Mariette Pathy Allen has been photographing, interviewing, and advocating on behalf of transgender, nonbinary, and gender nonconforming people for five decades, following a chance meeting with a group of cross-dressers in the late 1970s in New Orleans. Through her artistic practice, she has been a pioneering force in gender consciousness, contributing to cultural and academic publications and lecturing worldwide, as well as authoring four books: Transformations: Crossdressers and Those Who Love Them (1989), the Lambda Literary Award-winning The Gender Frontier (2004), TransCuba (2014), and Transcendents: Spirit Mediums in Burma and Thailand (2017).
This Pride month sees the opening of two exhibitions centered around Mariette Pathy Allen’s career at Culture Lab LIC in Queens, New York City. A retrospective, Breaking Boundaries: 50 Years of Images curated by Orestes Gonzalez and Jesse Egner, will be on view alongside Breaking More Boundaries, a group exhibit of work inspired by, or in the spirit of, Mariette’s photography selected by Gonzalez, Egner, and Allen from open call submissions, which also features invited artists Zackary Drucker and Jess T. Dugan.
Ahead of the opening, The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann had an exclusive conversation with Mariette Pathy Allen about the impact her work has had over the years and the timing of the upcoming exhibitions.
James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: when did you first became serious about photography?
Mariette Pathy Allen: “Towards the end of my time at the University of Pennsylvania getting an MFA in painting, the school photographer invited me to go to a class taught by the wonderful photographer and teacher Harold Feinstein. That first class was so delightful that I thought I’d take it and gradually I found myself doing more and more photography. It was fun for me and then I started getting some great jobs because of my photography. After a while, when people would ask me ‘What are you, a painter or a photographer?’ I was stumped, but eventually, because I was doing photography much more than I was painting I said that I was a photographer. So I sort of rolled into it.”
How did you start photographing trans and gender nonconforming people in the late 70s and how has that work evolved over the decades?
“Well, as is generally the case in my life, it was a fluke. In 1978, I was in New Orleans for Mardi Gras with my husband and it turned out that we were staying in the same hotel as a group of cross-dressers. I came down for breakfast with my camera equipment alone, because my husband had already gone out dressed in his jester costume, and somebody from the group of cross-dressers invited me to join them. I’d never seen people like that before. They were in their gowns and finery at noon on a Sunday on the last day of Mardi Gras. They were amazing looking and very friendly.”
“After breakfast, we left the dining room and went outside to the huge hotel swimming pool that was right outside the dining room. The group stood around the pool and one of the group took a picture and I wondered if it would be okay for me to take one too. When I put the camera to my eyes and looked at the group, I discovered that the person in the middle was looking straight back at me. The others were looking all over the place, but this one person was looking right back at me and I had an epiphany. I felt like I wasn’t looking at a man or a woman, but somehow the essence of a human being, the soul, and I felt that I had to have this person in my life. It turned out to be Vicky West who lived about 20 blocks from me in New York City. Through Vicky, I was introduced to her life and the range of the cross-dressing community, which is a term that you don’t hear much anymore. So my beginning was essentially with male to female cross-dressers.”
“In the 1980s, through Vicky, I was introduced to conferences, and bars, and nightclubs. Most important were the conferences and the one I went to first was Fantasia Fair in Provincetown. That augmented my possibilities and it became an extraordinary experience. I felt almost like an anthropologist, like I had found a secret tribe. In those days most of the people were hidden from society and had feelings of guilt and sorrow of all kinds.”
In the same way that Vicky invited you into those spaces, was that something that continued over the decades, in terms of you feeling like you were being trusted and welcomed rather than being there as an outsider?
“I’ve always felt supported by the trans world and accepted and I feel like I’ve been able to make real contributions, especially in the beginning, through my photography and the way I am. A lot of the cross-dressers had typically masculine jobs like engineers and firefighter, and things that you wouldn’t even think of. I met almost no artists. In those days, the people who were artistic tended to be drag artists. The group that I met who I went to conferences with had not been photographed before by somebody outside, who was on their side and not treating them as freaks, as Diane Arbus did. I set out to “de-freakify”, if I can put it that way.”
“When I photographed, my goal was to help them reach the woman who lived inside of them. I had to show them what to do with their bodies and what to do with their heads. Most of them posed as if they were getting a passport picture taken and so I worked with them to make shapes of their bodies. I said I was painting with light and they were being sculptures and the sculptures they were being were the feminine part of themselves. So that was a huge undertaking and a very exciting one. It was very moving for the people to suddenly be turned on to be as free as possible and able to let their feelings come out. I did a lot of portraits over time and practically everybody wanted to be photographed. Most of the photographs were not meant to be public, but as time went on I got permission to exhibit the pictures and use them in my books.”
Your first book of photography and interviews, Transformations: Crossdressers and Those Who Love Them, was published in 1989 when there was very little imagery available of trans and gender nonconforming folks, especially work that didn’t sensationalize or treat its subjects as curiosities or worse.
“Yeah, that first book did a lot of good for a lot of people. It was the book that they had always wanted because all they could find before that were sex books, porno essentially, or scientific journals where they were depicted as objects to be studied. With Transformations my goal was to make people feel comfortable looking at their pictures and for them to feel comfortable showing their pictures. One of my ideas was to try to get loved ones included when I could, like parents, wives, or children. That made a huge difference too. I’ve been told that it saved marriages and that it even kept some people from committing suicide. So I felt very responsible.”
I love the Harlem ball photograph from 1984. What was that scene like to be around and to photograph?
“That was a 12-hour event. It was the only time I went and it was wonderful. Everybody was available for me to photograph. I was the only white person at this ball and it seemed to make no difference. I went with a participant, so of course that helped. I was familiar with that world, but it wasn’t my focus. Drag artists were also not my focus, even though I photographed a huge amount of drag artists, but I have never exhibited that work on its own.”
“As the 90s arrived, I expanded the kinds of people I was photographing to include FtM people and youth and political activists, as I became politically active myself. I had photographed a lot of births early on, and then started shooting gender affirming surgeries. I feel like both those situations are happy and that they are two kinds of birth in a way. Someday, I’d like to have the opportunity to show them together. But most people are so afraid of seeing anything bloody, they can’t handle it. I discovered that I wasn’t squeamish. I thought maybe I would be, but I got into the artistic side of it and focused on the skill of the surgeons. The whole thing is beautiful in its way.”
These dual exhibitions come at a time when the LGBTQ+ community, particularly trans people, are being legislated against and demonized. As the community has gained more visibility in recent years, those who are against us often try to characterize expansive ideas about gender as something new. Your work, taken over many decades, not only disproves that notion, but it’s also humanizing and captures the essence of what you described as your epiphany in 1978.
“Whatever I can do to change the attitudes of the outside world towards people who are extraordinary, in a good way, is important to me. It’s the best I can do at this moment. I’m lucky to have found Orestes Gonzalez who is my co-curator and who made this all happen. I think our timing is very good and the space is perfect because it’s enormous and allows me to exhibit around 40 pictures. At the same time, I have happily co-curated the other show, which features work by people who are not me, but who felt connected with my work in one way or another and possibly even inspired by it, but not necessarily.”
“Orestes, my assistant Jesse Egner and I, went through proposals by at least 86 artists and chose about 43 who will be in the show. It’s going to be salon style because we didn’t have the space to put them them all in a row. There’s even going to be a piece of sculpture, which I think is terrific. I also invited two guest stars, Zackary Drucker, who is a longtime friend of mine, and Jess T. Dugan, who is very successful and has been following the same direction as me. So I thought, let’s have these two well-known guests that will help bring people to the show. It’s going to be a wonderful mixture. There are some very beautiful pictures in it and others that are rather quirky or funny, but you can decide for yourself what you think.”
The exhibition will include some photographs taken in Cuba and Southeast Asia that are featured in your books won’t it?
“Yes, I’ve been to Cuba nine times now and always had a fantastic experience there. TransCuba was published in 2014 after my first four trips there. I was working with people who had to support themselves by being sex workers and I made good friends there. I had admired Mariela Castro Espín who’s a sexologist and really active with the LGBTQ community, especially trans people. So that’s how I went there in the first place.”
“I went to Southeast Asia through a professor from the Department of Human Sexuality at the University of Minnesota’s School of Medicine. They’ve been studying places where gender variance is not only accepted but appreciated. there’s a whole different attitude towards gender variance there.”That trip resulted in my most recent book, Transcendents: Spirit Mediums in Burma and Thailand. Spirit mediums there are women, trans people, and mostly gay men. They are needed, appreciated, and admired by the local people. They are are there to convey what the spirits are telling them. They get possessed and they have no clue about what happened while the spirit is speaking through them. People come to them with major questions about their lives. ‘Will my sister get better?’ ‘Should I buy a house now?’ ‘Why is my grandmother dying?’ ‘Should I plant a new crop now?’ Anything you can think of. Through the spirit medium they get an answer. It’s amazing and there’s a whole different attitude towards gender variance there.”
By James Kleinmann
Breaking Boundaries: 50 Years of Images curated by Orestes Gonzalez and Jesse Egner is on view June 1st – July 30th, 2023 during gallery hours: Thursday & Friday, 5-9pm, and Saturday & Sunday, 2-9pm. Opening Reception: Saturday, June 3rd, 6-9pm. Presented as part of Culture Lab LIC’s Pride Month celebrations, and in conjunction with Breaking More Boundaries, a group exhibit of work inspired by Mariette Pathy Allen.
Mariette Pathy Allen: Official Site / Instagram
Culture Lab LIC: Official Site / Instagram
Jess T. Dugan: Official Site / Instagram
Zackary Drucker: Official Site / Instagram
Orestes Gonzalez: Official Site / Instagram
Jesse Egner: Official Site / Instagram