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Queens of the Catskills

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Last Updated: 08/13/2013 4:18 pm
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The saga of Tito Valenti and his drag colony may eventually join Priscilla and To Wong Foo in the canon of drag cinema. When the New York Times ran an article about the Casa Susanna book last September, a Hollywood studio immediately rang the authors. Hurst and Swope were asked to write a treatment—in film lingo, a brief summary of the proposed screenplay—and signed a contract to serve as consultants for a proposed film.
In the meantime, they wait. “These things move very slowly,” Hurst said. He and Swope continue to gather photographs and personal accounts from veterans of Casa Susanna. Hurst added that the pair have playfully assembled their dream cast, including Tom Hanks, Paul Giammatti, and Jack Nicholson.
The Catskills still draw colorful, eccentric souls that seek the seclusion of rural life. A modern successor to Casa Susanna is Gallae Central House on Route 23A in Palenville. Its website features photos of men wearing dresses and makeup who belong to a religious cult called the Maetreum of Cybele, Magna Mater. Devoted to the worship of a Greek goddess, the group celebrates “a belief in the divine feminine principle of the universe.”
A call to a contact number yields a more complicated story. In a teary, rambling half-hour conversation, a person who requested anonymity explains her tale of woe: An intersexed person—that is, born with male and female genitalia—she was the founder of Gallae, a cooperative intended as “a refuge for women in need,” she said. “Trans women were welcome but they were not the focus.” Last summer, her housemates mutinied, declaring their desire to strip away the religious elements and transform Gallae into a commune for transvestites and transsexuals. The founder was, she claims, physically abused and driven from her own property. She plans legal action. “It was a horrible situation and it stinks.”
One can only imagine the ladies of Casa Susanna reacting to this modern tale of identity politics—a far cry from the joys of simple cross-dressing. No doubt they would momentarily look up from their tea and cigarettes, nod sympathetically if blankly, and then return happily to their Scrabble game.

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