The story of “Casa Susanna” when failure to wear gender-appropriate clothing was illegal on AMERICAN EXPERIENCE – June 27

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American Experience Casa Susanna

Premieres Tuesday, June 27, 2023 at 9 pm on PBS and Streaming on

 New Documentary Offers a Fascinating Window Into a Secret Chapter of LGBTQ+ History

In the 1950s and ’60s, an underground network of transgender women and cross-dressing men found refuge at a modest house in the Catskills region of New York. Known as Casa Susanna, the house provided a safe place to express their true selves and live for a few days as they had always dreamed—dressed as and living as women without fear of being incarcerated or institutionalized for their self-expression. Told through the memories of those who visited the house, the film provides a moving look back at a secret world where the persecuted and frightened found freedom, acceptance and, often, the courage to live out of the shadows. A co-production with ARTE, Casa Susanna is directed by the critically acclaimed French filmmaker Sébastien Lifshitz (Wild Side, Little Girl, Bambi) and executive produced by Cameo George. Winner of the Grand Jury Prize at the 2022 DOC NYC Festival, Casa Susanna premieres Tuesday, June 27, 2023, 9:00-11:00 p.m.  on PBS, and the PBS App.

A male dressed as "Donna", New York City. Circa 1963.
Donna, New York City. Circa 1963.

Using a rich trove of color photos of Casa Susanna’s guests, archival footage and personal remembrances, the film introduces us to Diana and Kate, two people whose lives were forever changed at Casa Susanna. We join them as they travel back to the now-abandoned site and share their memories of a time when people like them, from all over the country, came to a place where they were free to dress and live as women from morning to night. They found each other and the refuge of Casa Susanna through word-of-mouth and Transvestia, a magazine for and by the trans and cross-dressing community.

The film also recounts the forgotten life of Susanna Valenti, the courageous woman who ran the house. From her enlistment in the army as a man to her marriage to Marie, an eccentric older Italian woman, Susanna led a life that, even today, many would find hard to imagine. Like Susanna, many who came to the Catskills house had ordinary jobs, were in heterosexual marriages and had fathered children.

Also featured is Betsy Wollheim, who discovered that her father was a regular visitor to Casa Susanna after his death. Gregory Bagarozy, Marie’s grandson, shares warm memories of unconventional summers at his grandmother’s home. Together their stories provide a fascinating and moving look at a forgotten moment in queer history.

Three individuals in dresses in front of house, circa 1962.
Susanna (center) and four guests in Casa Susanna’s living room. Circa 1962.

“I have been lucky enough to be able to bring this secret history, this invisible world, back to life with the help of Kate, Diana, Betsy and Gregory,” says filmmaker Sébastien Lifshitz. “Now their story, the story of this clandestine community, is there for all to see. The unsettled nature of their existences and their bravery ring loud and clear.”

Says Cameo George, American Experience Executive Producer: “People think that the transgender movement is something very new, but that is because queer history has been marginalized and hidden for so long. This film, in a beautiful and touching way, brings an important chapter of that history to light, confirming that this community is and has been a part of the American story.”

American Experience Casa Susanna will stream for free simultaneously with broadcast until July 26 on all station-branded PBS platforms, including and the PBS App, available on iOS, Android, Roku, Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV, Android TV, Samsung Smart TV, Chromecast and VIZIO. All titles will also be available for streaming with closed captioning in English and Spanish.