Agnes Torres is a transgender woman who participated in Harold Garfinkel 's research in the early s, making her the first subject of an in-depth discussion of transgender identity in sociology. A modern case study revealed symptoms of malingering. She is the subject of a documentary short. Torres was born in and assigned male at birth. She was the youngest of four children. Her mother worked in an aircraft plant; her machinist father died when she was eight.
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In October , a nineteen-year-old woman called Agnes approached the psychiatry department at UCLA, having been referred there by a physician in her hometown. 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. 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. 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.
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? 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.
In October , several years after gaining access to surgery, Agnes returned to Dr. 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.
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. 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. Where Agnes is guarded, intent on saying the right thing, Drucker is not. He describes his frustration when Agnes. 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.
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. Access to information, more than gender, turns out to be the site of anxiety in the case studies and in the documentary. 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. Garfinkel, says to Agnes, not without a dopey smugness. Her response cuts two ways. But the truth is, neither does he.
Framing Agnes will premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival this weekend. RL Goldberg is a Ph. Remember Me. Kristen Schilt. Photo: Dan Dry.
Re-Configuring Agnes : The Telling of a Transsexual ' s Story