While exposure raises awareness, success reflects acceptance. Such is the hope of the transgender community today, as stories of people with fluid sexual identities are hitting the mainstream and collecting accolades like never before. I Am My Own Wife (Doug Wright) picked up both this year's Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award for best play. In 2003 the book Middlesex (Jeffrey Eugenides), about a young girl's struggles when her body slowly develops male organs, won the Pulitzer Prize for best fiction.
The transgender/crossdresser theme was also explored at the 2001 Sundance Film Festival where Southern Comfort, a film documenting the life of Robert Eads, a female-to-male transsexual dying of ovarian cancer, won the Grand Prize in the documentary category. Directed by Kate Davis, the film owed a lot of its insight and humane quality to consultant and still photographer Mariette Pathy Allen.
Allen, who has been interviewing and photographing transgender individuals since 1978, was in Chicago to speak at this year's 22nd Annual Be All Conference which was held June 8-13. The gathering is an important support and networking event for crossdressers, male-to-female (M2F) and female-to-male (F2M) participants, their partners and allies. An extensive series of seminars and panel discussions features authors, community advocates, and doctors. On offer are also merchandise vendors, exhibits, as well as a full entertainment schedule, including an American TG Idol Show, an outing to the Baton Show Lounge, and many shopping trips.
In her slide presentation, entitled Evolution of the TG Community, Allen used portraits and action shots she has taken in the last 20 years to illustrate the changes in society's perception of transgender people. She spoke of the complexities of sexual references and attractions; the plight of adolescents who are debating whether they should undergo gender re-assignment; the medical hurdles inherent to hormone therapy and surgery; the pain of being ostracized; and the happiness that comes from living free of a restrictive or imposed sexual identity.
The color and monochrome photographs shown were taken both from her 1989 book, Transformations: Crossdressers and Those Who Love Them, and her latest photographic essay, The Gender Frontier, which was published in 2003 and is accompanied by English and German texts.
Allen says that body language is very revealing, especially when comparing before and after portraits of people who have decided to adopt the opposite gender. She shared that many of her subjects found the pictures of themselves to be educational in that they somehow confirmed that they were finally at peace with themselves.
Some of the stories Allen recounted demonstrate the incredible lengths certain transgender and gender-questioning people have had to go to overcome social discrimination and rejection. At a time when nursing was a course of study reserved for women, a man named Tyrone used his sister's ID and earned both a degree in social services as a man and a nursing degree as Terry, an apparent woman. He/she looked quite deservedly proud of the accomplishment in the picture. Others like Brandon/Tina were victims of gruesome violence because of their non-traditional gender identification. Their pictures left the seminar room respectfully quiet.
The main message of Allen's presentation was that while there has been an evolution in how the concept of gender is perceived and lived by transgender people themselves, understanding and acceptance by the general public still remain one step behind. But she pointed to some gains like the fact that the gay and lesbian community no longer segregates the TGs somewhere at the back of Pride parades. Women festivals are also more inclusive, welcoming M2F individuals without sparking the divisive confrontations of the past.
In the '90s social and political forces called for legal changes in some major cities and Allen was there to snap pictures of demonstrations, vigils, and other organized events where transgender people took to the streets. A walk against the high number of TG murders here in Chicago and the fight for the passage of a non-discrimination bill in New York produced vivid images.
Asked about the state of medical research and the attitude of health professionals who deal with individuals who approach them with gender identification concerns, Allen said, 'TG people used to be at the mercy of the doctors [who] would dictate what they could do. ... For example, after their surgery they had to be heterosexual. ... They just didn't understand that sexual orientation is a different issue from gender identity. One is about who you want as a partner, and the other is about who you identify yourself to be.' She reported that this is thankfully no longer the case. 'It used to be that people would wait around to see if a therapist would be so kind as to diagnose them with gender identity dysphoria,' she recalled. 'Now people go in saying I know what I want, what I am, what I need.'
Finally, Allen said that there are only about eight prominent doctors in the U.S. who perform gender re-assignment surgery. Montreal, Canada also has a small number who have built a good reputation, while the Clark clinic in Toronto is 'much hated' for being too dictatorial in its approach. San Francisco is currently the only city with an employee healthcare plan that covers the surgery.
Some of the pictures from Gender Frontier can be viewed at www.mariettepa.com