I can envision a future time when mainstream society will be so free of judgment and prejudice that gender-variant people will be appreciated as teachers who show the rest of us how to liberate ourselves from the rigidity of gender roles and find alternative ways of integrating mind and body.

—Mariette Pathy Allen

For more than 30 years, New York-based photographer Mariette Pathy Allen has been documenting transgender culture worldwide—but for anyone not familiar with her photographs, TransCuba is a groundbreaking, revelatory collection. In it, she photographs transgender culture in Cuba, while deftly managing to avoid the trap of the voyeur. Rather than turning members of the community into lurid spectacles, Allen’s camera captures these people going about their daily lives: watching television, on the beach, interacting with families, neighbours and boyfriends, at home on the telephone and so on. Indeed, the clichéd way of picturing those who cross the gender divide—anatomically male but female in their souls—is completely avoided by Allen’s familiar, capable handling of her subjects. Many of the pictures have domestic contexts and while this casts a public eye on personal lives, they are not made for the viewer to ogle at and pry into.

Three individuals in particular—Amanda, Nomi and Malu—steal the limelight in TransCuba as we get to see them in various settings, from sitting together as friends to posing for a camera they do not fear. In one particularly striking shot of Malu, her father and sister are visible in the background, leaning against a wall of concrete breeze blocks and looking on contentedly. At the same moment, her mother is caught stepping out of their home’s front door quite indifferent to a photographer on the premises. In one image, we sense the family’s easygoing unity and unwavering support of Malu. 

The full breadth of this superbly produced book bears out Allen's commitment to her subject matter. The eighty colorful photographs are accompanied by essays and interviews—including a preface by a daughter of Raúl Castro, Cuba's current president—while the book as a whole received support from the Cuban government (a sign of the changing times was the legalization of reassignment surgery in 2008). While the book's personal essays stand as a poignant and sometimes painful reminder that being  transgender in Cuba was not always easy, the rich colors of Mariette Pathy Allen’s pictures betoken, without indulging in sentimentality or false optimism, warmer prospects for those she has photographed. In short, thanks to Allen's work, the brighter future that Allen imagines for her subjects seems to be gaining traction in front of our very eyes.

Sean Sheehan

Transcuba
by Mariette Pathy Allen
Publisher: Daylight Books
Hardcover: 142 pages