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
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
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
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
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
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,