The Alice Austen House in Staten Island celebrates the life of the trailblazing photographer Alice Austen, who lived there in the mid-19th and early-20th centuries. The stately house by the bay, now a National Historic Landmark, has stunning views of Brooklyn and Lower Manhattan, and features a selection of some 7,000 photographs taken by Ms. Austen of New York City in the Victorian era.
Amid its rolling, verdant grounds and vine-covered porch, there’s also a new initiative in the works: the Queer Ecologies Garden Project. It’s something of a misnomer, since many plants and flowers, to use human terms, are transgender or bisexual, in that they can change sex or have both reproductive organs and can self-pollinate, said Marisa Prefer, a Brooklyn-based horticulturist who identifies as nonbinary, requested the honorific Mx. for this story, and who consulted on creating the garden.
With this new venture, Mx. Prefer and Victoria Munro, the executive director of the Alice Austen House, aim to celebrate this widespread gender fluidity of the natural world while focusing on plants that are particularly loud and proud in their functions, or are culturally associated with the L.G.B.T.Q. community in some important way.
“It sort of challenges the notion that being queer is a choice,” said Ms. Munro of the project. “If nature is doing it, it’s natural.”
One example slated for the garden is the jack-in-the-pulpit, a plant with green and maroon striped flowers and red berries. It switches genders from year to year, based on environmental conditions. “One year it might produce fruit, and another year it might produce a flower, and another year it might produce pollen, depending on the environment,” Mx. Prefer said. “Many plants have all the parts to do what they need to survive.”
In another corner are logs that are sprouting shiitake mushrooms, which are considered nonbinary, Mx. Prefer said, who added that fungi are famous for reproducing in a variety of ways. Some are asexual and multiply by spreading their spores far and wide. Others are able to mate with themselves.
“Mushrooms are super queer in so many ways,” Ms. Munro said. “They are very controversial. I love that they are here.”
Plants like wisteria and lavender, which hold a certain cultural significance in the L.G.B.T.Q. community, having appeared symbolically in literature and activism, are part of the garden. “They are all purple, which is this historically queer color,” Mx. Prefer said.
There will be herbs, too. “One that I find particularly interesting is the black cohosh that is a feminizing herb,” and is said to help with balancing hormones, Mx. Prefer said.
Ms. Munro was long interested in making the garden a welcoming space for L.G.B.T.Q. New Yorkers. Having read about the complicated and diverse sexuality of plants, she sought help for the plan with the New York Restoration Project, a nonprofit that helps to activate green spaces. Jason Sheets, who oversees many of the garden projects for the organization, said the group took interest immediately.
“Typically what we get asked to do are a lot of installations where people are excited about growing food, which is obviously so important,” Mr. Sheets said. “We were very excited when this application came in. This is a small space, but it has a very big purpose.”
Focusing on L.G.B.T.Q. programming is a relatively new mission for the Alice Austen House, one of New York City’s oldest homes, which was originally built in 1690 as a one-room Dutch farmhouse in the Rosebank section of Staten Island. Because of its location near the Narrows, the waterway between Brooklyn and Staten Island and a maritime gateway to the city, sailors and harbor masters used to call it the first house on the left. “It was the first thing they saw when they came here,” said Ms. Munro.
The house was purchased in 1844 by John Haggerty Austen, Alice Austen’s grandfather, who expanded it into the Victorian gothic cottage it is today. In 1985, it opened as a museum, with an emphasis on decorative arts and historical architecture, but originally there was not much information on the lesbian photographer for whom the house was named, Ms. Munro said.
“The house used to be filled with all this Victorian furniture that didn’t even belong to Alice,” she explained. “The first time I visited the museum, I left and didn’t know Alice was a photographer, and I didn’t know she was queer,” she continued. “And I’m a queer artist, so that would have been really meaningful.”
In 1917, Ms. Austen, who had refused marriage, invited her longtime partner, Gertrude Tate, to move in with her. Together, they created a welcoming space for women. Ms. Austen’s photographs show groups of laughing women, cross dressing and embracing in her gardens.
“Alice also started the Staten Island Bicycle Club, which was an activity that Victorian women could do without being chaperoned,” said Ms. Munro.
When Ms. Munro became executive director in 2017, she “queered the museum,” as she put it. “I wanted it to be a very safe place to talk about queer history and celebrate queer identity today.”
Having a place like this is especially important on Staten Island, Ms. Munro said. “This borough has a tendency to be more conservative, and therefore not so welcoming of diverse ideas of sexuality or gender,” she said. (Staten Island still bans L.G.B.T.Q. groups from marching in its St. Patrick’s Day parade.)
The museum gets questions and criticism, however, from all sides, said Ms. Munro, who hears from Staten Islanders who are not happy about L.G.B.T.Q. programming, as well as from progressive donors who assume that this kind of work may not be happening in New York City’s most conservative borough. (The Alice Austen House did receive funding from local council member Kamillah M. Hanks, who represents Staten Island’s North Shore, for its queer garden.)
Multiple L.G.B.T.Q.-allied student groups from the borough have been recruited to clean flower beds, plant mushrooms and create explanatory signage for the species on display. Elementary school groups are planning to visit the garden from Brooklyn and Queens, and as an experiment in cross-pollination, the museum has started early conversations with Pioneer Works, a cultural center in Red Hook, Brooklyn, to come up with L.G.B.T.Q. programming that would benefit both spaces.
Ms. Munro sees the museum as a safe space for all young people, including those still struggling with their identities or who are simply curious about learning more. “We’re not a Pride center, so we can send home a permission slip to come and do a workshop with us, and it’s not going to out that child,” she said.
Lexy Trujillo-Hall, 19, who identifies as queer or agender (neither a man, a woman, nor both) and lives in the South Beach neighborhood of Staten Island, has started working at the garden.
“One of the main arguments against queer people in general is that it’s not a natural thing or not normal,” she said. “But this is like nature supports you, nature understands you, and it’s not a bad thing to want to be who you are.”
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