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La Maison des Travestis The Trans House 2005

Art

I used to go to Chez Carmen, a shady bar in the 9th arrondissement of Paris, where people would arrive at 4 a.m. and leave at 9 a.m. You could find some of the strangest nightlife there, and I went to photograph it. I’d started taking more portraits of transgender people, who attracted me for their flamboyance and cheerfulness, when I noticed Farrah. She was smooth and classy, but also discreet and almost shy. She wasn’t so much drag queen as femme fatale, and she stood out from the others that night. I approached her, and we ended up having a friendly night of hard drinks, laughs and cigarettes. After a few hours, I asked if I could photograph her, and she invited me to her home. We soon became friends, though she never did feel comfortable seeing photos of herself. Eventually she introduced me to her transgender friends, and because I had so much fun photographing them, she thought I would enjoy exploring her secret hang out: La Maison des Travestis, or, The Trans House. At the time it was the only transgender nightclub in France, and Paris’ best- kept secret.

 


Farrah took me to the Rue des Dames (Ladies Street) in the 17th for the first time in August 2005. We walked through a door with a code that was updated weekly by text message, and then passed through a small space before a second door with a buzzer, where the boss or hostess for the night checked who was entering. It was important to feel that the guest was safe, and always accompanied by a friend. It wasn’t about physiognomy. You just needed to be a friend of a friend. The owner, Christine, would personally let you in, usually with a kiss. Trust was her only policy, and she made the place as cozy as possible for her protégés.

 

Once that trust was established, everyone was welcome: transsexuals, drag queens, ladyboys, heterosexuals...everyone.

 

The MDT was in an apartment that included a bar on the ground level, which acted as a cover for the party upstairs and in the basement. Upstairs was another bar, a lounge, a stage, karaoke, and a pole for the occasional show. Nothing was ever planned, and the stage belonged to anyone who wanted to perform. When the stage was not in use, people would mingle and chat. The basement was a different story. It was a place for live, hot, kinky sex in full effect. Bodies, heat and pleasure. Once you were in, you were welcome to join. In the midst of it all, what I discovered was a kind of tribe that had its own codes and values. Warmth, support, freedom, and self-expression were the founding principles. Fun, joy and pleasure were the ruling ones. I could see that the MDT was in essence a shelter for an extended family that gathered every night. I immediately felt how open everyone was, and how easy it was to navigate through conversations, dances, and confidences. I had finally found a place to photograph and document. I didn’t know then that I would come back every other week for the next twelve months. It was a long time before I took my first photo— Christine wouldn’t let me, or anyone else take photographs, though most people there were very open to it. I understand now why she was so protective. The MDT was a place where people could finally free themselves and be who they wanted to be. It was quite powerful to see.