Thursday, June 27, 2024

Casa Susanna - Revisit

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

By Suyin Haynes, CNN
 7 minute read 
Published 4:44 AM EDT, Wed June 26, 2024

Susanna Valenti
poses in the garden of her and her wife's home
in the Catskills, "Casa Susanna,"
circa 1964-1968.
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 name is Susanna Valenti, and 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, part of the Art Gallery of Ontario’s (AGO) permanent collection, 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 Valenti and her wife Marie Tonell created. Purchased in 2004 at a New York City flea market by two art dealers and later acquired by the AGO in 2015, this particular selection of 340 Casa Susanna images are part of a much wider archive, including some currently in the personal collection of photographer Cindy Sherman.

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, such as the Louise Lawrence Transgender Archive. In the last decade, Casa Susanna has inspired a Broadway musical, Harvey Fierstein’s “Casa Valentina”; been referenced in the television series “Transparent”; and was the subject of an acclaimed documentary film released last year.

Most of the images are posed, and some are highly stylized, emulating the professional fashion and celebrity portraiture photoshoots of the era — in a way that was slightly paradoxical, said Sophie Hackett, given the growth of the women’s liberation and second wave feminist movements in broader society at the time. Pictured above, guests with Susanna Valenti (right) in her wife Marie Tonell's New York City apartment, circa 1960-63. Collection of Cindy Sherman/Courtesy Thames and Hudson

The photobook includes contextual essays and a foreword by historian, writer and documentary filmmaker Susan Stryker, who recalls images circulating within her generation and community of trans women in the late 1980s and 1990s. “They were just ubiquitous in trans underground networks,” Stryker said in an interview with CNN. “I have to say, I’ve been tickled in recent decades when people have discovered them and said, ‘oh, there’s a treasure trove of these things that we never knew existed.’ It’s like, ‘who never knew they existed?’”

In the current climate, with trans rights the subject of legal and political challenges across the country, the existence and celebration of these photographs matter.

“The photographs show us that what we would now refer to as the trans community and all its various identities of course predates our current moment,” said Hackett. “They are moving as expressions of a community and as a community finds itself. You see the kinship, and you see the joy, and that’s one that’s in strict contrast to the lives they led and the struggles they had personally, and the risks they ran by gathering.”


  1. I was in Woodstock last weekend and one of the clothing stores had their window display for pride month. Had a little history about casa Susanna and a 60s photograph signed by someone from the house. Couldn’t really see who it was signed by. But anyway it was a real nice window display about pride month and a little history to go along with it.

  2. There was also a documentary made about it also under the name of Cass Susanna. It's now available on YouTube.
    I admit being a little shocked to find that science -fiction author and editor Donald Wollheim, founder of DAW Books was a crossdresser and one of Susanna's group.