see 40 years of photographs documenting the beauty of gender expression

Decades of Mariette Pathy Allen's intimate photos are collected in 'Rites of Passage, 1978-2006.'

by Nadja Sayej
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Oct 21 2019, 7:11pm

New York photographer Mariette Pathy Allen has been photographing the trans community for over 40 years. From New Orleans to Miami and beyond, over 100 of her photos are on view at the Museum of Sex in New York for her exhibition Rites of Passage, 1978 - 2006, which the museum describes as “documenting the spectrum of gender expression.” Selected from thousands of analogue photographs, Allen’s photos detail a time when DIY events and conferences were safe spaces for the queer and trans community to come together and fight, as well as hope, for a more equal future.

It all started when Allen took a trip to New Orleans in 1978 to attend Mardi Gras, and met a group of women who invited her for brunch. When she took a group photo of them, it was the start of a lifelong series. Over the following decades, she not only captured candid photos of gorgeous women and men dressed to the nines, at home, but also their grassroots activism and protests.

Allen has been embedded with the community for a long time, and has had incredible access; whether photographing drag queens putting on makeup at drag balls in Harlem in the 80s, lesbian couples in the 90s, or her best friend Toby, starting in 1978. They all capture the closeness she felt to her subjects; and some have been compiled into her 1989 photo book, Transformations: Crossdressers and Those Who Love Them, which was a groundbreaking book at a time when the trans community was largely misunderstood. Allen, now 79, spoke to i-D about her friend Toby, protests in the 1990s and backlash in the Trump era.

How did you get into photographing the trans community?
Mariette Pathy Allen: I was lucky, I was in New Orleans for Mardi Gras in 1978 and stayed in the same hotel as a group of crossdressers. The last day for breakfast, I came down with my camera equipment and I saw this group of ten people and one asked if I wanted to ask them for brunch. I did. After breakfast, they all walked out of the door into the garden, where there was a swimming pool, then stood in a line, one was taking photos, so I thought ‘maybe its okay for me to take a picture, too.’ I raised my camera; everyone was looking in different directions. One was looking straight back at me, I had an amazing feeling, like I’m looking not at a man or a woman, but the essence of a human being. I was seeing a soul, rather than a gendered person.

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Mariette Pathy Allen, Kay, ex Green Beret, 1983. Courtesy of the artist.

Then what happened?
I thought to myself: ‘I have to have this person in my life.’ It turned out that they lived 20 blocks away from me in New York City. I made friends with her and she took me everywhere, mostly in the trans community, and brought me to a conference, where I started to really get to know more of the community. I traveled all over the country to conferences, staying with them, which is how I got photos of people in their homes.

When you first started in the 1970s shooting the trans community, how difficult was life for them?
Life was difficult for them because people were in hiding. They were full of guilt and anxiety. Many of them felt they were the only one in the world who had those needs. They were suffering because they had to hide who they were. Crossdressers had it the hardest. If you say transgender, it was a person born in the wrong body. If it was crossdresser, it made no sense to people. They had the hardest time to justify themselves. They were treated as freaks and perverts. I felt it was my job to show them as lovable people, rather than freaks. That’s what compelled me to do my first book.

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Mariette Pathy Allen, Sunday morning during a Drag Ball, 1984. Courtesy of the artist.

Are there any important friends you photographed?
Toby was a beautiful woman; I’m showing of her here is her lying on the floor after a long day of shooting. There’s also one of her looking in the mirror. She was a remarkable person. Toby was a performer who would go onstage before Ethyl Eichelberger, the famed drag queen. I got to know Toby really well, as well as the comic ballet company, Les Ballets Trockadero De Monte Carlo. Toby was an artist, she used to design the covers of drag magazines and support the community, she worked at Lee Brewster’s Mardi Gras Boutique in Greenwich Village, too.

You’ve included photos of trans couples with their children, why is that important?
I did that as soon as I could because I felt it was important to normalize. Trans people have real lives and they have kids and I wanted to show them in their everyday lives. I wanted to de-freakify people were decent people and had a terrible reputation.

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Mariette Pathy Allen, Brandon Teena should have been here, Gay Pride Parade, 1993. Courtesy of the artist.

Besides the portraits, there’s photos of protests on view, too?
I photographed any protest I could get to. There young black and Hispanic women who were often prostitutes and they would get murdered and nobody cared except the community. One protest was for Brandon Teena, the trans man who was killed in 1993 (his life was made into the film Boys Don’t Cry in 1999). Transgender was deemed a mental illness, so there was a lot of work to change the medical profession, as well. This started in the 1990s, now it’s more all over the place. We’re in a more violent time and trans people are fighting all over again.

How far do we still need to go supporting the trans community?
Under Obama, things were going well. Now, we’re having a backlash. If we can get rid of these political terrors and get back to a normal government, it still will take awhile to heal a lot of the damage that has been done. This will take quite a while. I assume and hope we will continue along the same course we were in, the whole world, the direction the trans community was going in under Obama. On one hand, it has improved a lot. My fantasy is that things will be better after 2020 and pick up where we left off, as a society.

Mariette Pathy Allen: Rites of Passage, 1978-2006 runs until January 20, 2020 at the Museum of Sex in New York City.

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Mariette Pathy Allen, Kim, Chloe, and Eva, 1997. Courtesy of the artist.
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Mariette Pathy Allen, Partners, 1995. Courtesy of the artist.
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Photograph of Mariette Pathy Allen at work at a conference, 1991. Courtesy of Mariette Pathy Allen.
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Mariette Pathy Allen