well-known transgender muses. Woodlawn’s sassily satirical acting and singing have moved audiences in scores of films, television episodes, and cabaret appearances since she first appeared in the 1970 film Trash (directed by Paul Morrissey) as the witty, feline girlfriend of the sultry brooding bisexual performer Joe Dallesandro.
As her 1991 memoir A Low Life in High Heels: The Holly Woodlawn Story makes clear, before Woodlawn became an underground movie star, she faced many of the same struggles that befall low-income LGBT youth. Born to an American soldier of German descent and a Latina mother in Juana Díaz, Puerto Rico in 1946, Woodlawn moved to Miami Beach, Florida as a child. At age 15, she changed her first name to Holly after watching Breakfast at Tiffany’s and her last name to Woodlawn after seeing a sign of the same name in a television episode of I Love Lucy. Then she hitchhiked from Miami Beach to New York City where she endured homelessness.
“I was 15 years old and failing at high school in Miami Beach because I was too busy partying. I was supposed to go to summer school to catch up and really didn’t want to, so I joined some of these Cuban queens to go to New York. I hocked some jewelry and we made it all the way to Georgia, where the money ran out and we had to hitchhike the rest of the way,” said Woodlawn in The Guardian.
At the age of 23, Woodlawn was at the Stonewall Inn when New York City police officers raided the bar and she joined the riots that helped initiate contemporary LGBT rights movements. (As the oldest, continuously active LGBT publication in the United States founded two years before the riots, The Advocate, with the help of the New York Mattachine Society, covered the incident within its September 1969 issue.)
Soon after moving to New York, Woodlawn’s struggles were temporarily over. At a 1968 screening of the film Flesh directed by Paul Morrissey (a steamy foray into male hustling starring Dallesandro), Woodlawn met Warhol and her career on stage and screen took off. She appeared in cabaret dates at Max’s Kansas City, worked as a fashion model at Saks, and began medically transitioning with hormones in the 1970s.
But, like many trans youth, Woodlawn struggled to support herself as a gender variant woman, and she was arrested in Puerto Rico for shoplifting and imprisoned in the men’s facility of Rikers Island in New York City after her trans identity was discovered during her impersonation of the wife of the French ambassador to the United Nations.
Like a cat, Woodlawn always landed on her feet, appearing in the late 1970s and 1980s as an in-demand cabaret singer at The Palladium, at Gabriel Rotello’s Downtown Dukes and Divas revues, and in productions like Vain Victory by Jackie Curtis. She also performed in a string of musicals by the Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman. Woodlawn kept performing until shortly before her death. Last year Woodlawn appeared in two episodes of the Amazon hit show, Transparent.
Donations to The Holly Woodlawn Memorial Fund may be made online at Lalgbtcenter.org/holly or by calling 323-993-8931.
For more information about the Center’s Transgender Economic Empowerment Project, visit Lalgbtcenter.org/teep.