For more than 30 years, New York based photographer Mariette Pathy Allen has been documenting transgender culture worldwide; in 2004 she won the Lambda Literary Award for her monograph The Gender Frontier. In her stunning new publication, TransCuba (Daylight, April 2014), Allen captures the transgender community of Cuba through 80 vibrant color photographs accompanied by a personal essay, and interviews. Her work focuses on the details of the everyday lives of her subjects engaging with family and friends and the community at large, revealing the growing visibility and acceptance of transgender people in a country whose government is transitioning into a more relaxed model of communism under Raúl Castro’s presidency.
TransCuba includes an introduction by Allen Frame, an essay by Wendy Watriss, Artistic Director and Founder of FotoFest, and a photographer, journalist and writer, and a preface by Raúl Castro’s daughter, Mariela Castro Espín, who is the director of the Cuban National Center forSex Education (CENESEX), a government-funded body in Cuba best known for advocating tolerance of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and transgender issues on the island. Through Ms. Castro Espín's work for the enhancement of life for gender non-conforming people, in 2008 she succeeded in persuading the Cuban government to make reassignment surgery legal. This publication therefore records a cultural watershed within Cuba.
The central subjects of TransCuba are Amanda, Nomi and Malu, three remarkable people with whom Allen formed close bonds over the course of visits she made to Cuba in 2012 and 2013. Allen gained full access to photograph them and their friends in the privacy of their homes, as well as outside at restaurants and clubs, at the beach, on the streets of Havana, at performances, and at special events. Strong, smart, active, and optimistic, the transgender people Allen depicts in TransCuba savor their new freedom to be able to be themselves publicly, while continuing to overcome challenges, such as health issues, and lack of steady work and money.
Among Allen’s beautiful images, we witness a tender moment with Nomi with her boyfriend Miguel; Malu, with her parents and sister, in front of their home; a sweeping portrait of Amanda by the river against the Havana skyline; Yanet at home sitting proudly beside her artwork; Charito feeding a one- week-old piglet; Sissi styling her niece’s hair who holds a sleeping child in her arms; and a view of the rooftops of Havana from Natalie’s window. The photographs, and candid supporting interviews, provide an intimate and multi-layered portrait of Cuba and this special community of people that is very different from the stereotypical, one-dimensional depiction of transgender people we are so often accustomed to seeing in photographs and in films.
In the concluding paragraph of her essay in the book, Allen writes: “The people who comprise what we understand as transgender have always existed, but the understanding of who they are and how they can participate in society is new. As the Cuban population as a whole gains greater personal freedom, it will hopefully continue to be reflected in the treatment of sexual minorities. 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. For now, though, I just want to celebrate the inherent beauty, artistry, and humor of the Cubans I was so fortunate to meet.”