Crossdressers and the photographer who loved them
Mariette Pathy Allen, who has dedicated her life to the transgender community, is celebrated as their unofficial photographer
Mariette Pathy Allen has been photographing the transgender and crossdressing community for nearly 40 years. But her career focus started by accident.
It was the last day of Mardi Gras in 1978 and Allen found herself dining alone in her New Orleans hotel for breakfast. A group of crossdressers seated nearby invited Allen to join them. A meal turned into a morning lounging by the pool, where the photographer picked up her camera.
"When I lifted my camera to my eyes, I found myself looking straight into the eyes of a crossdresser who was in the middle of the group," she wrote in an email interview. "As I took the picture, I felt that I wasn't looking at a man or a woman, but the essence of a human being, and I said to myself, 'I have to have this person in my life.'"
Through the 1980s and the decades to follow, Allen, who lives in New York, would crisscross the country, attending conferences, participating in radio and TV shows, and slowly seeking out and getting to know crossdressers, and then transgender people. Allen was not only a photographer, but an advocate for a maligned and misunderstood community.
"Many people I met at that time thought they were the only person in the world that was 'that way,'" Allen said. "Some thought they were crazy and bad, guilty, unworthy. When/if they told their wives, many marriages ended in divorce. There were many debates about telling their children, and if yes, at what age. They lost their church communities if the church knew, and kept everything to do with their jobs secret."
Allen used her lens to reflect a more accurate reality — a positive, beautiful, even celebratory picture of a person who had finally found herself. This was no small task. For Allen to ask crossdressers or trans people to step out so publicly was a matter of trust, which Allen was dedicated to gain.
In 1990, Allen published Transformations: Crossdressers and Those Who Love Them, a photography book documenting her decade of travels within this community and the people she met along the way. "It was the book that crossdressers, and other transgender people, had been looking for all their lives," Allen said. "The only representations of them were in porn shops, or medical papers, where they were presented as people with mental issues."
This isn't exhibitionist photography. It's pure documentary and extraordinary in its ordinariness. Indeed, the warmth that emanates from Allen's photographs, particularly during the '80s and '90s, illustrates the mutual affection and respect the photographer and subject had for one another.
"I felt that I had found something valuable to do, as an artist and ally," she said. "I loved being part of a hidden world where I could bring in some sunlight."
The 1990s marked the beginning of a new era for gender variant people and Allen was there to document the growing political movement. Her next book, The Gender Frontier, published in 2003, captured this ripe moment in the history of LGBT rights — the evolution of political activism, the growing number of trans youth, as well as the protests and backlash. In 2005, The Gender Frontier won the Lambda Literary Award for best Transgender/GenderQueer book and Allen became unofficially known as the official photographer of the transgendered.
After The Gender Frontier, Allen decided it was time to look outside the U.S. "I was extremely fortunate to be able to travel to Cuba, and be welcomed by transgender women, most of whom are HIV positive street workers," she said. A photography book about that time, called TransCuba, followed in 2014.
And she continues to seek out marginalized trans communities around the world. Her next book on the subject, Transcendents: Spirit Mediums in Burma and Thailand, comes out this fall.
"Gender variant people question gender roles not merely with their minds but with their lives. They confront the issues that most of us keep hidden, but as time passes, their struggles will lead many of us to greater freedom in expressing ourselves," Allen said. "They are teachers and leaders, though unwittingly, of a revolution in the search for identity."
**Transcendents: Spirit Mediums in Burma and Thailand (Daylight Books)will be released in the fall of 2017. To see more of Mariette Pathy Allen's work or to purchase any of her books, visit her website.**