The real name of the woman known as “Agnes,” one of the first participants in a sociological study of transgender identity, has been lost to history. But her story is the stuff of folk-hero legend: She participated in a gender study at UCLA beginning in the late 1950s, in which she told researchers she’d been born a boy and spontaneously began growing breasts as a teen. Years later, the men she’d spoken with had to retract their work.
Agnes had, in fact, begun taking estrogen pills during puberty. She’d lied in order to secure gender confirmation surgery—a move that was only necessary because of the rigid institutional classifications that deemed such procedures necessary for some (like intersex people) but off-limits for trans people like Agnes.
Framing Agnes, which makes its debut at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival Saturday, observes Agnes as something of an icon for the trans community alongside figures like Christine Jorgensen—the first American trans woman to publicly announce and gain acclaim after receiving gender confirmation surgery. But as director Chase Joynt’s film points out, a recent archival discovery has revealed that Agnes was actually one of several trans people who participated in Harold Garfinkel’s research at UCLA in the 1960s—a detail that re-contextualizes her story and what we might learn from it.
The film re-enacts transcripts from several different subjects’ conversations with Garfinkel, including Agnes’, and stages them as a talk show. (Talk shows, Joynt points out, are a fraught medium—one that, like Garfinkel’s research, has offered trans people visibility but often through an exploitative lens.) Joynt juxtaposes these dramatizations against more conventional talking-head interviews—a storytelling technique that challenges viewers to question our cultural obsession with myth-making.
What does it mean that Agnes has become an icon while so many others who spoke with Garfinkel—like Georgia, a Black trans woman played by Angelica Ross in the film—have been lost to history? And what assumptions do we make to fill the inevitable gaps in each of their personal histories to craft the cultural legend that contains them both? Framing Agnes’ most fascinating insights grow out of these questions—especially as they pertain to how our cis-dominated society imagines and treats trans people.
In exploring these cultural institutions, historian Jules-Gill Peterson says, the film goes beyond “humanizing” trans people to “grant them a kind of complex personhood that our culture so rarely does.”
Gill-Peterson, who provides expert commentary and narrates some of the film, would love to see a turning point in which all of us begin to question America’s “system of icons.” Why are we so attached to them, she wonders—and what are we really getting out of these stories?
No need to grab your torches, pitchforks, and celebrity posters, though: She isn’t suggesting we do away with icons altogether. “It’s not to say that it’s all good or all bad,” Gill-Peterson tells The Daily Beast. “I mean, as a historian and certainly as a trans woman, I’m so attached to these people, too.”
“To my mind,” she adds, “it’s not that we have to have or not have these attachments to icons. I think we just need to question what work do we want them to do, and what does that say about us?”
Framing Agnes began as a hybrid documentary short that made its premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2019. Chase Joynt and sociologist Kristen Schilt have re-teamed for the feature, which they approached as both an on- and off-screen collaboration. The new film interweaves staged re-enactments, conversations between the filmmakers and various performers about the project itself, and expert commentary.
Gill-Peterson says this “cohort documentary” approach allowed the film to comment on both the individual stories and the act of storytelling itself. Even better, she adds, the film does this in a way that invites the audience to consider their own relationship with the kinds of reductive “hero” narratives we as a society hold so dear.
The film also became an opportunity for personal reflection, Gill-Peterson says. “I was being invited to actually show up in this film as me, to show up as myself as a trans woman of color—which, interestingly enough, isn’t really something I would say I normally get to do.”
As Gill-Peterson notes in the film, whenever she walks into an institutional setting to conduct her research, she does so as a scholar—a role that (like most spaces still ruled by straight, cis white men) requires a certain kind of performance to be seen as “professional.” When considered alongside the anti-trans notion that trans people’s gender expression is a “performance,” that dynamic becomes even more fascinating.
Multiple sections of Framing Agnes highlight the bizarre position in which Garfinkel’s subjects found themselves. As Gill-Peterson puts it, “You’re being asked to share your life [while at the same time] everything you say about yourself is being disqualified as if you don’t know anything about who you are. It doesn’t make any sense.”
It’s gratifying to watch the film’s dramatic cast—which includes Zackary Drucker as Agnes, Ross, Jen Richards, Max Wolf Valerio, Silas Howard, and Stephen Ira—bring to life moments when Garfinkel’s participants threw a little shade his way. There’s a certain pleasure in watching them talk back and poke fun at Garfinkel’s ignorant assumptions about their lives, identities, and supposed embrace of what he called “pretense.”
But the power imbalance between interviewer and interviewee remains inescapable—a dynamic that continues to this day.
A primary theme of Framing Agnes is what it’s like to live “in the frame”—to feel, at all times, like you’re burning under a magnifying glass. Agnes and her peers often appear on screen while Joynt, who plays Garfinkel’s stand-in as a talk show host, asks his questions from outside the frame.
The device is about more than “representation” in the contemporary sense as it pertains to visibility; as Gill-Peterson points out, “It’s more about what happens to your life if you can never exit… If in some ways being under the spotlight could mean that you lose control over your image.”
It’s something Gill-Peterson has experienced in her own way as an intellectual and writer who transitioned in the public eye. At certain times while giving talks or participating in online conversations, she began to feel her own words and image getting away from her; cultural conventions and assumptions about trans women of color seemed to overshadow her actual words.
“It’s like this sort of cultural unconscious that does a lot of harm in the world,” Gill-Peterson explains, “and that’s a relatively minor example.”
The question, then, becomes not only how we revisit archives like Garfinkel’s—which are in their own ways records of harm, gatekeeping, and objectification—but also how we can improve the research of the present. “Are there any tools out there in the world by which we can break that cycle?”
The answer may just bring us back to the idea of icons—whose most memeable traits can obscure more than they reveal.
“So often, I think what we want them to do, what we recruit them to do, actually has very little to do with their real lives,” Gill-Peterson says. “And there can be a kind of disservice and a kind of revisionism that occludes what’s really interesting or challenging about people’s lives from the past.”
“I just want to see the bar get raised for us, collectively and culturally,” she continues. “I want to see more complicated stories being told.”
Framing Agnes, Gill-Peterson said, is a step in that direction—a film that emphasizes, above all, that trans people are not two-dimensional heroes or survivors but, in fact, human beings with the right to be as complex and imperfect as anyone else.
“It’s not trying to go and fix our lack of knowledge of the past,” she says. “It’s not saying, ‘Here’s the real true story.’ It’s not saying, ‘Because one thing was lie, we have to replace it with the truth.’ It’s saying, look—reality takes place in between truths and lies.”