This is much more than a picture book. The photographer-author of this volume, Mariette Pathy Allen, directly or indirectly asks some very crucial questions: What
changes and what remains the same when a person changes gender? How do others perceive these transformations? And, if anatomy is not destiny, why is so much made of it by those who modify their anatomy or persons who look at them? These questions remain in mind as one views the images and reads the accompanying texts. But the answers don’t come easily. The answers that do come may not be what are first expected. That is because, with Mariette’s images, the individuals might appear to be your friends, your neighbors, and even your relatives. And, indeed, they may be. Mariette shows them as people we might meet anywhere. They are happy and sad, successful or not, and seem to have lives as simple or complicated as any.
But certainly the subjects of these photographs are not your average neighbor or relative. They all have challenged the world of gender. And the world has often been cruel in response. The text accompanying these photos tell that many of the people photographed have, because of their gender change, been forced to live difficult lives marred by prejudice and discrimination. Keep this in mind as you view the pictures. What ignorance motivates people to treat others so wrongly? And why, we might also ask, don’t some of those most bigoted instead practice the religious faith they profess on Sundays. Mariette’s photos themselves, in addition to her text, call for tolerance and understanding. The persons seen in these photographs have done nothing deserving of punishment or shame. And, despite the difficulties involved in living a life so unique, many have succeeded markedly.
I myself, when looking at these images, see people that are tall, short, or average, heavy or slim, having a fun time or being busy with work or politics and so on. I see the natural diversity of humanity and my knowledge of the different gender roles or interpretations manifest by these individuals reflects simply that; a selection from among the wide variety of humankind. It is a sampling that makes my life both as a scientist and layman so much more interesting. I spend a good bit of my professional life trying to understand how people develop sexually. I attempt to understand how people get to be happy with their assigned gender or why they are not. The range of psychological paths leading to gender shifts show life fascinating and creative. As with physical differences among people, Nature loves variety; it’s the grist from which evolution occurs. Unfortunately, society often hates differences. This volume will dispel some of the ignorance fostering such hate.
Many who view this book will have come to it out of curiosity, others will be here looking for support for their own gender altering ideations or actual experience or to share in the accomplishments displayed. They will have their needs met. And they might find positive value in those they can take as role models. Others will come with preconceived prejudices. Some of the prejudice against those who change their gender expressions is due to the belief that such behavior is a sign of weakness, a challenge to the status quo, rebellion against parental authority, an argument against God’s will and religious writ, or just a sign of mental disorder. There is little evidence for such belief. Indeed, there is a growing body of evidence that many gender behaviors result from biological/medical—genetic, endocrine and neurological—features in these individuals that science is just beginning to uncover and understand. There is some evidence that transsexual and homosexual persons have brains that are structurally different from others and there are findings that genetics is involved in both situations. For intersexed individuals there is clear evidence that their bodies mix and match features of male and female. And most significantly to me is that the life stories of transsexual and obviously intersexed people reveal nothing unusual in their family, religion, schooling, or social upbringing that would foster gender changes. The people photographed for this book were generally raised as you and I were raised and were probably, more often than not, punished for their cross-gender behaviors. Like with other natural phenomena, some people react one way and others react differently.
Transsexual, transgender, or intersexed persons make their gender shifts against great odds. They often sacrifice family, social, financial and professional status to meet their inner goals. Their gender shifts are a response to an internal call to be as they feel they must. And each person decides how much of a “shift” is required. Some are compelled to demand all manner of surgery and medical assistance while others just need a change of clothes. Some seem content with change of name and others with altering features of life. But for most these transformations are not made easily and without substantial cost. The degree of relief felt in their new life mode, however, is deemed worth the price.
The force leading to change is related to an inborn disposition. People are born with a propensity to arrange what is seen and heard into categories of same or different. I believe, as we grow, we at first unconsciously, and then consciously, evaluate if we are like or unlike others called boy or girl, man or woman. If we see ourselves as very different we then try to reconcile as best we can our own situation with society’s expectations. Perhaps if society were more accepting of personal variation and difference in expressions of gender this would not be a problem. Transsexual, transgender, or intersex individuals might then just acknowledge their unique character and feel free to openly express it. But society is not yet at that stage of acceptance. And with society’s reluctance to change, those who feel significantly unlike others of their sex become the gender-challenging minority that feel compelled to effect their own personal modification. Evaluation of family, social, and other personal factors determines how much change is possible. Sometimes it requires a dramatic makeover.
This modification is an attempt to have one’s biological/medical sex be concordant with the social/cultural gender being confronted. When sexual identity (an inner view of self) and gender identity (awareness of how society views self) are not in concert, and the feelings of conflict are strong enough, the alternative chosen is expressed as a mandate to change body and lifestyle rather than mind. In essence this might be seen as the individual’s way of trying to adjust to society’s (as well as their own) expectations rather than deny them. But even if manifesting gender-challenging behaviors were strictly volitional rather than a response to an inner conviction, our society is strong enough to accept such without fear. And actually much of society does accept these personal differences. Those that don’t, I think, should be willing to tolerate and at least try to understand. The photographs in this book certainly help to humanize the scope of what is involved.
A number of viewers will question if these individuals are homosexual or not. The simple answer is, some are and some are not. I recommend simply asking instead whether one is androphilic (male loving), gynecophilic (female loving), or ambiphilic (both loving). Use of these terms and ways of thinking helps do away with the social taboos associated with heterosexism.
As an amateur photographer myself I appreciate the artistry in the presented photographs. The contained movement and scenes keep the images candid and fresh. There is an obvious feeling of openness and ease between photographer and subject. The subjects are not presented as objects of curiosity but as family or friends, sometimes caught off guard or unaware. It is a truism that the best writers write about something with which they have a great deal of experience. This can likewise be said of photographers and in the present case, Marietta demonstrates this admirably. Her text and images reflect the easy relationship between photographer and models.
It is likely, even hoped, that the pictures will challenge stereotypes. That is one of this volume’s subtexts. Consider that the book’s images are of people whose histories include making among the most challenging of life changes. Then try to comprehend the forces that compel and direct such a life. This should provoke a way of looking at these images and meeting the subjects that will have you looking at these pages over and over again.