An interview with . . . Mariette Pathy Allen

| Dec 28, 2020
Spread the love

Photographer, Author, Activist, Film Collaborator and World Traveler

Mariette Pathy Allen

In 1978, while attending Mardi Gras with her husband in New Orleans, Mariette Pathy Allen encountered a group of crossdressers who happened to be staying at the same hotel where she and her husband were staying. And through one person in the group, she entered the hidden realm of crossdressers.

Ms. Allen is a graduate of Vassar College and received her MFA from the Graduate School of Fine Arts at the University of Pennsylvania where she studied painting. She went on to study photography with the late Harold Feinstein, who the New York Times described as “One of the most accomplished recorders of the American experience.” Her main focus as a photographer has been on people in their environments, portraits, and the exploration of different cultures. She continues to photograph, and advocate, on behalf of gender variant people.

Through my research, I found that Ms. Allen discovered photography was like a passport into the world. This transition gave her the opportunity to meet new people while traveling globally. Ultimately, this sparked her career as a photographer and she photographed the transgender community for over 20 years. She was inspired to be begin photographing the intimate and often secretive lives of crossdressers and transgender individuals. She grew into photojournalism and advocacy for the emergent transgender rights movement in the 1990s and aimed to photograph misunderstood communities in the ‘daylight of everyday life’ and capture humanity with their families, in their careers, and at their homes.

I feel it is important for TGForum members to note that Transformations: Crossdressers and Those Who Love Them, describes the lives of heterosexual, married men who crossdress. She includes a black and white portrait and interviews of her subjects. It is a book I became familiar with when I started my journey into this lifestyle.

Ms. Allen’s work has been exhibited widely and is in numerous collections, both private and public, such as the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, The New York Public Library, The National Museum of Art in Washington, D.C., The Baltimore Museum and The McEvoy Museum in San Francisco. She is the author of four books of photography, Transformations: Crossdressers and Those Who Love Them, Dutton, 1989, The Gender Frontier, Kehrer, 2004, TransCuba, Daylight books, 2014, and Transcendents: Spirit Mediums in Burma and Thailand, Daylight Books, 2017. Her work is being archived at Duke University’s Rare Book and Manuscripts Library, and the Sallie Bingham Center for Women’s Studies.

To learn more about Ms. Allen and her work, visit her website.

TGForum: You have been an activist for gender consciousness and advocating for transgender rights and understanding for many years. How did you get started down this path?

Ms. Allen: As soon as I began to understand what was at stake for transgender people (Mariette uses the word transgender with the understanding that the enormous range of gender diverse people are included in this interview), I realized I was in for the long haul. The issues raised by the transgender community dovetailed with many of the questions I had about Western culture. How do we define male and female other than anatomically? Why are certain roles attributed to men or women? When a person differs from the norm, why is that person ostracized?

TGForum: You attended Vassar College before it was coed. What came next?

Ms. Allen: After Vassar, I went to the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Fine Arts. I have an MFA in painting. It was only in 1978 that I encountered gender diverse people, namely crossdressers.

TGForum: You have been photographing the transgender community a long time.

Ms. Allen: At that breakfast on the last day of that New Orleans Mardi Gras in 1978, I was alone as my husband, dressed in his homemade jester costume, had left earlier. I encountered a dramatically glamorous group of people who kindly asked me to join them. In the process of meeting this group, I got to know the fabulous Vicky West, who became my friend and guide to her world and two years later, we went to Fantasia Fair. From then on, I got to know more and more people.

TGForum: Who have been the most notable people you have photographed, most memorable and why?

Ms. Allen: There are so many notable people I have photographed over the years. Some are or were important people in the transgender community and some were not, but I feel I managed to take a photograph that made us both proud. Although I almost always tried to photograph people looking their best, I was also trying to reach their innermost selves. I really cannot list my most memorable experiences. There just are too many.

TGForum: How did the TransCuba project and book come about?

Ms. Allen: I have four published books. The last two are TransCuba, 2014, and Transcendents: Spirit Mediums in Burma and Thailand, 2017. I am glad that to have two books about transgender in the U.S., and two in different cultures. TransCuba came about because I am a member of the World Professional Organization for Transgender Health (WPATH). A few members of that organization were invited by Mariela Castro Espin to a conference in Havana. I have always admired her. She is the daughter of Raul Castro, the niece of Fidel, and a champion of rights for LGBT people, and especially for transgender people. I was extremely excited about meeting her and decided to join the WPATH group going to Cuba. As a result of that trip, I met three women and their friends, who are the stars of the book.

TGForum: Were you warmly welcomed by the Cuban transgender community?

Ms. Allen: The book was published after four visits to Cuba, and I returned five times after it was published because I really enjoyed being with the friends I made and wanted to follow their lives. In the process, one of the three women died. Many other things happened. Sadly, my ninth trip was after Trump was in office and the friendly relationship between the U.S. and Cuba ended.

TGForum: What stands out the most among all your published books?

Ms. Allen: I was one of five photographers and a writer in Masked Culture: The Greenwich Village Halloween Parade. All of these books are available on Amazon, and I consider them all my children. They each offer something different. Transcendents: Spirit Mediums in Burma and Thailand, the most recent, presents a quite different culture that depicts acceptance of gender diverse people that are connected to a spiritual world.

TGForum: Discuss the important role you played in forming The Illuminations Grant for Black Trans Women Visual Artists, launched by Queer|Art.  

Ms. Allen: As you all know, Black transgender women are the people who are murdered most frequently, and their cases are the most likely to be ignored by law, as well as the majority of heteronormative people. As a visual artist, I was interested in finding Black transgender women who are visual artists. Beyond my personal interest, I am aware of the many successful performance artists, but I do not know any Black transgender visual artists. I decided to establish a grant called The Illuminations Grant for Black Trans Women Visual Artists, with the goal of giving an opportunity to those artists, as well as some of whom might not even realize that they are artists.

TGForum: Your life’s work has been archived by the Duke University Library Archive of Documentary Arts. That is quite an honor.

Ms. Allen: Duke University’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library, now called the Rubenstein Library, and the Sallie Bingham Center for Women’s Studies, are where my archives are, and will continue to grow. It is a relief to know that all of the work I produced will survive. My work includes a number of other series, along with the transgender photographs and memorabilia. I am happy that the range of my art is at Duke University and I believe that my presence there is of mutual benefit.

TGForum: Photographer, author, activist, film collaborator and world traveler. At the end of the day one can say you have experienced a grand career and life.  

Ms. Allen: I am grateful for the amazing experiences and personal relationships I have had through knowing and finding my place in the gender diverse world. I am so grateful for all the fun, the hilariously surreal experiences, the emotional and intellectual depth I have encountered over the years, and all the loving moments members of this vast, fascinating community have shared with each other, and with me.

  • Yum

Spread the love

Tags: , , ,

Category: Interview, Transgender History


About the Author ()

Shelley Anne Baker has been part of the transsexual and transgender community for six years. Wandering about the California BDSM community, she finally found her stride in making the transition to dresses and high heels. Today, her women’s apparel, and shoes outnumbers her male apparel (that she just has to have for certain occasions, but such is life). She has seriously considered HRT, but now feels life has passed her by on that count. She is a professional writer and experienced corporate brand marketing and public relations consultant. For interview consideration and participation email Shelley Anne at

Comments are closed.