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Cinéma Vérité Chase Joynt as the host and Zackary Drucker as Agnes in Framing Agnes.   Donald Scherschligt, courtesy of Mongrel Media

Cinéma Vérité

Framing Agnes blends fact and fiction to tell the story of a trans icon, but are we getting the full picture?

Agnes was nineteen years old when she arrived at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) in 1958. She travelled there with a referral she got from a physician back in her hometown. At the time of her arrival, Agnes—not her real name, but the pseudonym she’s now infamously known by—told doctors at the research institution that she was intersex. She said she had been assigned male at birth, but had suddenly begun to develop female secondary sex characteristics when she hit puberty. She was seeking gender confirmation surgery, a procedure which was still extremely rare, in order to continue living her life more comfortably. 

At UCLA, surgeon Robert Stoller and sociologist Harold Garfinkel took her on as a patient—and Agnes famously became one of Garfinkel’s research subjects. While Agnes underwent medical testing to determine which chromosomes she had, and waited to hear whether doctors would approve her for surgery, she consented to recorded interviews with Garfinkel, parts of which he later published under the title “Passing and the Managed Achievement of Sex Status in an ‘Intersexed’ Person.”

As such, most of what we know about Agnes today is mediated through Garfinkel’s eyes—and through his biases, assumptions and framing. We know what Agnes looked like, for example, but only through the leering lens and exploitative language of a cisgender academic scrutinizing a woman whose gender he can’t quite understand. “She was tall, slim, with a very female shape … Her measurements were 38-25-38,” Garfinkel would write about her.

He also felt compelled to impress how feminine Agnes was, remarking on her “occasional lisp, similar to that affected by feminine-appearing male homosexuals”—and to wax poetic about how she had a “peaches-and-cream complexion, no facial hair, subtly plucked eyebrows, and no makeup except for lipstick.”

Like any researcher, Garfinkel had an agenda. He wasn’t necessarily interested in gaining a deep understanding of the lives of intersex, transgender or gender non-conforming people in the mid-twentieth century. He was more interested in learning about the ways in which someone who was intersex had to perform in order to “pass” as “normal.” In his mind, disappearing into a “normal” cis life would of course be anyone’s ultimate goal. His focus was narrow, though not completely off base—then, as now, “passing” provided trans and other gender non-conforming people with an invaluable layer of safety while navigating a hostile cis world. 

Agnes had her own agenda too, though. She wanted and needed access to gender affirming surgery—to healthcare—and she was willing to bend the truth to get it. 

Agnes was eventually granted surgery in 1959, after doctors scrutinized the results of an abdominal laparotomy, pelvic exam and adrenal testing she’d undergone years prior, as well as a bilateral testicular autopsy, buccal and urethral smears, a skin biopsy, chest and skull x-rays and “a large number of laboratory tests on blood and urine,” according to Garfinkel. 

But eight years later, when Agnes saw Stoller again, the surgeon learned that she hadn’t been completely honest with him and Garfinkel when they’d first met. As Stoller and Agnes caught up, Agnes casually mentioned, mid-sentence, that she wasn’t in fact intersex. At the age of twelve, she explained, she’d deliberately begun taking her mother’s estrogen pills in order to stymie puberty. Gender-reassignment surgery was not made widely available to anyone but intersex people until the 1960s. Agnes had recognized that since gender-affirming surgeries were normally reserved for intersex people, she’d have to lie in order to get access. 

Stoller wasn’t happy. He and Garfinkel had each presented Agnes’s story as an intersex case study in their work. Her fibs meant their research was inaccurate, which added a less-than-ideal footnote to their legacies. 

With this reveal Agnes’s legacy was solidified as that of a sort of transfeminine folk hero—a woman who was willing to game the system in order to overcome medical gatekeeping and get the care she needed and deserved.

Framing Agnes, a new documentary co-produced by director Chase Joynt and historian Morgan M. Page, revisits Agnes’s story and attempts to retell it—this time in her own words.

The film builds upon a twenty-minute short of the same name, which Joynt created in collaboration with Chicago-based filmmaker and sociologist Kristen Schilt back in 2018. 

After Garfinkel died more than a decade ago, Joynt and Schilt had a chance to organize his archive. While they were sifting through it, they learned that the sociologist had actually interviewed several other gender non-conforming people at UCLA’s gender clinic throughout the 1950s and 1960s. None of their case studies other than Agnes’s were ever published. Framing Agnes attempts to tell several of their stories as well. 

Unlike decades worth of sociological and psychiatric studies, salacious tabloid articles and prying daytime talk show interviews—which have presented trans people and trans lives clumsily at best and exploitatively at worst—Framing Agnes captures its subjects empathetically, using actual trans voices. 

In black-and-white scenes meant to mimic old daytime talk shows, trans actors take turns bringing each research subject to life, using transcripts of actual conversations each had with Garfinkel. In these scenes, Joynt casts himself as a TV host version of Garfinkel, asking questions that turn incredulous, prying or smug—grilling his subjects on everything from their experiences transitioning to their romantic relationships to the ways they’re perceived by the world. 

These imagined reenactments are juxtaposed with full-colour, present-day interviews with the same actors, in which they discuss their real lives and experiences, reflect on the process of playing their characters and provide context and background about the history of trans representation in media. 

As Agnes, Transparent actor and producer Zackary Drucker is confident and beautifully snarky. Through reenactments of Garkinkel’s transcripts, we can see just how she’s able to subtly glean the information from Garfinkel required in order to get the approval for treatment she needs. “You are very smart,” says Joynt as Garfinkel during their interview. “Well, I suppose there’s a difference between being smart and having all of the information,” she says in reply.

Viewers also get a glimpse into the lives of a Los Angeles-based community leader named Barbara (played by actor Jen Richards); a working-class man named Denny (director Silas Howard);  Henry, a writer who struggles with depression (poet and writer Max Wolf Valerio); Jimmy, a candid and hilariously blunt teenager (writer Stephen Ira); and Georgia (Pose actor Angelica Ross), a Black woman from the South who speaks frankly about the ways in which her race and gender shape her life. 

Although the original interviews took place decades ago, much of what the characters discussed still resonates. The way they interacted with Garfinkel—polite, but slightly on guard, sometimes indulging the interviewer’s curiosity and sometimes pushing back against his biases—reminded me of many conversations I and some of my trans friends have had with well-meaning cis people in the past when discussing our own identities. 

Historian Jules Gill-Peterson—who is interviewed throughout the doc to provide historical context and insight—points out that many of these subjects were not white or middle class, like Agnes was. Perhaps, Gill-Peterson says, Agnes’s story was shared publicly over the others because her background made her more sympathetic or acceptable to the wider scientific community. Her whiteness and class status likely also gave her a leg up as she fought for access to care.

Throughout the film, the actors, along with Joynt, grapple in their one-on-one interviews with what it really means to bring each of these lives out of a forgotten archive and into the wider canon of trans history today. It’s impossible to recreate the full truth of a person or a life on film, especially when the subjects in question are no longer able to speak for themselves. It seems that most, if not all, of Garfinkel’s interviewees were pseudonymous, and so we don’t know how to find them today, or whether they are all even still alive. Drawing on archives, Joynt acknowledges, leaves us with an incomplete picture. The documents will inherently lack some important context. And project creators, not to mention Garfinkel himself, ultimately decided which details they feel are most important to share, and which get left out. 

Perhaps this is why Joynt casts himself as Garfinkel—as a nod to the discomfort he feels as he attempts to act as an authoritative source on several strangers. Through these explorations the film becomes just as much a meditation on the politics and pitfalls of making a documentary as it is about the lives of Agnes, Harold Garfinkel, Georgia, Jimmy or any of the film’s other subjects. 

While the format is interesting in theory, it leaves little room for deep exploration. Only so much can be captured in the film’s seventy-five-minute run time, and I was left wanting to know much more about each of the historical figures who appeared on screen. Agnes, especially, still felt like a mystery as the film concluded. Her character felt incomplete, and I found myself googling her immediately, sifting through articles and blogs to fill in what the doc had left out. While Framing Agnes bears Agnes’s name, and alludes frequently to her status as a trans icon, I didn’t quite understand how iconic she was until I’d completed more research of my own.

Joynt also used reenactments in the last feature-length documentary he worked on, 2020’s No Ordinary Man. The technique was far more successful then. No Ordinary Man chronicled the life of Billy Tipton, an accomplished jazz musician who hid his trans identity from everyone, including his family, until after he died. Having only one subject allowed Joynt and his co-creators to experiment while still presenting Tipton and his family with nuance and depth. 

Framing Agnes is also, at times, a victim of its own circumstance. The actors and filmmakers discuss over and over the fact that much trans history has been deliberately obscured. The upshot to this erasure is that most of the population still lacks a basic understanding of trans lives and the issues gender non-conforming people face. In order to be legible to wider audiences, several of the film’s present-day sources spend time offering basic context about trans representation, which makes it difficult to tell who this film is for. Allies looking to learn more might find this useful, but for trans people who live with these realities daily, the discussions can feel tired. 

At its best, Framing Agnes is a fascinating mosaic, capturing the lives of its subjects in touching fragments. Even today, being trans can be an isolating experience. If I’m not visiting one of my regular haunts, it’s rare for me to notice another trans person in whatever room I’m walking into, unless I’ve arrived at the space with friends. Seeing so many trans people on screen in a single film can feel like a thrilling comfort. 

It also offers a rare and valuable connection to a collection of trans ancestors. With so much trans history buried in archives, it’s sometimes hard to conceive of what trans life really was like in generations past. We have too few models to show us how people fought, loved or aged—how they survived. Framing Agnes provides a brief but genuinely moving glimpse. I hope it becomes one in a canon of many films made by and for trans people—where we can marvel at our history as we dream of our futures. ⁂ 

Ziya Jones is a writer and editor based in Montreal. Their work has appeared in the Narwhal, Hazlitt, Chatelaine and the Toronto Star, among others.