Five Questions With… Mariette Pathy Allen

Mariette Pathy Allen is the award-winning photographer and author of the books Transformations: Crossdressers and Those Who Love Them and The Gender Frontier. She has been photographing the trans community for 25 years now, and is unofficially referred to as the “official photographer of the transgendered.”mariette pathy allen Transformations was personally an important book for me (the only one about CDs that included wives’ words) and The Gender Frontier won this year’s Lambda Lit Award in the Transgender category, and she also took the cover photo of Jamison Green’s Becoming a Visible Man (which was a Lammy finalist as well). We had the great pleasure of being photographed by her last year at Fantasia Fair, and it was lovely to get to “catch up” with her. Her most recent news, which came down the pike after this interview took place, is that she will soon be the proud grandmother of twins!
< I took this photo of Mariette Pathy Allen with her camera at the 2004 IFGE Conference. And yes, that is Virginia Prince in the background.
1. You won the Lambda Literary Award for best TG book this year – how does that feel?
I wasn’t expecting to win-in fact, I thought I had it all figured out: the odds were so unlikely that I didn’t even have a speech ready. When I heard “The Gender Frontier” announced as the winner, I thought I would faint! Getting to the stage seemed to take forever: I was in the middle of the row, near the back of the auditorium. When I finally got to the stage, I realized that I was thrilled, and that this was as close to getting an Academy Award as I am likely to get!
Last year, Bailey’s book, “The Man Who Would Be Queen” was a finalist. It caused a furor among tg activists, and controversy at Lambda, finally leading to its removal from the list. This year, the selection of books in the transgender/genderqueer category was excellent-any one of the five deserved to win, and there was no drama.
I had the feeling that most of the audience had no idea what “The Gender Frontier” was about and that this was the time to tell them. I mentioned that it was a long time in the making because it chronicled events and people over the past decade, that my intention was to represent the range and variety of people who need to live fulltime as the gender in which they identify. and that the book divides into sections on youth, political activism, portraits, and stories. I can’t remember what else I said, but I know my last word was “gender variant”, and I hope the audience understood.
Out of all the LGBT prizes offered, it is odd that there’s only one for the “transgender/genderqueer” category. We have illustrated books, memoires, essay collections, science, and science fiction, enough books to be included in the range of GLB awards, or to add to our own category. I think we need at least three categories next year: “transgender/genderqueer fiction, non-fiction, and illustrated books”.

2. You’ve been photographing the trans community for more than 20 years now. I understand why someone would be curious and interested, but what do you think made you stay with it?

From 1978 to the publication of “Transformations: Crossdressers and Those Who Love Them”, (Dutton, ’89), my main focus was on male- to- female crossdressers and their relationships. These were the first people I met, their events were the ones I attended. I felt this was the least understood and most maligned part of the community. I discovered that I could present an informed, non-judgemental, perhaps even beautiful reflection of the people involved, for themselves as well as for the outside world.
At the end of that period, I took a while to figure out what to do next. In the early ’90s, the transgender community started to become more politically active. Most of the activists identified as transsexuals, whether they were interested in surgery or not. Around the same time, the female to male side of the community started to emerge in great numbers, and I found myself fascinated by what was happening, and with being in the thick of it, as I was closely involved with the actions and events that were occuring.
I’ve been privileged to be in a position in which I could watch and participate, make art and create change. All this and have fun and have an ever-expanding and changing family of friends.
3. When did you become a photographer? Do you photograph things/people other than the trans community?
I started out as a painter. I have an MFA from the U. of Penna. By fluke, I took a photography class with Harold Feinstein, a wonderful man, a great photographer . Before long I found I was being hired. I discovered that photography was a passport into the world, that I could go almost anywhere and meet almost anyone if I had a camera. Over the years, I’ve photographed many things: modern dance, Democratic fundraisers, New Jersey, Macy’s parade, weddings, births, events at Studio 54, businessmen in corporate offices, the Miss America Pageant, art school students and faculty, flowers, Mick Jagger, Plato’s Retreat, and so on.
4. What’s been the single most moving/interesting/important thing to happen to you in the time you’ve been involved with the trans community?
There are two events I look back on with astonishment and gratitude. One involved my direct participation, the other involved being present when justice was being done.
At one of the early Fantasia Fairs I met a lovely crossdresser named Valerie. One cool, sunny afternoon we went out into the dunes near PTown so that I could do a “fashion shoot” with her. She brought sexy, glamor clothes, dangling earrings, lingerie, high heels, slinky black dress, a fur jacket. We played out there for a long time creating all these runway fantasies. Time passed and it got colder. Standing in the warm glow of the sunset, trembling with cold, Valerie grabbed her fur jacket. She seemed to be hugging it, leaning her face into it as if she were a little girl holding on to her teddy bear. In that moment she let go of the grown-up, glamorous facade she was trying to create, and accepted her vulnerabily. This photograph captured a part of her that she had never been able to reveal. I felt blessed to have been part of some sort of re-birth: that image marks one of my happiest days as a photographer. (It is in the color section of “Transformations”).
The second great event was being in the courtroom in Colorado Springs when Sean O’Neill, the young female to male defendant was saved from a threatened 40 year jail sentence for statutory rape because he had had sex with several 16 year old girls when he was 19. The transgender community rallied around him in support and the judge “got it”. I was profoundly moved, watching history be made, seeing justice and understanding trump hysteria and bigotry.(This story is in “The Gender Frontier”, p.9. photos on pp46 and 47).
5. What are you currently working on?
The last section of “The Gender Frontier” that I finished before rushing off to Germany to my publisher is on trans and genderqueer youth. I want to continue working with young people many of whom are remarkably clear-thinking, and innovative. Some have a unique style, and (almost) guilt-free attitudes about their bodies and sexuality. Many are politically engaged, and some are already the new leaders in the community. I want to see where they go, and who goes with them. I continue to be interested in relationships of all kinds, and whenever possible want to include partners, family, and friends.