Like many great things in life, Mariette Pathy Allen's decades-long relationship with the transgender, intersex, gender-fluid, and crossdressing communities was the result of a chance encounter. It was 1978, and she was hanging out at a hotel pool during Mardi Gras when a group of cross-dressing men caught her attention. Inspired, she asked permission to snap a few photos, and a career spent documenting "outsiders" — from queer youth in New York City to trans folks in Cuba — was born.
Allen's stunning photos have done more than give visibility to a community once considered taboo. She shows these people as they want to be seen — living their everyday lives, not existing as a one-dimensional stereotype. The photos have also helped people come out to family and friends.
“I discovered I had something I could contribute," Allen explained to Slate earlier this year. "When I started doing portraits of transgender people, no one was doing it, and I had to figure out what would be the most helpful way."
Allen has released three books filled with her incredible portraits — Transformations: Crossdressers and Those Who Love Them (1990), The Gender Frontier (2003), and TransCuba (2014) — and we can't stop looking at her snapshots of trans life in '90s and '00s in New York. The images remind us that, even in one of the most progressive cities in the world, there is still a long way to go before gender-nonconforming people find true acceptance.
"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," the photographer recently wrote. It's a sentiment that we love, and while there's still so much work to be done before we get to that place, it's impossible not to see how far we've already come.