New-York based award-winning photographer Mariette Pathy Allen has been documenting transgender lives across the world for decades. For one of her latest projects, she trekked through Cuba’s historic streets in 2012 and 2013 — where the LGBT community has lost the extreme shackles it once had.
Allen’s project, “TransCuba,” consists of over 30 intimate portraits of transgender men’s and women’s home lives across Cuba. The exhibit, a collective effort with The Box Gallery in Palm Beach, proudly lines the walls of Compass, the LGBT Community Center of the Palm Beaches, through the end of December.
The Box Gallery owner and Compass volunteer Rolando Barrero meticulously curated the exhibit, which was unveiled at Compass’ “PUSH! PhotoFest” as part of Transgender Day of Remembrance on Nov. 20.
“Hopefully [TransCuba] will normalize the idea of transgenders in other countries,” Barrero said. Allen “seamlessly” amplifies the message that transgender people aren’t unique to the United States, he said.
The photos are part of her TransCuba publication. In her book, she accompanies her photographs with detailed interviews with dozens of transgender Cubans. The book also features a portion written by Mariela Castro, who is director of Havana’s Cuban National Center for Sex Education and daughter of Cuban leader Raul Castro. The government-funded organization has pushed for LGBT rights and HIV prevention education since 1989.
Forty years ago, Allen took a group photo of crossdressers at a hotel in New Orleans during Mardi Gras. This sparked her interest in following the LGBT community, her website reads.
“When I took a group picture, I was moved by the experience of looking into the eyes of one of the people in the group,” she said. “I felt as if I was looking at the essence of a human being rather than a man or a woman.”
TransCuba is her third book, along with three others: “Transformations: Crossdressers and Those Who Love them,” The Gender Frontier” and her latest, “Transcendents: Spirit Mediums in Burma and Thailand.”
Cuba has taken strides in granting LGBT rights since the 1960s and 70s. During Fidel Castro’s reign, gays and lesbians were imprisoned, fired and sent to forced labor camps called “re-education camps,” according to BBC.
But Raul and Mariela Castro’s influence has opened new doors for the trans community. The Cuban government offered its first free transition surgeries in 1997 — while 13 people were allowed to change their names and photos on their IDs that year, according to the International Journal of Cuban Health and Medicine.
Despite these steps forward, the trans community still faces discrimination and poverty in some areas. On Tuesday, Cuba announced they would not include same-sex marriage language in their new constitution draft “after widespread popular rejection of the idea,” the Associated Press reported.
Barrero said Allen’s photos portray these areas as a “world of humbleness” and acknowledges their thorny uphill battle fighting for LGBT equality in a country that’s still struggling for basic human rights.
The TransCuba exhibit “pushes the limit,” Barrero said. “Generally, [people] don’t document this community... TransCuba humanizes transgenders instead of placing a label on them.”