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Mariette Pathy Allen’s Rites of Passage
“Kim, Chloe, and Eva”, 1997Courtesy of Mariette Pathy Allen

Four decades of photos show American trans communities living and loving

Mariette Pathy Allen’s 40-year oeuvre is a deeply emotional record that humanises the fight for transgender equality

For transgender communities in America, the 1970s-80s was a key time for establishing grassroots activism. Many support organisations began to emerge, as well as protest marches across the country like the first National March in Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights in 1979. But even though gender-non conforming identities were putting their lives on the line to fight for equality, among wider patriarchal society their plea for life went unheard. In 1980, for example, trans people were officially classed by the American Psychiatric Association as having ‘gender identity disorder.’

It was during this exact tumultuous era that American photographer Mariette Pathy Allen identified her camera as a powerful weapon for change. In 1978, she attended the New Orleans Mardi Gras where she met a group of male to female crossdressers and photographed them – an experience that would set the tone for her 40-year career creating deeply emotional and personal portraits of gender non conforming communities globally.

There are many markers that make Pathy Allen’s pre-internet era ephemera a powerful historical source for the progression of gender equality. Her close ties to her subjects affirms their authentic representation, while her pledge to photographing them in mundane settings (simply living life) illuminates the humanism at the heart of the battle at a time when these communities were largely stripped of their humanity. Each Pathy Allen photo is a plea for society to remember the lives at stake in the battle for gender-freedom. Her key works include her 1989 photobook, Transformations: Cross Dressers and Those Who Love Them, which is considered a landmark reference for gender-variant awareness, as well as her 1990s Gender Frontier

“To depict them (my subjects) where they belong, in the daylight of daily life, rich in relationships with spouses, children, parents and friends is my tribute to their courage” – Mariette Pathy Allen

Perfectly describing her craft, Pathy Allen stated in the introduction to Transformations and that: “To depict them (my subjects) where they belong, in the daylight of daily life, rich in relationships with spouses, children, parents, and friends is my tribute to their courage.” She added that “Anatomy, sexual preference, and gender identity and expression are not bound together like some immutable pretzel but are separate issues. Most of us are born male or female, but masculinity and femininity are personal expressions. With the breaking apart of this pretzel, an exhilarating expansion of freedom impossible... a rite of passage out of the tyranny of sexual stereotypes altogether.” 

Celebrating the persistent relevance of Pathy Allen’s work is New York’s Museum of Sex whose current show, Mariette Pathy Allen: Rites of Passage, 1978-2006unites Allen ephemera that shape the history of their time, including photographs, hand-written notes, darkroom prints, and DIY programmes for gender-nonconforming events.  

In celebration of the show, below we speak to Rites of Passage curator Lissa Rivera about the eternal importance of Allen’s work.

Why did you decide to run this show now in 2019?

Lissa Rivera: In every show I organise, I make a point to explore gender variance and the variety of gender expression, as I feel that this will help create a greater understanding and acceptance among all of our visitors. Although Mariette Pathy Allen has continued to explore trans issues as the main focus of her practice, this exhibition explores her work before the major shift to digital photography in the early 2000s. Between 2005-2007 YouTube went live, Facebook announced public access, and the first generation iPhone was released. More than ever, a wider range of individuals gained access to creating their own media and images on a global scale. But as these social and technological changes have accelerated, I think it’s more important than ever to look back at how trans and queer individuals created community and carved out space to express themselves in the past, because in many ways they laid the groundwork for the present moment of increasing freedom and acceptance.

How do you think trans rights have changed since Mariette started photographing, and how are these changes reflected in her work?

Lissa Rivera: Trans rights are still being challenged, and there is still a lot to fight for. Many of the individuals Pathy Allen photographed were of a generation that had extremely limited access to literature regarding gender variance. Information about cross-dressing and transsexuality (now more commonly referred to under the umbrella term transgender) was largely limited to medical journals and fetish magazines. Mariette documented pioneers such as Virginia Prince, Leslie Feinberg, Sylvia Rivera, and Vicky West who were at the forefront of the trans rights movement. The section of the exhibition that most reflects a shift in understanding is the ephemera case, which displays typewritten transcripts, DIY event programs and handwritten correspondence. Pathy Allen documented her subjects’ voices and words as carefully and thoughtfully as in her photography.

Mariette was in close ties with many of her subjects, considering them family. How do you think this translates in the images and what does this closeness bring to the authentic representation of her subjects?

Lissa Rivera: Mariette Pathy Allen’s closest friends are members of the trans community, and these friendships have lasted decades. The most intimate moments are shared in her work – the mundane as well as the milestones. In 1989, Pathy Allen wrote in her introduction to Transformations: Crossdressers and Those Who Love Them that her goal in photographing trans and gender variant people was ‘To depict them where they belong, in the daylight of daily life, rich in relationships with spouses, children, parents and friends.’ This was, she said, ‘my tribute to their courage.’

How does the show reflect that these images were taken at a time before the internet where face to face outlets were the only safe spaces to be out?

Lissa Rivera: Certainly face to face conferences and communities were vital in the years before the internet, but newsletters, informational pamphlets, and letter writing were all important modes of communication, which provided essential lifelines to individuals around the country. Examples of these kinds of documents are on view in the exhibition. Ink and paper facilitated the creation of a larger community and helped people make vital connections, and were essential to organising meetups, conferences and protests. The majority of the photographs were taken before the wider use of cell phones, when long distance calls were quite costly. Pathy Allen has been participating in conferences for the past 40 years, offering her skills as a photographer, and her support as an ally.

Nearly 20 years on from the end of this show’s selection, why are Mariette’s images still relevant today?

Lissa Rivera: These images and documents are part of history, and it is important for younger generations to see the progression of language, representation and understanding in relationship to our current time. It is important for any generation to consider the people who came before them, their struggles and their accomplishments. Pathy Allen’s photographs are also incredibly beautiful and often quite moving; they are a tribute to the vibrancy, resilience, and courage of trans individuals and communities in the 20th century.

How is Mariette’s work a part of progressing trans rights and why is photography as a medium important to the progression of trans rights and minority groups more generally?

Lissa Rivera: Visibility is crucial. Pathy Allen’s archive is staggering in terms of depth, quality and the sheer number of voices recorded. For centuries, the media has been dominated by a white male perspective – controlled by corporations run by the privileged few. Now, many more people have access to quality image-making tools, such as iPhones, to create their own media. Consumers can choose who to ‘follow’ and what articles to read from an endless media landscape. This has created a landslide in greater representation for minorities. Old Guard institutions who are not on board with this change are becoming increasingly irrelevant. But Pathy Allen’s photographs also remind us that alongside these political and technological transformations, an equally important force for change has been the insistence of thousands of queer and trans individuals that they deserve to be happy and fulfilled, to be able to live freely no matter their gender identity, and no matter what obstacles the broader culture put in their way.

Mariette Pathy Allen: Rites of Passage runs at New York’s Museum of Sex until 8 September 2019. You can find out more here