Reframing Agnes


Arts & Culture

A 1958 case study is widely believed to be “the first sociological case study of a transitioning person.” A new documentary short, premiering at Tribeca, finally allows Agnes to speak in her own words. 

Kristen Schilt. Photo: Dan Dry.

In October 1958, a nineteen-year-old woman called Agnes approached the psychiatry department at UCLA, having been referred there by a physician in her hometown. “She was tall, slim, with a very female shape,” the sociologist Harold Garfinkel noted. “Her measurements were 38-25-28. She had long, fine dark-blonde hair, a young face with pretty features, a peaches-and-cream complexion, no facial hair, subtly plucked eyebrows, and no makeup except for lipstick.” Agnes arrived at UCLA seeking genital surgery for her self-described intersex condition. According to Agnes’s self-reporting, though she had apparently been born a boy, female secondary sex characteristics began to spontaneously develop during puberty. Extensive physical and endocrinological testing revealed her to have no obvious intersex condition; all the same, Agnes’s physical appearance assured doctors that she was, in fact, female.

So Agnes became a patient—and subject—of Dr. Robert Stoller and Harold Garfinkel. At the time, Garfinkel was writing an ethnomethodology of how individuals make accountable aspects of daily life and interactions—that is, how individuals might give an account of their interactions. While doctors determined whether Agnes was an acceptable candidate for surgery, conversations between Agnes and Garfinkel were recorded and formed the basis of Garfinkel’s chapter “Passing and the Managed Achievement of Sex Status in an ‘Intersexed’ Person Part 1*.” This article is widely believed to be, in sociologist Kristen Schilt’s words, “the first sociological case study of a transitioning person.”

It may also be the first American case study of a transgender person in transition. If this is true, little credit is due to Garfinkel and Stoller; they certainly did not intend to write a case study of a transgender person seeking transition. They were intending to document a person transitioning from, in their terms, “intersex” to “normal,” describing the structure of daily processes in which one might pass for one gender or another. Passing—whereby one might harbor a secret about one’s “true” gender but go about daily life closely guarding that secret, and presenting as otherwise—was a useful framework for Garfinkel to think about risk, and the risks we take in social interaction, if and when we have something to lose. To that end, Garfinkel’s primary interest in Agnes was not about whether she was “actually” intersex. Rather, he was compelled by the basic question: What is at stake for a person passing? If passing carries such a risk, what induces a person to pass, in spite of the risk of exposure, or worse? Gender, in this case, was only the vehicle by which Garfinkel could observe a person’s risk assessment, or which move they might make in a social situation.

If this sounds like a game, it’s because, for Garfinkel, passing was indeed to be understood—at least partially, theoretically—as a game. In passing, as in games, there are structures and regulations that we, as players, are familiar with; a player can “leave” the game should something go wrong; the game happens in episodes, like ordinary interactions; and players understand basic shared rules and strategies. As in a game, too, there are winning outcomes, and losing ones. By closely studying gender, Garfinkel thought that we might see the ways in which our experiences of gender are routines rooted in our daily interactions.

Though the case study itself is generically unexceptional, Agnes’s story wasn’t. What’s often been sensationalized is that she wasn’t, truly, intersex, as she’d initially claimed. In October 1966, several years after gaining access to surgery, Agnes returned to Dr. Stoller and admitted that she’d been self-administering estrogen tablets since age twelve. Miffed, to say the least, Stoller described the shock of learning of Agnes’s history:

After having kept it from me for eight years, with the greatest casualness, in mid-sentence, and without giving the slightest warning it was coming, she revealed that she had never had a biological defect that had feminized her but that she has been taking estrogens since age 12 … She now revealed that just as puberty began, at the time her voice started to lower and she developed pubic hair, she began stealing Stilbestrol from her mother, who was taking it on prescription following a panhysterectomy.

Agnes’s revelation was undoubtedly a professional blow; Stoller would have to recant the findings he’d presented, years before, on her case. Stoller’s reaction, too, reveals him to be something of a sore loser, upset that Agnes had manipulated the system to meet her needs. But the doctors and Agnes were simply playing different games. Stoller and Garfinkel were trying to work out an ethnomethodological approach to passing; Agnes was trying to access corrective surgery.

The stakes of Agnes’s case are thrown into relief in Framing Agnes, a 2018 documentary short by Chase Joynt and Kristen Schilt that premieres this month at the Tribeca Film Festival. Joynt and Schilt reframe Agnes’s medicalized case history in the service of evoking her agency, however limited it may have been. After Garfinkel’s death in 2011, Joynt and Schilt catalogued and organized his archive. They found not only Agnes’s case file but those of eight other gender nonconforming people as well. Though it’s unclear precisely why none of these eight ever made it into Garfinkel’s published writing, Julian Gill-Peterson suggests, in Histories of the Transgender Child, that Agnes’s middle-class, white background made her a more palatable case study than the others for the scientific community at the time.


Garfinkel’s tapes (from Framing Agnes)


Framing Agnes cuts between reenactments of Agnes’s case—and the cases of several other gender nonconforming people, which Garfinkel never published—and interviews with the contemporary trans actors who play them. The actors’ own stories and experiences blend with the historical narratives they reanimate, creating a beautifully haunting dialogue. For over sixty years these case histories were lost and Agnes’s voice neutralized and subsumed by Garfinkel’s professed scientific objectivity. But in this documentary, the contemporary actors—Angelica Ross, Silas Howard, Max Wolf Valerio, Zackary Drucker, and Joynt—are given the final say. And they have a good deal to teach us.

The twinning of trans experiences five decades apart is profound. In one of the first scenes of the film, Drucker is having her makeup done as she listens to an archival tape of Agnes speaking. Drucker imitates Agnes, catching the same guarded hesitancy, the same self-conscious lilt. Drucker remarks that it is clear that “this person was just in a straitjacket, and the straitjacket was the culture around them.” The splicing shows less a chronology than an inseparable collation of trans experience: we weave through Agnes’s youth, to her experience of high school, to Drucker’s youth and her high school experiences, and then back again. We see what’s changed and what hasn’t. Where Agnes is guarded, intent on saying the right thing, Drucker is not.

This call-and-response, the strange, projective, and belated temporality of voicing Agnes and the several other people in the case histories—the way Drucker answers Agnes with her own voice—reminded me of a strange moment in Garfinkel’s case. He describes his frustration when Agnes

permitted the environment to furnish her the answers to its own questions. I came to think of it as the practice of “anticipatory following.” This occurred, I regret to say, with disconcerting frequency in my conversations with her. When I read over the transcripts, and listened again to the taped interviews while preparing this paper, I was appalled by the number of occasions on which I was unable to decide whether Agnes was answering my questions or whether she had learned from my questions, and more importantly from more subtle cues both prior to and after the questions, what answers would do.

We might read Garfinkel’s disconcertion as being primarily about the way Agnes plays the game—he thinks he might be getting played; he doesn’t trust the moves she’s making. Of course, Garfinkel is right that Agnes is two moves ahead of him. He thought she was passing as female, for the broader world, when really she was passing as intersex, for him. And because Garfinkel doesn’t understand the stakes, he’s able to offer no theory as to why Agnes’s move might be this “anticipatory following.” In the documentary, Joynt notes how remarkable Agnes’s ability is “to somehow get information from him that she needs in order to take the next step.”

Access to information, more than gender, turns out to be the site of anxiety in the case studies and in the documentary. In his article, Garfinkel describes a paradox as Agnes must already embody the “female” behaviors and responses that she was also still learning:

They had to be learned in situations in which she was treated by others as knowing them in the first place as a matter of course. They had to be learned in situations in which she was not able to indicate that she was learning them. They had to be learned by participating in situations where she was expected to know the very things that she was simultaneously being taught.

Or this: “You are very smart,” Joynt, playing Dr. Garfinkel, says to Agnes, not without a dopey smugness. “Well, I suppose there’s a difference between being smart and having all of the information,” Agnes replies. Her response cuts two ways. On its surface, it’s what Garfinkel believes to be true: as smart as Agnes is, she doesn’t have all the information. But the truth is, neither does he.


Framing Agnes will premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival this weekend. 

RL Goldberg is a Ph.D. candidate in English and humanistic studies at Princeton University.