On her website, the photographer Mariette Pathy Allen GFA’65 has described the photo that appears on page 34 this way: “The moment I started on my exploration.” In this issue’s cover story, “Beyond the Binary,” frequent contributor Molly Petrilla C’06 shares the details of that fateful moment in 1978 (no spoilers here) and traces the extraordinary artistic journey that proceeded from it.
Allen’s groundbreaking first book—1989’s Transformations —illuminated the community then known only as “crossdressers,” from glamor shots to casual gatherings to intimate family portraits, while her 2003 follow-up The Gender Frontier charted the growing openness and pride of the trans community and push for transgender rights. More recently, she has continued her exploration on a global stage, with books set in Cuba and in Burma and Thailand.
In reporting the article, Molly interviewed some of Allen’s portrait subjects, art scholars, and admirers of her work like Penn LGBT Center Director Erin Cross Gr’10 and Zackary Drucker, a producer on the Amazon series Transparent, which used Transformations for background research. “For me, as a millennial trans person who didn’t experience the ’70s and ’80s,” Drucker told Molly, “Mariette is crucial to helping me locate my own history.”
Molly also talked with Allen about her childhood, when she felt out of place both at home and at school; her happy years at Penn’s then-School of Fine Arts finding her way as a photographer; and her charged relationship with the New York art world. And Allen spoke frankly about the impact changing attitudes surrounding representation have had on her work: “The focus now is that transgender people should photograph transgender people … I began at a time when I really was needed, in many ways. Now I am not.”
Aside from that issue, the article also notes that technology—digital cameras, social media—has altered how members of the trans community can portray themselves and communicate with each other. Ever since Malcolm Gladwell’s 2000 book The Tipping Point popularized the idea, it’s become conventional wisdom that the way behavior spreads—everywhere, but the internet is a compelling case—is best compared to an epidemic (thus the term “going viral”).
But Penn sociologist Damon Centola has a different view, which senior editor Trey Popp lays out in “The Virality Paradox.” Key to his perspective is his childhood spent tagging along with his activist parents as they attended protests and otherwise advocated for various not necessarily popular causes, along with his own experience of community service and research on organizing efforts such as the civil rights movement.
While the virus model may explain actions—sharing a cat video, say—where the effort required is minimal and the stakes involved are low, in many other cases spreading behavior is a lot harder than sneezing. (Citing a local example, Trey contrasts the hundreds of students who indicated on Facebook that they were going to a protest against reduced hours at Huntsman Hall to the handful that actually showed up.)
Forty years ago, a contagion stronger than any internet meme swept Penn’s campus. In “The Outsiders,” Dave Zeitlin C’03—a longtime freelance contributor who joins us as associate editor with this issue (Welcome, Dave!)—recalls the fever of excitement associated with the 1978–79 men’s basketball team’s trip to the NCAA Final Four. He also caught up with head coach Bob Weinhauer, star forward Tony Price W’79, and other key players on the team, who returned to campus for a tribute at the Palestra during the Penn–Princeton game on January 12.
Finally, moving from heroes to villain, we have “William Walker’s Dark Destiny.” Writer Myles Karp C’12 stumbled on Walker’s story shortly after moving to Costa Rica and catching sight of a T-shirt bearing the inscription “William Walker was a punk ass bitch.”
Intrigued, he learned that Walker M1843 had gained popular acclaim in the US—and ignominy throughout Central America—as a “filibuster,” a term then associated with a breed of “guerilla expansionists” who deployed the logic of manifest destiny to seize foreign territory.
At one point, exploiting a civil war in Nicaragua, Walker took control of the country, installing himself as president and prompting Costa Rica to declare war. The tide turned when—legend has it—Costa Rican national hero JuanSantamaría (still celebrated annually on April 11) sacrificed his life to set fire to Walker’s stronghold. Walker escaped but was later captured attempting another land grab in Honduras, where he was executed by firing squad in 1860.
—John Prendergast C’80