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Home #Hwoodtimes Chase Joynt’s FRAMING AGNES: Being a Trans Woman or Man in the...

Chase Joynt’s FRAMING AGNES: Being a Trans Woman or Man in the Early 1960s

Zachary Drucker in Framing Agnes

By Jim Gilles

Actress Zachary Drucker plays Agnes

Los Angeles, CA (The Hollywood Times) 7/23/22 – On Sunday, July 16, Outfest screened Chase Joynt’s debut documentary Framing Agnes (2022), about Agnes Torres, a transgender woman who back in the early 1960s participating in a UCLA study by sociologist Harold Garfinkel. Director/writer Chase Joynt brings to our attention an important historical story by studying three transgender women. In one case study, Agnes (using a pseudonym), bares her soul and tells us she sought gender affirming surgery in 1958 for her self-described condition of being intersex.

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Chase Joynt, director of Finding Agnes and TV host in the film

This young trans woman named Agnes entered a study about sex disorders at UCLA to get the gender-affirming care she needed, by any means necessary. Her story was long considered to be exceptional until never-before-seen case files of other patients were found in 2017.

Director Chase Joynt and co-writer Kristen Schilt looked through these interview archives about Torres and found more people whose transcripts with Garfinkel weren’t published, but can give us an understanding to how transgender people navigated the world back in that time. These conversations are then recreated in Joynt’s documentary film by transgender actors in costume, who then analyze the characters they are playing, down to the way in which they read certain bits of dialogue. Based on Joynt’s 2018 short film, this richly heady, thoughtful documentary asks many questions and leaves us to wonder about the answers.

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Christian Jorgensen, 1st American trans woman celebrity

In the 1950s, sociologist Harold Garfinkel conducted gender health research at UCLA and his files provide us with several interviews done with trans people some sixty years ago. It includes Garfinkel’s conversations with Agnes as a case study and her confession that she fabricated parts of her story. The researcher’s source material becomes central to the film.

She became infamous in some academic circles for misleading Garfinkel and his peers about the specifics of her life so that she could meet the discriminatory standards of the time to receive gender confirmation surgery. What some earlier researchers called duplicity, many contemporary trans activists now celebrate as an act of working an oppressive system for the sake of their own survival.

Barbara played by Jenn Richards

The film uses interviews, reenactments, archival footage and a fictional talk show in the 1950s styled as a Mike Wallace interview show to throw some light on the trans people.

These conversations are then recreated by transgender actors in costume, who then analyze the characters they are playing, down to the way in which they read certain bits of dialogue. Based on their 2018 short film, this richly heady, thoughtful documentary is constantly welcoming us in by reflecting on itself. Actress and filmmaker Zackary Drucker (who recently executive-produced HBO’s The Lady and the Dale) plays Agnes, with Chase Joynt taking the role of Garfinkel. The director stages these interviews not in a clinical setting, but as a TV show along the lines of The Mike Wallace Interview, which aired from 1957 to 1960. The talk-show segments are shot by Aubree Bernier-Clarke in the square monochrome of early TV, so we know that the performers are in character.

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Angelica Ross as Georgia

Before Agnes, there was Christine Jorgensen, an American trans woman who was the first person to become widely known in the United States for having sex reassignment surgery (in Denmark). As we see in archival film footage, she became an instant celebrity, with a career as a successful actress, singer and recording artist. By comparison, Agnes Torres’ story is shrouded in mystery and only partially revealed in the transcripts from her visits to the office of Harold Garfinkel. Agnes, who is brought to life by a powerful performance from Zackary Drucker, challenges Joynt’s Garfinkel and leaves us on a proud note. We meet Barbara (played by Jen Richards), a white trans woman who seems quite comfortable becoming a typical suburban 1950s housewife married to a man. Stepping back later, she talks about how she does and does not relate to her character Barbara. Then there is Georgia (played by Angelica Ross), a feisty African-American trans woman whose account is checkered with the impact of racism and transphobia. In Framing Agnes, the power of interview and interviewee shifts in an empowering, insightful manner.

Stephan Ira Cohen as Jimmy

Costume designer Becca Blackwood curates vintage clothing that’s both period-specific and perfectly appropriate for the personalities of each interview subject. The actors make great apparel choices as well; when Ross refers to “the hunter and the lion” – referencing from whose perspective trans stories are told – the moment is underscored by her camouflage jacket, with a hint of a safety-orange lining peeking through her cuffed sleeves. Georgia, the one Black subject of the UCLA study, allows for conversations about how the factors of race and class are key components in any discussion of queerness, and Angelica Ross’ first-person contributions certainly underscore the understanding that the trans community is no monolith.

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Max Wolf Valerio as Henry

To round out the coverage, actor/director Silas Howard takes on the role of Denny, a white trans man with a working-class background and a very male love of cars and tinkering with fixing things. Silas gives a certain ease to Denny as he talks about having a relationship. Actor Stephan Ira Cohen plays Jimmy, a young trans man, who seems comfortable as a teenager talking about trans male identity. Finally Max Wolf Valerio tackles the role of Henry. All six actors re-enacted the transcripts from Professor Garfinkel’s archival files while also sharing their personal experiences with Joynt.

Jules-Gill Peterson, Assoc. Professor of History at Johns Hopkins University

Academic Jules-Gill Peterson doesn’t portray one of the subjects of Garfinkel’s study but does provide valuable insight as a trans academic and archivist. Associate Professor of History at Johns Hopkins University, Jules is the author of Histories of the Transgender (University of Minnesota Press, 2018), the first book to shatter the widespread myth that transgender children are a brand-new generation in the 21st Century. Uncovering a surprising archive dating from the 1920s through 1970s, Histories of the Transgender Child shows how the concept of gender relies on the medicalization of children’s presumed racial plasticity, challenging the very terms of how we talk about today’s medical model.

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In the film, Jules Gill-Peterson provides a rich history of the trans experience, as her research gives this cerebral documentary its credentials.

This is a documentary about people talking, but Joynt and his collaborator Morgan M. Page keep that conversation brisk (with the help of editors Brooke Stern Sebold and Cecilio Escobar) and loaded with insights. Much like the UCLA interviews that inspired it, Framing Agnes is a vital part of the historical record, addressing trans life as we know it right now and providing deeper understanding for current and future viewers.

In interviews about her experiences both before and after the UCLA “castration,” Agnes identified as a natural woman living in an environment that did not recognize her intersex condition of having penis as a child as accidental. She always claimed that she was the victim of a mistake made by nature and corrected by man. After the operation, Agnes fought to conceal her past. She lived a life of concealment and aversion (hiding breasts as a 12-year old “boy” due to a later diagnosed excess of estrogen) and claims to have 19 years of her life to “make up for.” Despite her own personal ambiguous “sex,” she was dismissive of homosexuals and transsexuals. She was extremely uncomfortable when these categories are mentioned as parallel to her life, and she recurrently referred to them as “abnormal.” She did not want to be classified with “them.”

Unlike many transexuals today known to work toward raising public awareness and acceptance, Agnes only wanted to fit easily into the mainstream. She did everything possible to become the media representations of housewives and ladylike women that were ubiquitous in the 50s and 60s (and today.) She didn’t long for a greater social openness or even think that she should not have to hide her “condition.” As Garfinkel explains, avoiding any examinations or inquiries that could reveal the presence of her penis (prior to castration) became a game. Agnes learned the script of society’s stereotypes and conformed to them. This was the act of “passing.”

Despite years of interviews and research, Agnes still had secrets. After she was finally settled into a new life as a married woman with nothing recognizably “unnatural” about her outward sex, Agnes revealed to one of her doctors that she had been taking very high levels of estrogen since the age of 12. She was a biologically “normal” male until she stole her mother’s pills at this young age. The supplements were taken at just the right time – halting the developments of male puberty and beginning the development of breasts. Scientists believed that her “feminine” skin, breasts, voice, and convincing “passing” were a result of biology. This added knowledge made clear that her transformation was an even clearer choice.

Framing Agnes is distributed in the USA by Kino Lorber (US) and is scheduled for release in theatres soon. In Framing Agnes, Chase expanded his own 2019 short film. The feature-length documentary feature, Framing Agnes, premiered at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival where it won the NEXT Innovator Award and the NEXT Audience Award. With Aisling Chin-Yee, Chase co-directed No Ordinary Man, a feature-length documentary about jazz musician Billy Tipton, the transgender male American jazz musician and bandleader who lived as a man most of his life. Joynt is the author of two books: the Lambda Literary Award Finalist You Only Live Twice (co-authored with Mike Hoolboom) and Boys Don’t Cry with Morgan M Page. Harold Garfinkel of UCLA was known for establishing and developing ethnomethodology as a field of inquiry in sociology. Garfinkel’s contribution to sociology includes his book, Studies in Ethnomethodology, a collection of articles published in 1967, and his work provided the filmmakers with the archival research that is the heart of this film.