For more than two decades non-trans photographer Mariette Pathy Allen has chronicled the lives of transgender individuals and the emergence of a transgender rights movement. Influenced by Margaret Mead‚Äôs study of culturally diverse gender roles, Allen shared a hotel with a group of crossdressers in 1978, was immediately captivated by their struggles with gender stereotyping, and spent the next ten years capturing some of their most intimate moments on film. Her Transformations: Crossdressers and Those Who Love Them (1989) offered a unique view into the lives of mostly heterosexual, married men who cross dress and humanized a largely misunderstood and secretive community.
One subject who Allen documented and befriended was Holly Boswell, an early organizer of the trans convention‚ÄĒSouthern Comfort‚ÄĒand founder of the trans spiritual community, Kindred Spirits (www.trans-spirits.org), a ‚Äúglobal network of people who feel that their gender issues invoke a profound spiritual path‚ÄĚ aligned with an ‚Äúearth-based spirituality.‚ÄĚ
When it comes to appropriate pronouns, Boswell says, ‚Äúlanguage fails us.‚ÄĚ
‚ÄúI lived as a man for 30 years, I lived as a trans woman for another 20, but for the last 6 years I‚Äôve honestly felt that I don‚Äôt belong in either camp,‚ÄĚ Boswell explains. ‚ÄúI‚Äôm just a spiritual being having a human experience. When I asked Leslie Feinberg what pronoun ze preferred, ze told me ‚Äėwhichever one outs me as genderqueer.‚Äô Same for me.‚ÄĚ
Allen (www.mariettepathyallen.com) and Boswell met in the early ‚Äô90s when Allen photographed Boswell for a Tapestry cover, which accompanied Boswell‚Äôs influential essay, ‚ÄúThe Transgender Alternative.‚ÄĚ
‚ÄúWe‚Äôve been great friends ever since,‚ÄĚ says Boswell.
During the early 1990s, Allen became increasingly intimate‚ÄĒprofessionally and personally‚ÄĒwith the emergent transgender movement. She has been in relationships with a number of transgendered people, and has played an active role in the community she documents. ‚Äú[Allen‚Äôs] love and devotion to documenting our community through her photographs is beyond measure,‚ÄĚ says Boswell. ‚ÄúIf we were a transgender nation, she would be one of our ‚Äėnational treasures.‚Äô‚ÄĚ
The Gender Frontier‚ÄĒAllen‚Äôs 2004 Lambda Literary Award winning photo book‚ÄĒrecords important events and influential members of the burgeoning trans community. Her still photography has contributed to trans documentary films like Southern Comfort.
Boswell‚Äôs own role in the trans community took shape in 1986 when ze organized a trans support group in the Southeast. Five years later she penned, ‚ÄúThe Transgender Alternative,‚ÄĚ which suggested that a transgender identity was a viable option for those who fell somewhere between crossdresser and transsexual. After presenting a ‚Äúradical seminar‚ÄĚ on ‚Äúnon-binary gender and its spiritual implications‚ÄĚ at the trans convention, Southern Comfort, Boswell joined the event‚Äôs organizing board.
The exploration of one‚Äôs gender, Boswell believes, offers a ‚Äúwonderful opportunity to see the bigger picture of what it means to be a fully actualized human being.‚ÄĚ Boswell worries that ‚Äúthe trans community tends to be so preoccupied with passing‚Ä¶[that they] neglect the spiritual aspect of their journey.‚ÄĚ
Boswell, who calls hirself a ‚Äúfrustrated artist, thwarted by issues of livelihood,‚ÄĚ says, it‚Äôs a mistake to suggest all trans people must transcend gender norms. ‚ÄúI know many transsexuals for whom the path of conformity and assimilation is an authentic resolution, and I absolutely support them in doing so.‚ÄĚ
Though ‚Äúbinary gender actually works very well for a significant number of people,‚ÄĚ Boswell exhorts the non-trans population to ‚Äúconsider the profound benefits of transcending gender.‚ÄĚ
‚ÄúI‚Äôm simply posing an alternative that has yet to be recognized, for others of us to freely express non-binary gender, and to be respected and appreciated for doing so.‚ÄĚ
Of her on-going captivation with the trans community, Allen says, ‚ÄúAlthough I have no need to change gender myself, I‚Äôve always lived with questions such as: Why do we attach specific characteristics to one sex or another? [and] How does one ‚Äėfeel like‚Äô a man or a woman?‚ÄĚ
In many ways, Allen‚Äôs work attempts to answers these questions, but in another, more intriguing fashion they provide an environment in which new questions may arise for every answer and it is in the questions themselves that we discover our shared humanity.
Trans writer Jacob Anderson-Minshall can be reached at email@example.com.