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Colorful Photos of the Gender Non-Conforming Spirit Cults of Southeast Asia

Award-winning photographer Mariette Pathy Allen’s work focuses on gender non-conforming cultures around the world, featured in such pioneering books as Transformations: Crossdressers and Those Who Love Them (1989). Allen’s fourth book, Transcendents: Spirit Mediums in Thailand and Burma (out November 14 from Daylight Books), is “a fascinating and unprecedented look at the phenomenon of gender variance among the thriving spirit cults of Burma (now known as Myanmar) and Thailand.” The images are intimate and colorful, exploring ritual, performance, and spirituality amongst the Southeast Asian mediums.

The series was created in collaboration with professor Eli Coleman, who studies human sexuality and gender variance as an intrinsic part of different cultures. Coleman writes in the book:

[The stories and photos show] how the status of transgender individuals is socially constructed and more or less stigmatized depending on the context. I hope that this book illustrates that when sanctioned space and citizenship is provided, gender variant people have a chance to participate fully in family and society.

Transcendents features a powerful preface by transgender multimedia artist, LGBT activist, and Transparent producer Zackary Drucker. See a preview of the book in our gallery.

“This fawn phii turns wild as a spirit medium is possessed by a monkey spirit, and carries on monkey-like.”
©Mariette Pathy Allen from the book ‘Transcendents: Spirit Mediums in Burma and Thailand,’ Published by Daylight Books

“Mot Me Noe, a famous nat kadaw in Mandalay, showing the video of their performance at a spirit festival.”
©Mariette Pathy Allen from the book ‘Transcendents: Spirit Mediums in Burma and Thailand,’ Published by Daylight Books

“A novice nat kadaw preparing to assist their teacher at a nat pwe in Mandalay. Ancient swords are part of the ritual stories of the nats.”
©Mariette Pathy Allen from the book ‘Transcendents: Spirit Mediums in Burma and Thailand,’ Published by Daylight Books

“Male spirit medium (nat kadaw), in Mandalay, performing in song and dance a tale of a female nat.”
©Mariette Pathy Allen from the book ‘Transcendents: Spirit Mediums in Burma and Thailand,’ Published by Daylight Books

“A novice nat kaaw of Mot Me Noe’s in Mandalay.”
©Mariette Pathy Allen from the book ‘Transcendents: Spirit Mediums in Burma and Thailand,’ Published by Daylight Books

“A gender variant tattooed and muscular nat kadaw in Mount Popa waits to perform at a nat pwe.”
©Mariette Pathy Allen from the book ‘Transcendents: Spirit Mediums in Burma and Thailand,’ Published by Daylight Books

“A well-known maa khii is commissioned to perform a series of rituals in the hope that the spirit who possesses him will bring a young man out of a coma. The young man’s transgender girlfriend is intensely involved in the ritual. Chiang Mai.”
©Mariette Pathy Allen from the book ‘Transcendents: Spirit Mediums in Burma and Thailand,’ Published by Daylight Books

“A maa khii in Chiang Mai lights a traditional cigar for the enjoyment of their spirit. “
©Mariette Pathy Allen from the book ‘Transcendents: Spirit Mediums in Burma and Thailand,’ Published by Daylight Books

“Prem, a transgender woman, who may be possessed by seven different spirits, is one of the most respected maa khii (spirit mediums) in Thailand. People come to see her for spiritual counseling, healing, or good fortune through the intercession of the spirits that possess her.”
©Mariette Pathy Allen from the book ‘Transcendents: Spirit Mediums in Burma and Thailand,’ Published by Daylight Books

“Tinko, a spirit medium, preparing to perform at Win Shi Thu’s nat pwe.”
©Mariette Pathy Allen from the book ‘Transcendents: Spirit Mediums in Burma and Thailand,’ Published by Daylight Books

“Sai Sai in the countryside just outside Mandalay.”
©Mariette Pathy Allen from the book ‘Transcendents: Spirit Mediums in Burma and Thailand,’ Published by Daylight Books