Con­tact­ing the Great Be­yond

Ma­ri­ette Pathy Allen’s Tran­scen­dents

Pasatiempo - - ON THE COVER - Tran­scen­dents

Aman looks di­rectly at the cam­era, his fingers lightly grasp­ing the hem of his shirt. He wears eye­glasses and is dressed in light-col­ored, nat­u­ral-look­ing fab­rics. From the per­spec­tive of a Santa Fean born and raised in the United States, he re­sem­bles some­one you might see do­ing down­ward-fac­ing dog in a yoga class, work­ing a reg­is­ter at Whole Foods, or push­ing pa­per from be­hind a desk in city gov­ern­ment. The pho­to­graph in ques­tion, how­ever, was taken in Burma (also known as Myan­mar) by Ma­ri­ette Pathy Allen and ap­pears in her book Tran­scen­dents: Spirit Medi­ums in Burma and Thai­land, pub­lished in 2017 by Day­light Books. The man is gay — which is il­le­gal in his coun­try — and at rit­u­als and fes­ti­vals where spir­its are wor­shipped and com­mu­ni­cated with, he be­comes pos­sessed.

“The spir­its speak through the medi­ums and give peo­ple help and ad­vice,” Allen said. “While that’s hap­pen­ing, the medium is ba­si­cally not there. He’s just a ve­hi­cle. The medium is a horse and the spirit is the rider.”

In this pic­ture, the spir­its ap­pear to be ab­sent. The man stands upon wooden slat floor­boards in a no-frills room. An el­derly man, pos­si­bly his fa­ther, re­laxes in a chair be­hind him, just out of fo­cus. At fes­ti­vals, spirit medi­ums dress in a fem­i­nine style — they paint their faces with makeup and adorn their hair with flow­ers — or they dress as women. Ac­cord­ing to Allen, who has been pho­tograph­ing gay and trans­gen­der cul­ture since the 1980s, the def­i­ni­tions Western­ers would gen­er­ally ap­ply to de­scribe such peo­ple — gay, trans­gen­der, non-binary, etc. — are both rel­e­vant and not en­tirely ap­pli­ca­ble in the con­text of Burma and Thai­land. Ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity is le­gal in Thai­land, but same-sex cou­ples do not have the same rights as hetero­sex­ual cou­ples, and gay men, les­bians, and trans peo­ple still face dis­crim­i­na­tion within main­stream cul­ture.

“Don’t let us get con­fused about this. The spirit medi­ums are peo­ple who started out as men but live as women — and they are peo­ple who are gay. Both cat­e­gories,” Allen said. “The his­tory is that orig­i­nally most of the spirit medi­ums were women, but now more and more they are gay men and trans­gen­der, and some are maybe both at dif­fer­ent times. Some don’t iden­tify as male or fe­male. They just are.”

in­cludes an in­tro­duc­tory es­say by Eli Cole­man, Ph.D., that pro­vides in­for­ma­tion about LGBTQ rights in Burma and Thai­land as well as a sense of the an­i­mistic spirit be­liefs that live within these largely Bud­dhist cul­tures. Cole­man, the di­rec­tor of the Pro­gram in Hu­man Sex­u­al­ity at the Univer­sity of Min­nesota Med­i­cal School, notes that though “the

con­tin­ued on Page 28

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