Stunning

Celebrating Gender Variance In Burma’s Spirit Cults

A photographer sheds light into the anthropological and sexological perspective of spirit cults in Burma and Thailand.

Can you tell us a brief description of yourself?

I am a New York City based photographer. After I graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with an MFA in painting, I took a photography class with Harold Feinstein, a great photographer and teacher. As a result of taking that class, I felt that I was given a passport into the world, that I could go anywhere, and spend time with people I never met before. In the beginning, I worked on projects in black and white, such as "The face of New Jersey" and "People with art". I also created fantasy series, and invented ways to photograph flowers. In 1978, when I was in New Orleans for Mardi Gras, I met a group of crossdressers. After breakfast, they stood in line next to the inn's swimming pool. At the moment I raised my camera to my eyes, I found myself looking straight into the eyes of the person in the middle of this line-up, and I felt that I wasn't looking at a man or a woman. Instead, I was looking at the essence of a human being, a soul. As I took the picture, I said to myself, "I have to have this person in my life". That was the beginning of my series of work on gender non-conformity. I have had three books published before "Transcendents". "Transformations: Crossdressers and Those who Love Them", E.P.Dutton, Inc. 1989.

It was a groundbreaking book that presented crossdressers and their family and friends in the daylight of everyday life. That book was followed by "The Gender Frontier", Kehrer, 2003, which focused on political activism, the coming out of trans youth and the transmasculine experience. During the '80s and '90s, I took on an activist role, participating in radio and television shows, making slide presentations, and taking photographs everywhere. In 2012, I went to Cuba with the World Professional Association for Transgender Health, and became happily involved with trasgender people in Cuba. In 2014, Daylight published "TransCuba".

What was your inspiration for this project?

I met Professor Eli Coleman, the head of the Department of Human Sexuality at the School of Medicine, at the University of Minnesota. He has been researching cultures where gender variance is an intrinsic part of that culture. Two of the subjects he has studied are the spirit mediums in Burma and Thailand. We decided to collaborate, and the result is "Transcendents: Spirit Mediums in Burma and Thailand". This book offers a view of ancient traditions, and the people who continue to live in them while also embracing contemporary technology in the form of cell phones and motorcycles. They are gender variant in countries that are homophobic and transphobic.: most of the natal men are gay and/or transgender, and are respected and appreciated for the service they perform as vessels through which spirits can communicate.  

What did you learn from this experience?

I learned that as a westerner, I will never understand anything regarding spirits and spirit mediums, but that I could appreciate the individuals and observe the rituals. I can't explain or judge. All I know is that once, when a spirit spoke to me through one of the mediums, it seemed to know a great deal about me.   

Transcendents embraces the celebration of gender variance, what were some challenges you faced bringing this vision to life?

The project involved many challenges. I needed a translator all the time. I had to get used to working in high heat and loud music, and often, not knowing what was happening and how to behave correctly. The only difficulty I didn't have was photographing the people and the festivals. They were always welcoming and kind. Happily, there were almost no other tourists, so I was able to move around without interruption.  

What do you hope people will take away from this body of work?

We seem to be living in a world that lacks respect for diversity of all kinds, especially sex and gender variance. I would like people to become more aware that there is plenty of room for all kinds of traditions and attitudes towards life and love, and that instead of fearing differences, differences can be interpreted as a reason to rejoice. I also think we could do with less cynicism and sarcasm, and feel more at peace knowing that spiritual traditions are still alive.  

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Along with being an activist, I have also been able to express myself as an artist. My work is in many collections, both privateand museums, and I have had exhibitions internationally.

Tinko, a spirit medium, preparing to perform at Win Shi Thu’s nat pwe.

These images are copyright Mariette Patty Allen from the book Transcendents: Spirit Mediums in Burma and Thailand published by Daylight Books.

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