Contacting the Great Beyond
Mariette Pathy Allen’s 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
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