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Although I have done most of my work in the United States, I have been active in other countries as well, and in January 2012, I took my first trip to Cuba. I participated in a conference with members of the World Professional Association for Transgender Health, who were invited to Cuba by Mariela Castro Espín through Cenesex, an educational organization that provides medical and psychological services to transgender and homosexual people. It’s headquartered in a beautiful old building in a quiet neighborhood in Havana, where it serves as a gathering place for this community.

As part of the conference, we were invited to spend an evening at the Las Vegas Club, one of Havana’s liveliest drag performance venues. Within the club’s fanciful decor, female impersonators in spectacular outfits poured their hearts out as they lip-synched to tragic, romantic music. Enthusiastic groups of gender-nonconforming women, looking stylish and original, cheered them on and mingled with the rest of the audience. I was eager to meet the women, and was immediately drawn to Amanda by her obvious charm and her less-polished appearance, which made me feel that she might be easier to get to know. We had an instant connection, and she held my hand as we walked to the bar. Then, through another photographer, I met Nomi, who was brimming with energy and goodwill. I was very impressed to discover that she had taught herself to speak English.

I met Malu on another night at the Las Vegas Club, but I didn’t get to know her until my next visit, in February 2013, because Amanda had become her roommate. Malu is a natural leader, organized, determined, and generous. As “the best-known transgender person in Cuba,” she introduced me to most of the people I met on my next three visits.

Malu, Amanda, and I traveled around Cuba together. We visited their families and friends, including the only person they knew who transitioned from female to male. We went to the beach and to performances and other special events. One night in Camagüey we checked out a cruising area in a beautiful public park replete with stone sculptures and a monument. We spent a few evenings at Havana’s Malecon, in the area where men go to look for gay boys or trans women, and we spent four days participating in the annual celebration of the Week Against Homophobia and Transphobia.

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.

All images are copyright Mariette Pathy Allen from the book TransCuba published by Daylight.

In 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.

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.

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.

Mariette Pathy Allen
Mariette Pathy Allen has been photographing the transgender community for over 30 years. Through her artistic practice, she has been a pioneering force in gender consciousness, contributing to numerous cultural and academic publications about gender variance, and lecturing throughout the globe. Her first book Transformations: Crossdressers and Those Who Love Them was groundbreaking in its investigation of a misunderstood community. Her second book The Gender Frontier is a collection of photographs, interviews, and essays covering political activism, youth, and the range of people that identify as transgender in mainland USA. She has also been a valuable consultant to several films about gender and sexuality. Her life’s work is currently being archived by Duke University’s Rare Book and Manuscripts Library, and the Sallie Bingham Center for Women’s Studies. In addition to her work with gender, Mariette’s background as a painter frequently leads her to photographic investigations of color, space, and cultural juxtapositions such as east/west, old/new, handmade/manufactured. Mariette lives in New York City with a rotating cast of friends and loved ones.

To visit the artist’s website, go here:

May 2014 This article formed part of the may 2014 issue of What’s On Havana The definitive monthly travel & culture guide to Havana Download our current issue of What’s On Havana, your definitive travel, culture and entertainment guide for all things happening in Havana, Cuba’s bustling and enigmatic capital city. We include features from around Cuba written by the best international travel writers covering Cuba. Our monthly online digital magazine is also available in Spanish and French.

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