Transgénero life

How one photographer is capturing the troubles and triumphs of trans women in Cuba

Mariette Pathy Allen has been documenting the transgender community for almost 40 years


During a recent trip to Cuba, Mariette Pathy Allen spent a day at the beach with her friends Amanda and Malu, both of whom are transgender women. On their way back home, the group was detained at a checkpoint. When police discovered that Allen’s companions had records for prostitution, they hauled the group into the station.

According to Allen, many Cuban transgender women turn to prostitution at one point or another. Trans people are prohibited from engaging in the majority of professions and jobs, making it difficult to earn a living. Initially, police suspected that Allen had solicited Amanda and Malu for sex. She was forced to explain that the two women were instead subjects of her latest photographic series—an intimate collection of portraits of trans women living in Cuba.

Long before Laverne Cox and Caitlyn Jenner came to the forefront of the cultural consciousness, Allen was shattering and rebuilding perceptions of trans people in America. In 1978, she happened to stay at the same New Orleans hotel as a group of cross-dressers, who agreed to let Allen take their picture. Enthralled, Allen spent the next twenty-odd years documenting the gentle domestic lives of men who identified as women, and compiled those images into a book titled Transformations: Crossdressers and Those Who Love ThemIn 2003, she published The Gender Frontier, which included photographs of female-to-male people and queer youths.

Allen shifted her focus to Cuba for her third and most recent book, appropriately titled TransCuba. The collection captures transgender culture—primarily as seen through the eyes of Amanda, Malu, and another woman named Nomi—in a country that is itself going through a transition. As the bonds of communism have slackened under the leadership of Raúl Castro, trans people have enjoyed unprecedented visibility. Women in the World spoke to Allen about this new political climate, the changes that still need to happen, and the most surprising quality of Cuba’s trans community.

Women in the World: You unintentionally fell into photographing transgender life. What was it about the cross-dressers who you met in that New Orleans hotel that captivated you?

Mariette Pathy Allen: At that time, I was brand new to the whole subject. I didn’t even know about people like cross-dressers, and obviously I had no idea that this was going to end up being a lifetime’s work. But what happened is really that I was overwhelmed, I guess, by the visual excitement of it and the meaningfulness. I picked up the camera to take this picture of the group, and I just had an incredible feeling that I wasn’t looking at a man or a woman but at the essence of a human being … I came to understand that I had work to do, and that I actually could make a contribution by … show[ing] a completely different side of transgender. Other people in the media had always treated them as freaks, and so I feel like my life’s work with the transgender community has been about de-freakification.

WITW: In just the past few months, the transgender community has reached groundbreaking levels of acceptance, with women like Caitlyn Jenner leading the way. Are you interested in following the transgender movement in America now that it’s hit mainstream culture?

MPA: In a way, I feel like it’s done. Everybody thinks they are discovering the transgender community, and that they’re really hip. It just seems that now, everybody is starting to catch up [to] where I was at 30 years ago. If I start doing political stuff in the United States, it would be with lesser-known people [who are] doing more unusual things.The pictures of Caitlyn Jenner by Annie Leibovitz are gorgeous, but in the long run, so what? I am more interested in people who are not in the media spotlight and who are trying to make their way in other parts of the country. I am particularly interested in areas where there is still a struggle.

WITWWhy did you decide to shift your focus from the United States to Cuba?

MPA: That was a fluke! Well, not entirely. I belong to an organization called WPATH, which stands for the World Professional Association for Transgender Health, and members were invited to a conference that [Mariela Castro, daughter of president Raúl Castro] was organizing. She’s a sexologist, by the way, and she is making a counter-revolution to the original Castro revolution, which was so negative toward anyone who was in any way unusual: artists, intellectuals, insane people, trans, gay, everything.

Right near the beginning of the conference, they took everybody out to the Las Vegas Club, which is actually a cabaret. That’s where I met two of the three women [featured in TransCuba]. I was drawn to [Amanda] because she seemed accessible and vulnerable. And she’s not beautiful the way a lot of them were.  Then, through another photographer friend of mine who was also there, I met Nomi. Basically, I spent a week in Cuba by myself with those two women, walking all over Havana, going to their homes and doing whatever they were doing. I came home with rather good pictures … I went back three times in 2013, and then the rest is history.

WITW: How has the shifting political climate in Cuba—or more specifically, the relaxing of the communist regime—changed the lives of trans women in the country?

MPA: Well, the big hero in this Mariela Castro. Mariela made it possible, in 2008, for people to have gender reassignment surgery—or I should say gender confirming surgery. There are some other signs of change. There is something called the Week Against Homophobia and Transphobia in Cuba, and it’s like a Gay Pride day here.

Now, one of the things that is still really bad is that a lot of the trans women quit school because they are so badly bullied—not just by classmates, but by the teachers as well. This is something that needs to be fixed. The other thing that needs to be fixed more than anything [are the laws that prohibit trans people from doing] the range of work that other people are allowed to do.

WITWWhat surprised you most about the women you met?

MPA: One of the things that was a discovery to me was that all of these trans women, when they got to a certain age, wanted young, gay men [as partners]. They wanted teenagers as young as 15, 16. It was a sexual combination that I wasn’t familiar with, and I felt that the women were being taken advantage of because these boys were usually good looking, but didn’t work. Here are these women who are struggling to survive, and they adopt—so to speak-—these young boys who don’t do anything to help. All three of the women that I’ve spent time with have all been mistreated badly by these boys.

WITW: Is there an encounter with one of your subjects that particularly stands out in your mind?

MPA: The people that I know best really are remarkable. Now, Amanda maybe is a good example because she didn’t transition until she was in her mid-twenties, and she had a very high level position in the military. She decided she couldn’t handle it anymore, and that she had to be a woman. So she left her successful career and transitioned, and wound up as a prostitute.

Her whole family were boat people: Cubans who had escaped Cuba by boat and landed in Miami. She tried to do the same thing, [but] her raft was caught by the coast guard two miles from Miami. There is a long description in my book of her experiences, which are terrible, but she wound up in Guantanamo where nobody spoke Spanish. So she failed to leave Cuba that time. A lot of [Cuban trans] women work as prostitutes in Russia, and those who are tough enough make enough money to leave. But Amanda is not tough, and she was terrified the whole time she was in Russia. You couldn’t trust anybody; clients could try to beat you up, or not pay you. She only did it for a short time and realized it was not her, and so she again went back to Cuba. It was after that that she started getting sicker.

WITW: What is she sick with?

MPA: AIDS. A lot of [Cuban trans women] are HIV positive and die of AIDS. There is medication now, but apparently there is only one kind, and it makes people very nauseous. Some people can handle it, and some can’t. Amanda can’t handle it, and so that’s why I’m thinking I may not see her again.

WITWWhat do you hope readers take away from the photos and interviews in TransCuba?

MPA: I hope two things. One is—again—the de-freakification [of trans people]. The other is an understanding, and greater acceptance, and an appreciation of the character of the people and [their] beauty. Cuba is a beautiful place and the people are, on the whole, beautiful. I guess I want [readers] also to love my pictures! I would love the pictures to be exhibited right and left.

The interview has been edited and condensed.

In an earlier version of this article, the WPATH was incorrectly referred to as the Women’s Professional Association for Transgender Health due to a transcribing error. It was also mistakenly stated that Mariette Pathy Allen visited the Las Vegas Club before—rather than during—the conference in Cuba. We sincerely regret the error.


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