American photographer and LGBT advocate Mariette Pathy Allen has unveiled TransCuba, an exhibit that documents the newly accepted — and flourishing — transgender culture in Cuba.
“There’s a parallel between the opening up politically of Cuba with the gradual improvement and treatment for the LGBT world,” said Allen, whose work is being displayed through Nov. 28 at Yeelen Gallery in Little Haiti.
Since 1978, Allen has internationally advocated human and civil rights for the transgender community. She has made the LGBT movement a lifelong passion.
Allen has previously published extensively illustrated LGBT books including Transformations: Crossdressers and Those Who Love Them and The Gender Frontier, both focusing on misconceived ideas about the transgender community and bringing to life the truth of the trans culture through interviews and photographs.
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TransCuba is also the title of Allen’s latest photo book, which has become her largest collection of photos spanning from 2012 to 2014.
“I first wanted to go to Cuba because of Mariela Castro. I wanted to meet her and got to when I went with a group called World Professional Association for Transgender Health,” Allen said.
The group, known as WPATH, is comprised of doctors, researchers, psychologists and other healthcare professionals, Allen said.
In Havana, Allen photographed trans women she met at Las Vegas Club, a nightclub with a huge LGBT following. There, she met two of the women and became involved in their everyday lives.
“Initially I was nervous because of how it was all going to work. I went with many photographers and artists from Canada, California and other places, so I figured if they were going, it was going to be all right,” Allen said.
For decades under Fidel Castro’s leadership, LGBT people were persecuted throughout the island.
In 2008, Castro stepped down and handed Cuba’s presidency to his brother Raul.
Raul’s daughter, Mariela, is a longtime advocate for LGBT people and in 2008 convinced the Cuban government to allow gender-confirming surgery, Allen said.
“The Cuban government doesn’t pay for it though,” Allen said. “A group of Belgian surgeons come to Cuba annually for a short time. There is a long list of women waiting to have it done.”
Mariela Castro also advocates for the government to allow transgender people to change their birth names, lessen their job restrictions, allow for them to get driver’s licenses and teach LGBT tolerance to Cuban police.
Allen’s TransCuba book and exhibit depict the new freedoms found among LGBT people in Cuba.
During her research, Allen met with Mariela Castro at a forum in Havana.
“I was lucky to have the support of Mariela Castro. She let me exhibit the pictures at Cenesex first, the National Center of Sexual Education in Cuba. She is amazing and wonderful,” Allen said.
Castro wrote a preface to Allen’s TransCuba photo book.
In Cuba, Allen said, the police once stopped her and several models at a beach checkpoint and arrested the trans women on prostitution charges.
“It was a scary experience. We had no credibility to them,” she said. The women were released shortly after.
Allen chose Miami to debut her her full TransCuba photo collection because of the large number of Cubans who live here. The exhibit focuses on three models: Amanda, Nomi and Malu, who Allen photographed living their everyday lives at home and in the community.
“You would think that people were hesitant to open up their homes and lives to this American photographer, but once they realized I was on their side, they opened up to me and introduced me to more and more people,” Allen said.
Gallery owner Karla Ferguson said the exhibit, perhaps politically controversial in Miami, is an important step forward in international relations.
“I feel that with TransCuba, Cuba, along with the U.S., will take it a step further from tolerance and actually protect them, and learn to appreciate that we’re all humans and we all deserve the same rights and freedoms,” Ferguson said.
If you go
▪ What: Mariette Pathy Allen’s photo exhibit, TransCuba
▪ When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Fridays; 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, through Nov. 28
▪ Where: Yeelen Gallery, 294 NW 54th St., Miami
▪ Cost: Free