“Framing Agnes” (2022). Cast: Chase Joynt, Zackary Drucker, Jen Richards, Angelica Ross, Silas Howard, Max Valerio, Stephen Ira, Jules Gill-Peterson. Archive Footage: Christine Jorgensen, Carmen Carrera, Laverne Cox, Katie Couric, Joan Rivers, Mike Wallace, Dr. Harold Garfinkel. Director: Chase Joynt. Screenplay: Chase Joynt and Morgan M. Page. Web site. Trailer.
All too often, we think we know an individual or community when, in fact, we don’t understand them well or at all. There could be various reasons for this – a lack of information volunteered by the subjects in question, preconceived notions on our part, widely circulated commonly held misconceptions, or even so-called, generally accepted urban legends. It’s unfortunate when these developments occur, because they frequently present us with an inaccurate, misleading perception. That makes setting the record straight a prime consideration, an objective sought in the intriguing new documentary, “Framing Agnes.”
For quite some time, the transgender community has been grossly mischaracterized and, consequently, misunderstood. Public impressions of these individuals and their constituency at large have often been oversimplified, grossly misconstrued and seriously misrepresented, primarily because many in society were unwilling to make the effort to do so. Differences often equated to fear, and fear frequently morphed into prejudice, ill-conceived stereotypes and widely held ignorance. What’s more, out of expediency and “convenience,” members of the transgender community have been routinely (and simplistically) lumped in with others on the sexual “fringes” of society (gay men, lesbians and bisexuals) merely because they shared the mutual quality of being “different” from the mainstream in-born heterosexual majority. Yet this superficial quality of “difference” didn’t convey much about the nature of the trans community nor what it had in common – and not in common – with the others with whom they had been so summarily grouped, as well as what distinguished it from the remainder of society at large.
Consequently, those who have sought to pursue their unique identities as members of transgender society have largely received short shrift. To be sure, their inclusion in LGB society may have helped to promote tolerance, acceptance and the promotion of civil rights for these individuals, but has it done the same for encouraging understanding of what trans persons want, who they are and what their community stands for?
Some would contend (and rightly so) that many in transgender society have only started to come above board in their own right over the past few years, and their recognition as a separate, distinct community is a comparatively recent development. However, it could also be argued that this may never have happened were it not for the pioneering (albeit quietly understated) efforts of transgender community members and their supporters who have sought to validate their existence, culture and identity. Those courageous individuals laid the foundation to make this possible, and the purpose behind this film is to recognize those efforts in helping to bring these advances into being.
“Framing Agnes” is a bold, innovative attempt to both chronicle the history of the trans community and to depict what its members experienced personally as its and their stories unfolded. This is accomplished through an inventive collection of archive footage of an early researcher in this field, re-creations of interviews with research subjects (portrayed by a cast of all trans performers), observations of those performers regarding their views on the present-day status of their community and the insights of a noted trans writer/historian. This compilation makes for an enlightening, eye-opening watch, one that sheds valuable historical and contemporary light on an often-misunderstood segment of society.
That misunderstanding most likely began in 1953, when American Christine Jorgensen (1926-1989) returned home from Denmark after undergoing what was one of the first successful gender reassignment surgeries. The former George Jorgensen had hoped to discreetly slip back into the US and live a quiet life. However, when she arrived at New York’s LaGuardia Airport, she was met with a throng of media hounds who paid her more attention than the Danish royal family, who were aboard the same flight. Jorgensen immediately became a celebrity, but her story was treated with titillating sensationalism, limiting her ability to be herself and to help accurately educate the public about the transition she had undergone. Because of this, she was unable to earn a living by doing anything other than making public appearances, a path that eventually led her to become a singer, stage actress and night club entertainer. She also became the de facto poster child for her people, unwittingly setting the standard that much of society drew upon in looking at trans community.
While Jorgensen helped put the transgender community in the public eye, her experience was anything but typical of what she and others like her had hoped would come out of it. The sensationalistic treatment accorded her became what the public expected when it came to writing and reporting on this subject. But, for many of those who were considering the transition option at that time, this is not at all what they wanted. They saw these prospective experiences as private matters to be handled with tact and discretion. They saw themselves in need of undergoing treatment for what they viewed as “a mistake of nature,” not as an invitation to be treated like a carnival side show act. However, with the risk of such cheap, tawdry exploitation always hanging over them, they wanted no part of it and didn’t always know where to turn – and to whom – to get genuinely meaningful guidance.
This situation caught the attention of researchers at UCLA in the early 1960s. Led by Dr. Harold Garfinkel, these investigators wanted to learn more about gender reassignment prospects, including their reasons for pursuing this treatment and their feelings about living life as transgender individuals. And so studies were launched to interview subjects on this topic and to help them get the assistance they needed to realize their goals, such as obtaining access to hormone therapy treatments in advance of any surgeries that might have been performed.
The findings of those studies were compiled, but they essentially disappeared for many years. However, when transgender community historians like Jules Gill-Peterson began searching for these materials, not only did they find interview transcripts, but they discovered a wealth of documents and other evidence of these studies, most of it perfectly preserved. Almost overnight, an extensive history of the early days of transgender research surfaced, opening a door to investigations of the subject that had been thought lost for good.
So who were these interview subjects, and what did they bring to the research? That’s much of what this film focuses on. It introduces viewers to six individuals who took part in the study through re-creations of their interviews. But, instead of presenting these conversations in a clinical setting, they’re staged through a simulated period piece black-and-white TV talk show (a la The Mike Wallace Interview) with the program’s host (Chase Joynt) serving as a surrogate for study leader Harold Garfinkel. The host questions the subjects about an array of topics, including their experiences prior to and after their transitions, the challenges they faced throughout this process, what was behind their decisions to move forward with the change, how these events have affected their lives and feelings about themselves, and what they’ve experienced in the wake of their transformations.
As the movie’s title suggests, the principal interview subject is a trans woman named Agnes (Zackary Drucker), whose presence pops up repeatedly in the research papers. As the story goes, Agnes was anxious to gain access to the hormone treatments and surgical practices that are integral to the transition process, neither of which were readily available at the time for a variety of reasons. Agnes was so determined, in fact, that she allegedly lied her way into obtaining the procedures she needed. However, receiving these treatments is essentially all she wanted out of this, the means to get on with living the kind of life she had envisioned for herself. And this reasoning is believed to account for her virtual disappearance after her transformation, almost becoming a sort of urban legend within the transgender community. Nevertheless, the interview transcripts show that she was a real individual and that she shared her story as part of the study, an experience that proved quite revelatory in the annals of trans community history.
Agnes was not alone, though. There was also Barbara (Jen Richards), who spoke candidly about what she underwent both before and after her transition, particularly in terms of society’s rigid gender role expectations for both trans individuals and those who willingly accepted their birth genders; and Georgia (Angelica Ross), an African-American trans woman who spoke about what it was like for a person of color to go through this at a time when she and others like her were also wrestling with the challenges of the Civil Rights Movement; and Denny (Silas Howard), who, like many individuals in the early days of the trans movement, sought to have his community’s own identity recognized in itself and not just as a specialized adjunct arm of the gay community, a challenge that continued long after the trans movement’s initial establishment; and Henry (Max Valerio), a trans male who sought to establish his identity at middle age; and Jimmy (Stephen Ira), a transgender teen from rural America whose exceptionally open-minded parents (for the time) arranged for him to see specialists to help him explore transition options when most of their peers wouldn’t even consider talking about the possibility, particularly where their children were concerned.
These stories reveal a rich, eye-opening tapestry of conditions and circumstances that the pioneers in the transgender community experienced as a result of their racial backgrounds, chronological ages, motivations for undergoing the process, personal backgrounds and various other considerations. Indeed, the uncovering of their experiences through the interview sequences clearly illustrates that these individuals were far different from what many in society thought about them then (and, to a certain extent, even now). Misconceptions about what supposedly characterized the members of this community are largely swept away. Revelations about the everyday life dealings that they, like other members of society had to contend with, rise to the surface, showing that their lives truly weren’t as inherently “foreign” as many of the uneducated might have thought they were. And the notion that all trans individuals were members of an intrinsically monolithic community with a pervasively uniform mindset proved to be a myth that wasn’t supported by this evidence.
The viewpoints of the actors portraying these figures shed additional light on these matters. Through contemporary interviews with the actors when out of character, viewers learn what they think about the present-day state of the trans community, particularly the ways it has changed since the 1950s and the ways in which it’s still the same, especially when it comes to how those on the outside continue to view it. They, like many community activists, discuss how trans individuals want to be viewed for the individuals that they are and not just as a specialized subset of the larger sexual minority with which they’ve traditionally been associated. These views are further backed up by those of researcher Gill-Peterson, who points out that the widely held fallacies of those who are unfamiliar with the community are no longer true – and never really were to begin with.
The various components that have gone into making up the content of this film may seem like an unusual cinematic combination. Yet, when one considers the information and impressions that they impart collectively, they paint a picture that provides a clearly defined, decidedly different view of what has long been erroneously held by much of society at large. In that way, this documentary makes a powerful statement aimed at changing the hearts and minds about what many of us believe to be true about the nature of a unique community that’s simultaneously different from, and yet also very much like, the rest of the overall society of which it is a part.
The key word in that last sentence is “believe,” for it has the power to define the parameters of what supposedly delineates the character of an entire segment of society, both among those looking at it from the outside, as well as among those on the inside looking out. Beliefs of any kind can indeed become entrenched, thanks to their innate persistence and power, both of which eventually possess the means and momentum to set the limits, impressions and character of the subject matter in question, including something as large as an entire segment of society, especially when enough of us buy into their seemingly inherent validity. Changing these beliefs is always possible, but their mutability can be difficult to adjust once they firmly take root, as the experience and history of the trans community so clearly illustrate.
Such outcomes are the product of the conscious creation process, the philosophy that maintains these intangible resources shape the world around us. Many of us may not be aware of this school of thought, but the output that comes from this is all around us to see, and its entrenchment can become so imbedded that it’s hard to envision things being any other way. And, in the case of society’s outlooks on the nature of the trans community, this has often been just as true among those within it as it was among those on the outside. Insiders may not have wanted this to be the case, but, when they looked around and saw what was surrounding them, it may have often been difficult for them to think otherwise.
That’s why the dissemination of the findings from the UCLA study and this film are so important. Both shine a bright light on the long-held misconceptions about the trans community and how these newly revealed contrary views have been part of its nature and culture from the beginning, even if not widely known. This information presents revelations that could act as the seeds of new beliefs, notions planted in the collective consciousness that yield new ideas among both trans individuals and those on the outside. And we all know what can happen when such new beliefs take root and become established.
The emergence of new views of the transgender community in recent years has done a lot to help distinguish it as its own segment of society, even as one separate from the LGB community from which it has long been associated. That’s important – and empowering – to a group of individuals who have sought to overcome their fears and limitations and seek recognition for the intrinsic inclusivity to which they’re entitled. And this film does much to bolster the community’s optimism and enthusiasm on this front, as well as its efforts to support initiatives to help bring about the fulfillment of its objectives. To be sure, the examples offered up here can go a long way toward shifting perspectives and what may ultimately stem from them.
Anyone who believes that he/she has a good handle on understanding a community’s culture and sensibilities is bound to have his/her eyes thrust wide open by this thoughtful, inventive documentary. In creating this offering, the filmmaker seeks to enliven the little-known life experiences of mid-20th Century transgender pioneers (like the title character) and how they blazed trails for those who followed, particularly in terms of being themselves, questioning society’s rigid gender role expectations, and managing their transitions in conjunction with other life challenges, such as racial equality. The mix of narrative components used for exploring these matters makes for an intriguing, enlightening watch, one that moves along at a refreshingly brisk pace thanks to its astute observations and economical 1:15.00 runtime. To be honest, though, as informative as the talk show sequences are, the use of this storytelling device feels somewhat contrived (if not more than a little gimmicky), despite the depth of the revelations to come out of them. Still, there’s ample food for thought packed into this 2022 Sundance Film Festival NEXT Innovator Award winner, much of it illuminating about both this diverse community and the notion of gender itself, regardless of one’s personal leanings.
It’s often been said that one should not judge a book by its cover. That’s wisdom we should all heed, especially when it comes to judging others and our impressions of them. As this documentary so effectively illustrates, there’s a good chance we might well get it wrong, and that misconception could easily persist for a long time, causing who knows how much damage in the process. Thankfully, this film shows how we can overcome that pitfall and approach our assessments with an enlightened new outlook. And, if we were all to employ that notion, there’s no telling what kind of transformation could result.
Copyright © 2023, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.