‘Alice Austen Lived Here’ Shows How Students Can Connect to LGBTQ+ History
By Rashauna Tunson
Seventh graders Sam and TJ have noticed that history books only highlight cisgender, heterosexual white males, and this is something that they desperately want to change. They find the perfect opportunity when their home borough of Staten Island opens up a contest: Write a report about a local historical figure from Staten Island — someone noteworthy that should have a new statue in town dedicated to them.
The two best friends are both non-binary, and ever since Sam can remember, their family and friends have always been totally accepting of it. So naturally, they decide to do their report on someone important who represents the LGBTQIA+ community. They are delighted to learn about Alice Austen, a 19th century photographer who lived with a female partner for decades — 56 years to be exact.
During the process of researching the report, Sam learns more about the queer liberation movement that began as a whisper and then was catapulted into the forefront of attention by the Stonewall Inn riots, as well as the brave changemakers, often people of color, who risked their lives to demand change. Alice Austen Lived Here, by award winning author Alex Gino (who also wrote Melissa!) is a short, sweet novel of historical fiction that will inspire young readers to learn about the queer trailblazers who are often left out of the spotlight of history.
I feel like the middle schoolers sounded authentically like middle schoolers — seventh grade is an interesting medial range where you begin to understand complex life problems, and you have big feelings about things, but you are still a child and are not quite old enough yet to know what in the world to do with those feelings.
I loved learning about Alice Austen through Sam and TJ’s eyes. It’s always so fun to learn about a historical figure through a nonfiction book! I also adore Sam’s neighbor Mrs. Hansen, or Leslie, as her queer friends call her. She helped let Sam know that even though Alice Austen is an important figure, there are other LGBTQIA+ changemakers (mostly Black or people of color) who have paved the way for young queer folks to be able to have the amount of rights that we have now, and was kind instead of chastising Sam for not knowing. With the amount of progress that we have as a community now, it can be easy to forget those who came before us. At the same time, it is so easy to miss our stories, because for so long, people have hidden us from history.
Reading Alice Austen Lived Here reminded me of the struggles of gay and trans folks before Stonewall. People who were just living their lives were seen as deviants or as mentally ill, and any romantic relationships these people had were ignored and scoffed at. Anyone living their lives as their authentic, queer human selves were punished for daring to be different.
Leslie brings up the “three piece rule” — where the police would look to make sure people were wearing three pieces of clothing from the “correct gender,” and if you weren’t, you would be arrested. This is something that actually happened, not only in Staten Island, but all over this country. It’s something specific that the patrons of the Stonewall Inn were rioting against.
Alice Austen died in 1952, seventeen years before the riots started the gay liberation movement in 1969. Her last wishes to be buried with her partner were denied. It’s sobering to think that there is a whole lost generation of queer people who never got to be themselves. I am open about my queer-ness to honor those people, and I am glad to be a part of creating new queer history.
I appreciate that Alex Gino writes about finding your chosen queer family in this book. It is important to remember that there are so many people in this world who will support you and cheer you on. I think it’s especially important to portray the queer community as loving and accepting of everyone, although the LGBTQIA+ community is often portrayed as immoral or dangerous. The characters Jess and Val reminded me of the queer nannies I see almost daily who have a gleam in their eye when they see books for children with titles like “Bye Bye, Binary” or “Pink is For Boys”. It has taken the LGBTQIA+ community years of fighting, screaming and dying for our rights to share our stories, but they are finally being heard.
Alex Gino presents a story about a chosen queer family that feels warm and cozy. Queer history is made approachable and inviting in this book — dropping names like Audre Lorde and Silvia Rivera — you’ll want to research all of the LGBTQIA+ people that you possibly can, as soon as you finish Alice Austen Lived Here first, of course!
Rashauna Herm (she/her) is a lifelong resident of Denver, Colorado. She is proud to be Black and Queer. Rashauna is passionate about human rights, disco music, and breakfast burritos. You can follow Rashauna on Twitter at @rogue1ne__ or — if you’re lucky — you can catch her whipping around town on her roller skates!