A Trans Icon of the 20th Century Revived by Trans Stars of the 21st Century
LOS ANGELES — In 2017, while sifting through boxes of notes and research materials left behind by the sociologist Harold Garfinkel, who had died six years earlier, the filmmaker Chase Joynt came upon a filing cabinet that had become rusted shut. When he opened it, Joynt discovered a long-lost trove of interviews Garfinkel had conducted with eight transgender individuals at the University of California, Los Angeles, between 1959 and 1963.
“We immediately knew we had found something extraordinary,” said Joynt, who came upon the files alongside the University of Chicago sociologist Kristen Schilt.
One of the interviewees, Agnes (all of the subjects were anonymized), had already become a focus of Garfinkel’s published research, and was, Schilt said, widely understood to be the first sociological case study of a transitioning person in history. But the interviews of the other seven had never been seen before.
“It’s quite rare to find first-person accounts of trans people like these, particularly in a high-stakes situation, like an encounter with a researcher,” said Jules Gill-Peterson, a history professor at Johns Hopkins University and author of “Histories of the Transgender Child.”
Not long after the discovery, Joynt, who co-directed “No Ordinary Man” (2020), a documentary about the transgender jazz musician Billy Tipton, knew he had to do something with the materials, maybe a book or a film or a digital archive.
Joynt decided to make a documentary, but not one with your typical re-enactments and talking heads. In “Framing Agnes,” now in theaters, viewers not only hear the stories of Garfinkel’s subjects, but also the stories and reactions of the trans actors playing them, who include Angelica Ross (“Pose,” “American Horror Story: 1984”) and Jen Richards (“Better Things,” “Mrs. Fletcher”).
Through stylized re-enactments of period interview shows, the film also turns the camera’s unblinking gaze back on Garfinkel and other interrogators who have made a study or a spectacle of transness over the years. “The questions being asked by people in the 1950s were the same questions that were coming out of the mouths of Jerry Springer and Sally Jessy Raphael in the ’80s and ’90s,” Joynt said.
The format was, in many ways, prompted by the sheer lack of source materials, which consisted of typewritten transcripts of anonymous subjects conducted decades ago. There were no interviewees to catch up with, no family or friends to add context and color. “The flip to the talk show, our desires to play and re-enact and embody in this way, are born of the limitations of the archive itself,” Joynt said.
And besides, Joynt noted, no amount of archival information would allow a documentarian to capture a person in their entirety. “One of the things I love about Agnes is that she does not want to be found,” he said. “I think there’s a beautiful power in that kind of opacity and resistance.”
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“Framing Agnes” premiered at Sundance last January, where it won the audience and innovator awards in the festival’s Next category, and went on to garner rave reviews; Ms. Magazine praised its “surprisingly gripping format,” while The New Yorker called it “a film of quiet but decisive radicality.”
On a recent morning, at his offices in the Chinatown district of Los Angeles, Joynt talked about poring through the transcripts page by page. The eight interviewees, who were whittled down to six for the documentary, were asked about everything from their childhoods and past lovers to whether they knew other people “like you.”
Garfinkel’s questions felt very familiar to the actors tasked with playing the interviewees. “Yesterday, a doctor, who wasn’t my regular doctor, had a lot of prurient questions for me that didn’t have anything to do with why I was there,” said the activist and filmmaker Zackary Drucker, who plays Agnes.
Drucker, who met Joynt in 2013 when both were screening short films at Outfest Los Angeles, jumped at the chance to play Agnes, who had gone to U.C.L.A. at 19 with the sole purpose of seeking gender confirmation surgery. To gain access to the treatment, Agnes claimed to be intersex, but years later confessed to one of Garfinkel’s colleagues that she had actually been taking her mother’s estrogen tablets since age 12.
“I love how wily she was,” Drucker said. “I’ve been in that situation, all trans people have, of needing to convince a doctor that you are trans enough to get hormones. Many of the structures that Agnes was navigating 60 years ago remain intact.”
To play Georgia, a trans woman who was raised in the South by an evangelical minister, Ross drew from her memories. “It literally is from my own experience growing up with women in the church, understanding that you don’t wear pants to choir rehearsal, you don’t step foot inside the sanctuary without a dress on,” she said.
Ross, who became the first openly trans woman to play a leading role on Broadway (starring as Roxie Hart in “Chicago”), can understand why Agnes, a blond woman with a “peaches-and-cream complexion,” became part of Garfinkel’s published research, while Georgia and the others did not.
“It’s just like Caitlyn Jenner was on the cover of Vanity Fair and not Angelica Ross,” Ross said with a laugh. “As a society, we sometimes choose whose stories are worth telling and whose aren’t. And a lot of that involves race and class.”
The interviews were filmed in Los Angeles over 10 days. Gill-Peterson was then called in to review the footage and serve as the documentary’s narrator and resident expert on transgender history.
“When I walked on set and looked out at the team, I was like, Oh! It’s all queer and trans people,” Gill-Peterson said. “Your shoulders relax a bit. You’re less on guard.”
The decades-old stories, Gill-Peterson said, are emerging at a time when people are more aware of trans issues than ever before. “But it’s also an era,” she noted,” in which trans people face heightened scrutiny, heightened danger, higher rates of political attacks and violence.”
All of which made Gill-Peterson and Joynt question the nature and limitations of the project itself. Is trans visibility always a good, particularly if attacks and violence follow in its wake? Is there an advantage in being Georgia, who got to fade into obscurity, as opposed to Agnes, who became something of a trans icon?
“I think especially for trans women of color like myself, sometimes our biggest wish is just to disappear, just to be left alone a little, to not wear that visibility so intensely,” Gill-Peterson said.
Joynt wondered, “What does it mean to make things visible?” He added, “Those kinds of tensions and troubles are fertile ground from which to build a documentary project. So let’s not shy away from them. Let’s actually try to hang out and spend some time there.”