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In upstate New York, Casa Susanna was a safe haven for trans women in 1960s America

·3 mins

With coiffed black hair, pearls, a hand on her hip and a high-heeled pointed toe, a woman poses jubilantly for the camera on the steps outside her home. Her home is Casa Susanna, located in the Catskills, in upstate New York. In the 1950s and ’60s, Casa Susanna served as a safe haven and a sanctuary for people to explore their gender identity and expression in ways they were not able to in daily life. Photographs taken there show individuals in scenes of comfortable domesticity and community, getting dressed in traditionally feminine clothes and celebrating occasions and holidays together.

These images are brought together in a new publication, ‘Casa Susanna: The Story of the First Trans Network in the United States, 1959-1968,’ and offer valuable insight into the environment that the owners created. Purchased in 2004 at a flea market by two art dealers and later acquired, this particular selection of 340 Casa Susanna images are part of a much wider archive, including some currently in a personal collection.

In recent years, the photographs have come to the attention of artists, scholars, activists, and more interested in the intersections between queer identities, photography, and the arts—and more collections of photographs made by members of the community who visited Casa Susanna have been found and archived. In the last decade, Casa Susanna has inspired a musical and was the subject of a documentary film released last year.

Most of the images are posed and some are highly stylized, emulating professional fashion and celebrity portraiture photoshoots of the era. The photobook includes contextual essays and a foreword, offering insight into the way the individuals at Casa Susanna both saw and wanted to see themselves. It provides a testament to the sense of home and sense of family that Casa Susanna provided for its visitors.

In 1960, a magazine called ‘Transvestia’ was launched, providing a center for people interested in the field to gather. The magazine featured personal advertisements that allowed individuals with similar interests to connect with each other. Casa Susanna was frequently featured in the magazine, and the owners played a crucial role in cultivating a supportive environment for their community.

The photographs from Casa Susanna offer a glimpse into a thriving subculture in the 1950s and ’60s, challenging the notion that it was a pre-liberation era. They are moving expressions of a community finding itself, showcasing kinship and joy in contrast to the personal struggles and risks faced by the individuals involved.

The existence and celebration of these photographs matter, especially in the current climate of legal and political challenges faced by the trans community. They remind us that the trans community and its various identities have a long history predating our current moment.