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.
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.”