From the mid-1950s until 1969, Susanna Valenti and her wife, Marie, operated two resorts for masculine-to-feminine cross-dressers in upstate New York: the Chevalier d’Eon Bungalows and Casa Susanna. The resorts provided a safe haven for visitors to explore alternative forms of gender expression. Guests spent weekends revelling in the freedom to dress in women’s clothing and accessories—something they could not do in day-to-day life—talking, performing skits, sharing fashion and makeup tips, and photographing one another. The snapshots, taken by the participants themselves, are typically candid and full of camaraderie: groups of friends at parties, enjoying a summer afternoon, celebrating birthdays. But many also feature individuals playing different female roles, including the femme fatale and the matron, highlighting a keen awareness of image, appearance, and gender roles in the culture.
The quiet banality of these scenes belies the violence and ridicule the subjects might have faced in the world at large. At the time, laws in Canada and the U.S. criminalized queer life. In New York, for instance, if an individual wore fewer than three items of clothing of their supposed gender, they could be arrested on charges of “sexual deviancy.” For decades, anti-cross-dressing laws were a flexible tool used by police to enforce normative notions of gender. These laws have now been repealed, human rights laws have been passed, and trans visibility has increased dramatically in recent years. But violence toward gender-non-conforming people—particularly people of colour—remains pervasive in Toronto and elsewhere. Bringing to light a queer archive, a selection of snapshots from the AGO’s Casa Susanna collection are presented as murals and posters in St. Patrick Station. At the edge of the justice precinct and major courthouses in the city, history enters into conversation with the present on a distinctly public platform.
Presented in partnership with the Art Gallery of Ontario, in conjunction with the exhibition Outsiders: American Photography and Film, 1950s-1980s.
Supported by PATTISON Outdoor Advertising