1. In 2011, photographer Àlvaro Laiz captured stunning imagery of the transgender population living in Mongolia in his series Transmongolian.
2. By documenting his subjects’ everyday lives – from crowded underground clubs to the quiet sanctuary of their private homes – Laiz examines the realities of living in a society that has little to no tolerance for sexual diversity.
3. “They cannot express themselves normally except in certain places,” Laiz explains. “Your life becomes a scenario in which you are pretending to be someone else.”
“Your job, your relatives become part of this performance, and little space is left to act as you would really want to be. It is insane.”
4. For Laiz, Transmongolian was only the first step in a long-term project focusing on transgender people in different nomadic societies all over the globe.
5. For the second part of this project, Wonderland, he spent two years in the swamps of Venezuela photographing one of the last native South American people – the Warao.
6. It was by chance that Laiz learned about the unique culture of the Warao people:
I began working in Mongolia with transgender people and then I got to know there was another point of view. Some anthropologists call it the “Two Spirits” or Berdache theory. While I was working in Venezuela I came to know an anthropologist specialized in the Warao people – we found a common language in our love for photography. We always think about transgender people as something new and related to the cities (drugs, hiv, etc) and I wanted to change that.
7. The Warao consider select individuals neither man or woman – they are called Tida Wena. In contrast to Mongolian society, absolute inclusion of the Tida Wena in this indigenous society dates back to pre-Columbian traditions.
8. Yet in the last 50 years, the tribes have become more susceptible to outside influences:
Before the late 20th century, the term berdache was widely used by anthropologists as a generic term to indicate “two-spirit” or transgender individuals. In Native American societies, berdaches played an important role both religiously and economically. They were given specific roles in their religion and were not expected to support their family like a male would, but rather they were required to do some of the women’s work and portray the behaviors and clothing of a woman. Historically, Tida Wena have been well integrated into the life of their tribes, and have often held revered and honored positions within them, but things have changed during the last 50 years.
The Warao tribes are extremely sensitive to the outdoor influence. There are a fundamental fact that is strongly complicating their survival: a few independent investigations indicate that a range in between 40% and 80% of the Warao tribe are infected with HIV, whereas Venezuelan government does not support official numbers. Having HIV [has] become a taboo and many people refuses to receive treatment, and eventually face death to avoid social pressure […] Tida Wena (transgenders) and homosexuals have been often rejected and [are[ accused of being responsible for this pandemic which is devastating the warao people.