For over 40 years, Mariette Pathy Allen has brought visibility to the trans communityWords by Ayla Angelos
With a practice that spans over four decades, the photographer has been fighting for rights, equality and freedom for gender nonconforming communities.
To be gender variant during the 70s was like holding onto a secret. So much so that those of gender fluidity would often hide the way they felt from their families and friends, only to feel isolated from the world around them. They were depicted as “freaks, evil, dangerous, or crazy people,” as photographer Mariette Pathy Allen recalls, and were marked for their otherness and “never as a lovable person”. But this was fifty years ago, has much changed since then?
Throughout her career, Mariette has been crushing the prejudice made against those of gender nonconformity. For years – since 1978, to be exact – she has exerted freedom and acceptance to the transgender, gender fluid and intersex communities from all parts of the globe, capturing enduring subjects from New York, Cuba and Thailand, to Mexico, Juchitan, French Polynesia and Norway. “I always wanted to show them in the daylight, in everyday life,” she adds, “to make them feel relatable.”
“I always wanted to show them in the daylight, in everyday life to make them feel relatable.”
Of how she came to photograph this specific subject matter, Mariette takes us back to a prominent moment in New Orleans for Mardi Gras. After her husband had left the hotel in the morning, “dressed in his jester’s costume” while Mariette slept in late, she wandered into the dining room only to notice a group of 10 “incredible looking people” dressed in finery, wigs and eyelashes. “They invited me to join them for breakfast – so, of course I did,” she recalls of the transformative occasion where she’d watched them parade around the hotel swimming pool. “And then they stood there in a line with these fantastic evening gowns and features, and just all of the most wonderful stuff. Somebody else started taking pictures and I thought: ‘Well why not me too?’ I didn’t know if they would be angry or not.”
Raising the camera to her eye as a tool for change, Mariette began to observe her newly found subjects. This was also when she’d met the gaze of another, standing in the middle of the row, looking straight back at her. Mariette had an epiphany and felt an overpowering sense of purpose: “I felt I wasn’t looking into the eyes of a man or a woman, but as if I were looking into a soul”. And it was through this exact meeting that her work with the transgender community arose. “I mean, it was just this one moment that made it all possible,” she adds, noting how she still has the picture of this encounter that inadvertently changed her life.
Somewhat puzzled by society’s rules and barriers, Mariette began to question the cultural depiction of gender across the globe. Portraiture of gender nonconformists became her focus point and soon enough she’d developed an entire archive of evocative and undeniably relatable imagery. In 1989, Mariette published her debut, landmark book Transformations: Crossdressers and Those Who Love Them, a conduit for people who were “aching to have their stories told” – “it did a huge amount of good for the people themselves, and I’m still getting thanks years later,” she says. “It saved marriages; it was the book they showed their children or parents; it was their way of accessing their coming out. It may have helped people stay in this world… it was very moving to me.”
This solidifies Mariette’s ethos as a photographer as one that succumbs to the notion of aid, and how, in particular, she could find the most “helpful” way of portraying her subjects. The answer was to “de-freakify” the community in ways that would make them feel less stigmatised, especially for the fact that this was a subject matter that all other photographers had been avoiding at the time. So as you meander through this archive of such a poignant display of gender nonconformity – pictures taken between the 70s up until the 2000’s – you’ll notice how each and every subject has a certain look about them, one that’s filled with love and acceptance, but equally that of a certain vulnerability and a plea for their voices to be heard.
Many subjects and characters have graced her lens, but there’s one person in particular that’s really resonated with her over the years. That person is a crossdresser named Valerie, who’s featured widely throughout her work, most notably within the colour section of her Transformations book. Reminiscing of the cool, sunny afternoon they spent outside in the dunes near Provincetown, the two had met for a fashion shoot: “She brought sexy, glamour clothes, dangling earrings, lingerie, high heels, slinky black dress, a fur jacket,” Mariette says. “We played out there for a long time creating all these runway fantasies.” Hours went by and the night started to draw, the two of them standing in the soft hue of the sunset, “trembling with cold”. Valerie went to fetch her fur jacket and she hugged it with a great embrace, similar to that of a little girl holding her teddy. “In that moment, she let go of the grown-up, glamorous facade she was trying to create and accepted her vulnerability. This photograph captured a part of her that she had never been able to reveal; this image marks one of my happiest days as a photographer.”
When Mariette began her practice, activism for trans visibility was rife. Of course there were some drawbacks – like in 1980 when the American Psychiatric Association deemed trans people as having a ‘gender identity disorder’ – but this was equally met with progression; there was Marsha P. Johnson, who co-founded the activist organisation Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) with Sylvia Rivera in 1970; then Leslie Feinberg who brought the word ‘transgender’ into full use in her 1996 publication Transgender Warriors; not forgetting recent events with LGBTQ activists fighting for equality and rights. With this visibility, though, comes a decrease in the demand for Mariette’s photography: “People are more out in the world, less afraid, more politicised and what most people are interested in ‘Do I look good? How does this dress look? Is my makeup right?’ It’s not the same thing, but I don’t resent it because times, they have changed.”
Although there’s still a long way to go in terms of representation, equality and freedom, there has certainly been a healthy shift in attitude – one that gives thanks to the political activism and, of course, to photographers such as Mariette who are actively providing a platform to be vocal on. “I continue to be fascinated by the evolution of this movement,” she says. “I think people are at the stage where we can really ask ourselves, what does it mean to identify as a man or a woman, or as both, or neither? I believe that it’s the gender nonconforming people who have the most to teach us.” With plans to move her work to mixed-media, one-of-a-kind pieces, or even a retrospective book, it’s very much clear that Mariette’s work here will never cease to create an impact.