A Review of TRANSFORMATIONS: Crossdressers and Those Who Love Them
by Mariette Pathy Allen
New York: Dutton
Review Copyright © 1989 by William A. Henkin
Originally published in Spectator
Every spring in a major American city such as San Francisco, Boston, Chicago, or Denver; every autumn in Provincetown, Rhode Island; and periodically throughout the year in Pittsburgh, San Antonio, and elsewhere, several hundred genetically male human beings gather to spend anywhere from a couple of days to a couple of weeks dressing and acting like cultural females.
Made up, often expertly; stylishly coiffed; variously turned out in stockings and heels, sweaters and skirts, dresses and scarves, and party gowns shimmering with seed pearls and sequins, these self-proclaimed ladies are among the most articulate, politically active, and economically advantaged members of the American crossdressing community. During their days and weeks together they attend lectures and seminars whose topics range from scarf-tying and voice modulation to the politics of sex discrimination and the impact of female hormones on the development of cancer in male reproductive organs; they attend committee meetings aimed at supporting the health, education, and welfare of crossdressers around the world; and they party with the joy and relief members of all subcultures feel when they are finally free to be themselves among others of their kind.
Photographer Mariette Pathy Allen met her first crossdresser in less formal circumstances, in 1978, in New Orleans, on the last day of Mardi Gras. She looked at Vicky West through her camera lens, and West "looked back at me, calmly and directly. It was as if I were seeing into someone's soul, unburdened by masculinity or femininity, as if in covering her male anatomy with a beautiful dress, her full humanity was present."
Her meeting with West started Allen on a ten-year odyssey into a world where sex is between the legs, gender is between the ears, and there is no necessary correlation between the two. The people she met "don't fit the old pictures of lonely figures in murky bars, back streets, and rundown hotel rooms." Instead, they belong "in the daylight of daily life, rich in relationships with spouses, children, siblings, parents, and friends...." Allen decided to document these lives, and Transformations is the result of her mission.
In several of her 32 interviews Allen captures the pain and confusion many crossdressers experience when typically in early childhood and almost always by puberty they discover the depth and passion associated with their inclinations, as well as the difficulties. For example, Gwen reports that as a child "Every night I'd go to bed and pray that when I woke up I'd be transformed. I couldn't understand why my prayers went unanswered." For Cindy, "It is difficult to describe how overwhelmingly awful you feel when you know, absolutely know, that you are fundamentally different from the people all around you.... Unable to talk to your parents, your siblings, or friends because you are crazy. I grew up believing this."
Allen also captures the elation crossdressers may experience when they learn they are neither crazy nor alone. "Even more difficult to describe," Cindy continues, "is how I felt in 1966 while a freshman in college when I read Havelock Ellis"s description of what he called eonism. A condition which involved the desire of heterosexual males to dress as women.The volume at the university may still have the pages stuck together with my tears. That moved me out of the freak category and into a subset of humanity."
The community also includes people like Elizabeth Anne, whose mother knew about her crossdressing "from the beginning," and whose photograph shows her being primped by mom. "Wearing women's clothes is an art form, and my association with women has allowed my creativity to reach its full potential," Elizabeth Anne explains.
Communicating the truth about themselves to other people, and even living full-time as women, has helped some of Allen's subjects to move toward personal liberation. Suzy feels "like a new person since I came out." Yvonne's "life has become successful by just being me. My day is worth every minute, because I'm happy with myself and those around me." For Dee, "It has taken many years to understand what happened to me. I'm glad I did it. I've had a lot of fun."
Illuminating as the interviews are, however, photography is the heart of Transformations. In some 100 black-and-white pictures and 16 pages of color portraits Allen allows the ladies to show themselves both as women and as men, alone and with each other, with their wives, lovers, children, and parents. When we watch Bob become Malinda, we see the question in her eyes, reflecting what she says in her interview: "When I was growing up, often I would stare deeply into the mirror and ask, Why?' Thirty years later I look into the mirror and ask the same question." Paul's daughter sips a soda while, dressed in a slip and wig cap, he brushes make-up on his chin; she tries his wig on herself and on her doll, then stands for a portrait with her father, Paula.
When "Joe Artist and Mechanic" is pictured side by side with "Joe as Diahanna" it's possible to see that the face is the same chiefly because the text says so. Some of Allen's subjects, like Terisa, Kay, and the 79-year-old Felicity, could easily pass for genetic women on the street. As Rita observes, "being taken for a real woman is very exciting. You get treated differently." Other people who might pass just as easily, such as Valerie, "don't have that much interest in passing publicly as a woman. I would prefer to have people know that I am a man in women's clothing. I would like to be accepted for who I am...."
Though no one has reliable figures, best estimates are that 15 million American men crossdress part or all the way, part or all of the time. The ones pictured here include a banker, a couple of physicians, a marathon runner, a college professor, a factory worker, a retired police officer, a former captain in the British Royal Navy, artists, a science fiction writer, an aviator. "From corporation presidents to construction workers," Allen writes, "they represent the full range of American society. They live in the fanciest suburbs and the toughest barrios. They teach Sunday school, lead Boy Scout troops, and are members of Kiwanis clubs. The great majority are heterosexual and are husbands, fathers, and grandfathers. Theories for transgendered behavior range from genetic predisposition, in-utero hormonal imbalance, frustration with male role constrictions, environmental influences, to boredom with the limitations of men's clothing. But no one knows the reasons for sure...."
As, indeed, no one knows the reasons for sure about very much of human behavior. Like Michael Rosen's Sexual Magick: The SM Photographs, another fine book investigating a vibrant fringe of American society, Transformations is more than reportage or photojournalism in the ordinary sense of the term. It is a deeply felt, empathically rendered, and beautifully presented portrait of a community, made by an artist who was able to immerse herself in a world most people never even see.
In Forbidden Fantasies, published in 1980, Mike Phillips, Barry Shapiro, and Mark Joseph also endeavored to cover the subject of crossdressers in photographs and interviews; but back then there were only local crossdressing clubs scattered about the country: there was nothing like the current social organization Ariadne Kane has called the gender "paraculture." Perhaps as a consequence most of the crossdressers Phillips, Shapiro, and Joseph included in their book lived much farther out on society's edge than most of Allen's subjects do. They were drag strippers, street hustlers, a chauffeur, a leatherman, a professional Upstairs Maid.
If I have any complaint about Transformations it is that the book portrays crossdressers as largely white middle-class professionals whose lives are fundamentally in order, however discombobulated they once may have been. People of color, the poor, the disabled, and the otherwise disenfranchised who number among their ranks plenty of crossdressers, as Phillips, Shapiro, and Joseph showed make almost no appearance here; and when they do, both Allen's photography and the book's slick production leave them seeming clean and brushed as their managerial counterparts.
Then again, the people pictured in Transformations are often deeply thoughtful about their lives in a way the subjects in Forbidden Fantasies rarely are. Perhaps in the decade that separates the publication of these two books crossdressing really has come some important way out of its closet. Perhaps what once was most obviously though by no means exclusively the province of street culture has finally reached the level of acceptance at which it may be understood in the abstract as well as in the particular, and where Ariadne Kane, who helped to found the local Boston area crossdressers' club, the annual Fantasia Fair, and the gender counseling Outreach Institute, can claim, "My God! It is humanity that makes sense, not the clothes that anyone wears!"
Allen's documentary begins, as this report might just as well end, with an appreciation for the brave and lovely people she photographed. In the last part of her own dedication for her book she says: "To the gender community who welcomed me into a private world. You have shown me that there are few limits, just unexplored options."
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