Edition 2023

Casa Susanna

In 2004, two antique dealers discovered 340 photographs from the 1950s‒60s at a flea market in New York City. What made these images singular was that they depicted men dressed as women, whose feminine identity was that of the “respectable” housewife, the girl next door, or the kind matron. Here we find neither the feathers nor the extravagant make-up of cabaret, just perfect housewives in the privacy of their homes.

Behind the photographs lay a vast, hidden network of crossdressers. They were married, loving fathers of the American white middle class. They were engineers, pilots, and civil servants. They embodied the American dream, and its nightmare, in a time of racial, sexual, and political segregation in a Cold War America that censored, repressed, excluded, and hunted down those who violated the gender norms of the time, from crossdressers to homosexuals.

Susanna, Virginia, Doris, Fiona, Gail, Felicity, Gloria, and their friends, created a unique collective identity. Despite the risks, they corresponded with each other, got together, organized, and managed to alleviate their isolation through an underground magazine: Transvestia. Their haven was the home of Susanna and her wife Marie, tucked away in the Catskill Mountains, a few hours away from New York City. There they were able to live freely en femme. Photography was essential to their identity as crossdressers; in a quasi-sacred ritual, photographs circulated widely within their community. Despite their now outdated female identities, the Casa Susanna crossdressers broke with the gender prescriptions of their time and defiantly refused to submit to an archaic cult of masculinity. Defiant and determined, they organized the first known trans network in the United States.
In their day, the crossdressers of Casa Susanna called themselves “transvestites” or “TVs” for short. This term is today deemed pejorative, and we have avoided it wherever possible. In French, however, the only available term is “travesti”. We have used it here both for historical accuracy, and because most of the members of the Casa Susanna network made a clear distinction between their identities as crossdressers and other trans identities. 
There are three cases where we have opted to give a crossdresser’s masculine identity: for Felicity, Susanna and Doris. Either they were well-known in their lifetime or their families have given us permission to disclose their identities as part of making visible the difficult conditions that cross-dressing and trans individuals continue to face and the ongoing impact of this discrimination. 
As historians, we have tried to strike a balance between historical facts, the ways the individuals in the Casa Susanna circle self-identified, and our contemporary awareness of a spectrum of gender identities. Thus, in our view, this community stands as the first known trans network in the United States.  

Isabelle Bonnet and Sophie Hackett

Curators: Isabelle Bonnet and Sophie Hackett.

Exhibition coproduced by the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO), Toronto and the Rencontres d’Arles.

Publication: Isabelle Bonnet, Sophie Hackett, Susan Stryker, Casa Susanna, Éditions Textuel, 2023.

Film: Casa Susanna by Sébastien Lifshitz, in collaboration with Isabelle Bonnet, coproduction ARTE France, Agat Films and American Experience Films in association with BBC Storyville, 2022 – 1h37.

  • Institutional partners

    • République Française
    • Région Provence Alpes Côté d'Azur
    • Département des Bouches du Rhône
    • Arles
    • Le Centre des monuments nationaux est heureux de soutenir les Rencontres de la Photographie d’Arles en accueillant des expositions dans l’abbaye de Montmajour
  • Main partners

    • Fondation LUMA
    • BMW
    • SNCF
    • Kering
  • Media partners

    • Arte
    • Lci
    • Konbini
    • Le Point
    • Madame Figaro
    • France Culture