Windy City Media Group Frontpage News


home search facebook twitter join
Gay News Sponsor Windy City Times 2022-08-31



LGBT History Month: Staten Island museum throws open Austen's closet door
by Cynthia Laird

This article shared 1307 times since Fri Oct 22, 2021
facebook twitter pin it google +1 reddit email

It's been a long time coming, but officials at the Alice Austen House on New York's Staten Island have thrown open the closet door, now fully embracing the lesbian pioneer and photographer who lived in the house with her longtime partner, Gertrude Tate.

Since the Bay Area Reporter's initial story on the small museum in 2016 (, the Alice Austen House, also known as Clear Comfort, has been designated a National LGBT Historic Site and was awarded a $250,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Both of those occurred in 2017 and began the process to more fully depict Austen's life as a lesbian. Historians used the NEH grant to reinterpret Austen's story to more fully include Tate.

The house sits along New York Harbor near the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge. The museum grounds also include a rainbow flag joining the U.S., New York City, and other flags on the front lawn flagpole, and it hosted several LGBTQ events for Pride Month in June. Open during the COVID-19 pandemic by appointment, the museum's interior has been completely redone, noted Victoria Munro, who became executive director in December 2017.

"The big challenge when I started [was] we were at the beginning of the journey," Munro, 45, told the Bay Area Reporter during a recent Zoom call. "We were fully accepting of the new interpretation but no work had been done, so I had to spearhead that project."

That meant immediately raising $150,000 in matching funds, she explained.

"It wasn't enough to get the [historic] designation and be applauded for it," Munro said. "The purpose of a museum is to provide access. There were only 20 photos on display before the renovation. Now, there are 150 photos and the text is an accessible size."

Munro, a lesbian originally from New Zealand, has a history in curation as an artist and trained educator. She wrote all of the text for the new permanent installation. The rooms in the house that are open to the public have been painted white, which brightens up the interior considerably. And many items have been removed.

"The dining room was full of furniture — none of which was Alice's," Munro said.

Austen, who was born March 17, 1866, was one of America's earliest and most prolific female photographers. And while she lived a life of privilege until her later years, she took many photographs of working-class people as well as women. She likely did not call herself a lesbian, Munro and other historians have said, but the LGBTQ community has long celebrated her.

"The big question, as it relates to LGBTQ History Month, is why don't more people know about Alice Austen?" Munro asked. "Daily, it's part of my work — Alice coming out of the closet."

Munro said that there was some fear about "calling Alice a lesbian and there was some resentment at the board level."

"I said that it adds a lot of understanding to her work," Munro recalled. "A lot of her photographs were taken through a queer lens. She didn't mean them for public consumption but we're lucky to have them."

Some of the photos are of Victorian women's social lives outside of formal studio portraits, Munro explained.

"Alice was making portraits of strong women with bold gazes. She has a specific style that runs through her work," said Munro.

Munro said that there are myths that surround Austen.

"Talking about her, Alice Austen had clear ambitions to be a professional photographer, and many people claim that because she made no money, she wasn't professional," Munro said. "Not true. She did make money."

Board changes

Deborah Hernandez, an ally who is vice president of the museum's executive board, lives on Staten Island and has long known of the Alice Austen House.

"I was always curious about the house," she told the B.A.R. in a recent phone interview. "I knew a little about Alice, a photographer documenting immigrants and their stories."

Hernandez, 57, teaches at the Fashion Institute in New York City and specializes in textiles. She became a museum board member in 2018 at the urging of another board member who took a class of hers. She praised Munro's tenure and what she's accomplished.

"I've seen it evolve with better storytelling and to see her relationship with Gertrude," Hernandez said of the museum, adding that Austen "liked regular people."

"She photographed regular people," Hernandez said. "And she was brave and strong, carrying 50 pounds of equipment, getting in a boat, and going around. I'm sure people were cruel but she just kept on and, I think, started to pave the path for inclusion and equality."

Hernandez said the board is committed to that equitable storytelling.

"It's a big deal," she said. "I feel the board is maturing in that way. We have some younger people on the board now."

Hernandez added that the board make-up — there are 13 members — has changed as it is now more diverse. Hernandez herself is of Puerto Rican, Italian and German descent, she said. It's coming up with fundraising strategies and how to engage people in a safe way during the COVID-19 pandemic. Right now, Alice Austen House is open for visitors by appointment only. And, like other museums in New York City, people need to be vaccinated, except children under 12.

Future plans

Munro and Hernandez both said that future plans involve more people getting to know about Austen. That's not always easy on Staten Island, the most conservative of New York City's five boroughs. Already, Munro said, school students have visited the museum (pre-pandemic) and Austen is referred to as a lesbian.

"The kids have no issue," she said. "It's the teachers that give you a look sometimes."

The Alice Austen House's budget is $500,000, Munro said. It employs three full-time staff and seven part-time workers.

"The ceiling's pretty low for our pay and it's hard to get money for operations," she noted. Her salary is $77,000.

But the museum recently got a $49,000 planning grant (over two years) from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

Munro said that education is the key to changing people's minds, no matter why people come to the museum.

"If you come to Alice Austen House and to a water ecology project, it's queer because we're a nationally designated site — the house and the park.

"We're involved in ways to interpret the outdoors now," she added. "Queer ecologies and how landscape and plantings better reflect who Alice was."

Munro also said a plan of hers is to create an LGBTQ youth advisory board.

"Students could potentially work at Alice Austen house or intern," she said.

Sad end to Austen's life

Austen's life ended sadly, as the B.A.R. recounted in the 2016 article. Austen mostly lived off her inheritance and money from some photographs she sold.

She and Tate opened a tea room on the lawn of the house, but it never generated enough income. From there, Austen mortgaged and re-mortgaged Clear Comfort.

"Austen's wealth was lost in the stock market crash of 1929 and she and Tate were finally evicted from their beloved home in 1945," the museum's website (; states. "Tate and Austen were separated by family rejection of their relationship and poverty. Austen was moved to the Staten Island Farm Colony where Tate would visit her weekly. In 1951, Austen's photographs were rediscovered by historian Oliver Jensen and money was raised by the publication of her photographs to place Austen in private nursing home care. On June 9, 1952 Austen passed away. The final wishes of Austen and Tate to be buried together were denied by their families."

Austen was 86 when she died. Tate passed away in 1962 at the age of 91.

For more about the Alice Austen House, visit .

Cynthia Laird is news editor of the Bay Area Reporter.

This article shared 1307 times since Fri Oct 22, 2021
facebook twitter pin it google +1 reddit email


Gay News

NATIONAL $1M donation, church departures, Harvey Milk, abortions, Grindr
In Ohio, Dayton-based insurance company CareSource is donating $1 million to United Church Homes to support the development of a senior living facility at the site of the former Longfellow School that will also aim at ...

Gay News

Kris Mayes shatters lavender ceiling; first LGBTQ person elected Arizona Attorney General
-- From a press release - Washington, DC — Today LGBTQ Victory Fund candidate Kris Mayes won the election for Arizona Attorney General. With this historic win, she is now the first out LGBTQ Attorney General in Arizona history. Mayor Annise Parker, ...

Gay News

GLAAD responds to mass shooting in Colorado Springs
-- From a press release - (New York, NY - November 20, 2022) - GLAAD, the world's largest lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) media advocacy organization, is responding to the mass shooting at Club Q in Colorado Springs that killed ...

Gay News

HRC responds to fatal shooting at LGBTQ+ nightclub in Colorado Springs
-- From a press release - Colorado Springs, CO — Today, the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), the nation's largest lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ+) civil rights organization, responded to media reports of a fatal shooting at Club Q in Colo ...

Gay News

NATIONAL Respect for Marriage Act, lesbian judge, gay official resigns
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-New York) said that debate on the Respect for Marriage Act (RFMA) is suspended and will continue on Nov. 28, when the Senate reconvenes after Thanksgiving, LGBTQ Nation reported. The RFMA ...

Gay News

VIEWPOINT The geopolitics of being Brittney Griner
WNBA All-Star Brittney Griner was arrested a week before Russia invaded Ukraine. On Feb. 17, the Russian Federal Customs Service detained Griner at Sheremetyevo International Airport for allegedly transporting cannabis-derived ...

Gay News

Human Rights Campaign Foundation Marks 10 Years of Tracking Violence Against Transgender and Gender Non-Conforming People, Recording 32 Fatalities in 2022
From a press release: WASHINGTON—Today, the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) Foundation, the educational arm of the Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ+) civil ...

Gay News

Hong Kong lesbian romance premieres at local film festival
Hong Kong Lesbian Romance Premieres At Film Festival by Vernon Hester �As part of the semi-annual Asian Pop-Up Cinema Film Festival, which ran from September 10 through November 6, The First Girl I Loved had its ...

Gay News

NATIONAL Political results, communicable-disease law, Urvashi Vaid
Sharice Davids won the election for Kansas' 3rd Congressional District. In 2018, she made history when she became the first out LGBTQ+ person elected to Congress from Kansas and one of the first two Native American women ever ...

Gay News

U.S. women's soccer makes history after loss to Germany
The United States women's soccer team lost again, falling 2-1 to Germany on Nov. 10 at DRV PNK Stadium in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. According to The Guardian, it's the U.S. team's first three-game skid since 1993 ...

Gay News

Erick Russell shatters lavender ceiling; first Black LGBTQ person elected to statewide position in U.S. history
-- From a press release - Washington, DC — Today LGBTQ Victory Fund candidate Erick Russell won the election for Connecticut state Treasurer. With this victory, he is now the first Black out LGBTQ person ever elected to statewide office in U.S. ...

Gay News

HISTORY MADE: Oregon's Tina Kotek one of first lesbian governors in U.S history
-- From a press release - SALEM — Today, the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), the nation's largest lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ+) civil rights organization, hailed the victory of HRC-endorsed Tina Kotek in her bid to become the governo ...

Gay News

History made: More LGBTQ+ people elected to congress than ever before
-- From an HRC press release - Washington, DC — Today, the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) — the nation's largest lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ+) civil rights organization — hailed the victory of at least ...

Gay News

Brittney Griner sent to Russian penal colony
U.S. basketball star Brittney Griner has been moved from a detention center outside of Moscow to a Russian penal colony to begin serving out her nine-year sentence on drug smuggling charges, NPR reported. A statement from ...

Gay News

Wednesday morning election results: LGBT+ governor, congressional candidates
Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey, a popular Democrat in a deeply blue state, coasted to victory Tuesday as predicted, becoming the first lesbian to be elected governor of any state. Another lesbian candidate for governor, Tina ...


Copyright © 2022 Windy City Media Group. All rights reserved.
Reprint by permission only. PDFs for back issues are downloadable from
our online archives. Single copies of back issues in print form are
available for $4 per issue, older than one month for $6 if available,
by check to the mailing address listed below.

Return postage must accompany all manuscripts, drawings, and
photographs submitted if they are to be returned, and no
responsibility may be assumed for unsolicited materials.
All rights to letters, art and photos sent to Nightspots
(Chicago GLBT Nightlife News) and Windy City Times (a Chicago
Gay and Lesbian News and Feature Publication) will be treated
as unconditionally assigned for publication purposes and as such,
subject to editing and comment. The opinions expressed by the
columnists, cartoonists, letter writers, and commentators are
their own and do not necessarily reflect the position of Nightspots
(Chicago GLBT Nightlife News) and Windy City Times (a Chicago Gay,
Lesbian, Bisexual and Transegender News and Feature Publication).

The appearance of a name, image or photo of a person or group in
Nightspots (Chicago GLBT Nightlife News) and Windy City Times
(a Chicago Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender News and Feature
Publication) does not indicate the sexual orientation of such
individuals or groups. While we encourage readers to support the
advertisers who make this newspaper possible, Nightspots (Chicago
GLBT Nightlife News) and Windy City Times (a Chicago Gay, Lesbian
News and Feature Publication) cannot accept responsibility for
any advertising claims or promotions.







About WCMG      Contact Us      Online Front  Page      Windy City  Times      Nightspots
Identity      BLACKlines      En La Vida      Archives      Advanced Search     
Windy City Queercast      Queercast Archives     
Press  Releases      Join WCMG  Email List      Email Blast      Blogs     
Upcoming Events      Todays Events      Ongoing Events      Bar Guide      Community Groups      In Memoriam     
Privacy Policy     

Windy City Media Group publishes Windy City Times,
The Bi-Weekly Voice of the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Trans Community.
5315 N. Clark St. #192, Chicago, IL 60640-2113 • PH (773) 871-7610 • FAX (773) 871-7609.