Sébastien Lifshitz directs a tender but incomplete documentary about a New York State sanctuary for trans people seeking safety & understanding.
(This review is part of our coverage of the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival)
Nestled in the arbors of the Catskills sits an ordinary house. Next to it is a brown box barn. Dilapidated cabins dot the rest of the land. Driving by, you’d never know that over 60 years ago, this mundane property was a sanctuary for ‘trans-’ folks.
Sébastien Lifshitz’s documentary, Casa Susanna, takes us back to the early 1960s in upstate New York, where gender and gender presentation were in flux and play. The trans- people retreating to Casa Susanna were doing so when the idea of “transness” was first beginning to socially, medically, legally, and spiritually rise to the topic of public conversation. Many people we meet in the documentary have complex, seemingly anachronistic ideas about transness and personal identity.
I will use ‘trans-‘ to describe the folks we meet in the documentary, and ‘transness’ should be taken to encompass all forms of earnest, self-realizing gender play. Many people we hear about don’t/didn’t associate themselves with being transgender or transsexual, and they self-identified in an age when transvestite or “cross-dressers” was comfortable. Now we would make a greater distinction, but in the 1960s, things were still murky and informed. A few even feel a lingering sense of shame by being identified with their transness. However they choose to express themselves, Lifshitz lets them do so on entirely their terms. The best thing about Casa Susanna is how skillfully Lifshitz navigates complex and conflicting categories of identities with his interviewees. Using ‘trans-,’ we can do the same and keep things open-ended to account for personal and historical differences.
Casa Susanna’s appeal as a documentary is that it welcomes us across the threshold of history. For our elder women, Katherine and Diane, it’s a return. We who weren’t there enter into a “back then” when things weren’t as they are now. Yet more than any discussion about transness in general, Casa Susanna is about the feeling of home this singular place created.
Lifshitz has crafted a tender and human work of gender history. The trans-folks we encounter, face to face or through stories told by loved ones, remain flawed and complex, just like their times. The house holds a narrative that is full of contradictions. Casa Susanna was a place for trans- people with wives to come to explore their “female side.” This comes with tender stories of compassion, understanding, and even support. Some couples found ways to make a marriage work. It also comes with heartbreak, abuse, and disappearance when others couldn’t.
Yet Casa Susanna could have done much more to educate its audience about what made the trans-lives of these folks impossible. We quickly gloss over the McCarthy-era homosexual panic, the cliché “things were bad” and “transness was illegal.” All true, but the documentary provides little historical context, such as what dress code laws were in place. For a documentary that opens with the provocative shock of women being outed as “men” and called criminals, we get very little unpacking of what systems made and kept them criminal.
We also don’t address what made their transness possible, though we get vital clues. The marriages these folks were in lent a cover or tolerance. Regardless of whatever sumptuary laws they may be breaking, they, by all appearances, remained sexually-normative citizens. There was always an air of respectability within Casa Susanna.
As briefly pointed out in the documentary, it was a place where these trans- people could come and live, specifically as middle-class women. Very much focused on passing, the trans- people we meet make it a point to talk about the elegance, refinement, and craftsmanship of the looks that used to walk the hallways and living rooms. Far from debauched, these gatherings were gentile, modest, classy —the picture of bourgeois taste.
Lifshitz has crafted a tender and human work of gender history.
They were just like all middle-class folks who ventured from New York City to find “peace and quiet” in the Catskills. Unacknowledged in this documentary is that a large part of the middle class “passing” was made possible by whiteness, or approximate whiteness. The thoroughgoing whiteness meant they could blend in; they could come and go without arousing much suspicion. They were able to buy vast amounts of property to keep their gatherings private because of whiteness. At no time did Casa Susanna threaten class or racial homogeneity.
Racial difference in the story of Casa Susanna is coded across the city/country divide. The city is a place of danger where the rowdy classes and races mix, which attracts the police. It’s the same city as Fran Simon’s The Queen (1968). Queerness happens there. So do raids. On the other side of the mountain, the casa in the Catskills is a place of tranquil uniformity. It’s a place of like-minded folks having civil gatherings and retreats, quietly disturbing only the gender norms of the area. It’s why the casa didn’t get raided and was allowed to thrive and pass in relative anonymity.
I don’t mention this to shame these folks for being white or finger-wag at a director for not pointing out the obvious. But Casa Susanna is about a place, a place that is on land which has its own history. If you’re going to have a descendant look longingly and say, “my family used to own that mountain,” and that property was used by white people to gender play inside a “wig-wam,” you have to address race. Or at least acknowledge that the freedom experienced by these trans- folks was possible because of the removal of Indigenous people. Otherwise, we perpetuate colonial narratives of disappearance while arguing for the visibility of another. For Casa Susanna to be the complete work of trans history that it wants to be, it needs more of the bigger picture.
At times, Katherine, Diane, or one of the other storytellers will talk about Transvestia, a “cross-dressing” publication that acted like a mobile message board and allowed them to establish connections with other trans- people. We know there’s a blossoming network that was integral for spreading the news about Casa Susanna. Still, unfortunately, Lifshitz retreats and makes Casa Susanna a geographically and historically isolated place. Less a community space as a place for individuals.
Nonetheless, the individuals we meet and the archive of photos we flip through are filled with humanity and heart. Sébastien Lifshitz is highly compassionate towards his subjects and lets them shine as complex subjects. Without its larger context, we may not fully understand how magical Casa Susanna was. Still, we learn that it meant a great deal to a special few who were lucky enough to find each other and themselves in the foothills of the Catskill Mountains.