Exploring the Gender Frontier

"The Gender Frontier," photographs and text by Mariette Pathy Allen, with essays by Grady Turner, Riki Wilchins, Jamison Green, and Milton Diamond, in English and German, Kehrer Verlag Heidelberg, 2003, 168 pages, ISBN 3-936636-04-4, $36.

The closet is neither plush nor womblike
It is caustic
Lined with sandpaper
And you will erode yourself
You will disappear.
-- Colleen Mullins, in "The Gender Frontier"

Mariette Pathy Allen has been photographing gender outlaws since 1978, when she befriended a group of crossdressers who happened to be staying in her hotel. Her first book, "Transformations: Crossdressers and Those Who Love Them," is a thoughtful, stereotype-busting collection of portraits that offer rare insight into the reality of who crossdressers really are, what motivates them to lead their lives as they do, and how those decisions affect their most intimate relationships with others.

Allen's new book, "The Gender Frontier," extends that perspective and insight from crossdressers to transsexuals -- the wider, rapidly-growing community of people who are increasingly asserting their right and desire to define gender for themselves -- and who, as a result, profoundly call into question the traditional notion that gender is a polar issue -- male or female -- defined at birth by the shape and nature of a person's genitals.

What distinguishes Allen's photography from so many other images of people who fall outside conventional notions of male-female polarity is the depth of her understanding of, and identification with, the people she is photographing. For 25 years, Allen has immersed herself in the transgender world -- attending transgender conventions and gatherings, participating in protests and lobbying efforts around transgender issues -- developing close friendships with dozens of transgender individuals along the way. Wherever Allen has gone, her camera has gone with her -- recording, documenting, probing everything from mass public action to intimate personal involvements. Over time, she has come to be trusted and welcomed by the transgender community as a true friend and fellow-traveler -- someone who is not only sympathetic to the issues of transgender equality, but who also understands that the issues raised by transgender people are important for non-transgender people too. As a result of that trust, Allen is able to photograph her friends and subjects at a level of intimacy and honesty not available to someone who comes to transgender issues as an outsider.

Because she refuses to see her transgender subjects as people fundamentally different from herself, Allen's photographs challenge the reflexive urge of non-transgender people to draw cut-and-dried lines between Us and Them, Self and Other. Because she sees breaking down rigid notions of gender as an important personal and political dynamic for everyone, Allen's photography pushes non-transgender people to see that the people who define their gender in unconventional ways are fundamentally people very much like the rest of us, rather than people who are somehow alien souls.

Overcoming a sense of separation between people living outside social acceptability and people who stay within the boundaries of social norms and privilege is no small feat when the subject in question is gender variation. Traditional notions of gender powerfully color how we order, classify, and make sense out of ourselves and the world around us. It's hardly surprising that most of us therefore hold on to our notions of gender order and classification tightly, rigidly, and that we easily diminish individuals who fall outside the realm of gender respectability from people to phenomena, from first-class citizens to freaks, from members of the human family to strange visitors from some great beyond. We may treat these outsiders with deference rather than hostility, with curiosity rather than disdain, but most of us tend to see people who we can't easily classify as men or women as outsiders nevertheless.

Perhaps the most remarkable quality of the photos in "The Gender Frontier" is that they work so effectively to kick us out of these divisive, dismissive habits. Allen's ability to relate to her subjects as true friends, intimates, and fellow-travelers on the road of life is transmitted by her photographs to viewers who may be far less familiar with this growing community of gender pioneers. Her camera consistently incorporates the respect with which Allen sees her subjects, her appreciation of their fundamental humanity, and her identification with their particular struggle to overcome widespread fear and misunderstanding. Her photographs offer her inclusive, affectionate vision to us -- inviting us to come inside the illuminating, and in many ways transformative, possibilities that are created when we leave traditional notions of gender and gender immutability behind.

When we look at the photos in "The Gender Frontier," we are vividly aware that the people in these images do not conform to the fixed notions of man and woman, male and female, that are the staples of our daily diet of gender confirmation and reassurance. As we turn the pages, we are gradually but powerfully inundated with images -- sometimes striking, sometimes quite mundane -- of people we cannot easily identify, classify, sort, and file into the well-worn categories of our severely limited gender vocabulary. And yet, on another level, we cannot help but notice that these uncategorizable photographic subjects are simply people pursuing the same joys, suffering many of the same frustrations, asking for the same basic satisfactions from their lives as everyone else.

Cas, a female-to-male transsexual who has had to endure the refusal of most of his family to accept his transsexuality, plays affectionately with his infant grandchild while his daughter smiles her appreciation and love. Marla, a painter, sculptor, and writer who used to be an undercover narcotics agent named Mike, paints with her perhaps-10-year-old daughter, both of their attentions riveted to the canvas. Maxwell and Corissa, both transgender, share an affectionate kiss in a suds-filled bathtub.

Each photo is a testament to the possibility of experiencing life's most basic joys, even if one dares to violate some of society's most basic expectations and dictates. Each photo affirms the universality of certain human experiences, no matter how atypical a person's sense of self may be.

Other photos in "The Gender Frontier" document experiences, struggles, and issues that are specific to the transgender community -- often issues of fighting against injustice and inequality. Robert Eads says farewell to hundreds of fellow transsexuals two months before dying of ovarian cancer that twenty doctors and three hospitals refused to treat because Robert did not fit into their notions of male and female. A transgender woman dissolves into tears while speaking at the memorial for her friend, Amanda Milan, a male-to-female transsexual viciously murdered in New York while a line of cab drivers watched and cheered. A series of photos follow Tonye's transition to Tony, her shift from female to male, including vivid images of both Tonye's double mastectomy and Tony's phalloplasty (penis construction).

People whose natures call up other people's fears and biases have to deal with issues that more conventionally-oriented individuals are privileged to ignore. But the issues that each transgender person must face in deciding to honor their internal sense of gender are issues that other people must deal with as well, albeit in substantially less wrenching ways. How much do any of us give up aspects of who we are in order to accommodate the expectations and comfort needs of the people around us? How much do we limit our sense of self and of life to avoid potential hostility, condemnation, or even disapproval of our friends and family? How much do we insist, explicitly or implicitly, that the people around us fulfill our detailed expectations of them, lest they force us to examine uncomfortable issues and feelings within ourselves?

These are the sorts of questions that Mariette Pathy Allen raises with "The Gender Frontier." One section of the book, devoted to political activism around transgender issues, documents the growing movements to extend equal rights to transgender people, and to protest the extreme violence that transgender people so often encounter. The other three sections of the book -- dealing with youth, portraits, and more extensive narratives of selected individuals -- focus on more personal expositions of what it means to live one's life outside traditional gender definitions.

There was a slogan during the political activism of the 1960s and 70s, affirming that "the personal is political" -- that all the details of how people lead their personal lives have political content and political consequence. Nowhere is this more true than around questions of sex and gender, where what should properly be the most individual and personal of choices often subjects individuals to fierce social and political punishment, ranging anywhere from social disapproval to active discrimination to arrest to physical violence.

Mariette Pathy Allen has long been campaigning with her camera for understanding, acceptance, and personal growth around the questions of gender, gender diffusion, and gender fluidity. "The Gender Frontier" presents a sampling of her voluminous work on these issues in book form for the first time. It is a look into the heart of the gender matrix well worth experiencing.

© 2009, David Steinberg  

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This column is written by long-term activist David Steinberg. David is a photographer, author, editor, and publisher. His previous books include Photo Sex: Fine art sexual photography comes of age; Erotic by Nature: A Celebration of Life, of Love, and of Our Wonderful Bodies, The Erotic Impulse: Honoring the Sensual Self and his most recent book Divas of San Francisco: Portraits of transsexual women. He is currently working on two books of couples photography, This Thing We Call Sex, and Sex and Disability. He lives in San Francisco. If you would like to receive Comes Naturally and other writing by David Steinberg regularly via email (free and confidential), send your name and email address to David at Past columns are available at the Society for Human Sexuality's "David Steinberg Archives": .


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