UChicago scholars examine decades of trans history in Tribeca film debut

Framing Agnes weaves 1958 case study with rediscovered stories of gender nonconformity

Assoc. Prof. Kristen Schilt and filmmaker Chase Joynt have spent years chasing down the story of Agnes, a transgender woman whose 1958 case study has reverberated through decades of sociology. This month, what the two University of Chicago scholars discovered will be unveiled in a new documentary short.

Premiering April 28 at the Tribeca Film Festival, Framing Agnes explores not only the experience of the titular woman, but those of several other trans and gender non-conforming people from the 1950s.

Co-directors Schilt and Joynt enlisted trans actors, combining present-day interviews with reenactments of never-before-seen archival transcripts. In doing so, the 19-minute documentary connects the actors with those who had fought for their own rights so many years ago—reframing what had been thought of as a singular case and broadening the scope of transgender history.

“We weren’t interested in maintaining a historical container,” said Joynt, a Banting Postdoctoral Fellow at UChicago. “We wanted to ask how the history informs the present—and how the present, in some ways, continues to rewrite the past.”

On screen, Joynt plays a version of Harold Garfinkel, the late UCLA sociologist whose archives served as the basis of the film. In 1958, Garfinkel met a woman he called Agnes, whom he described in a case study that still resonates in sociology the way that Sigmund Freud’s Dora does in psychology. Researchers had long assumed Agnes to be an outlier, an exceptional case linked to that of Christine Jorgensen, who underwent sex reassignment surgery in 1952.

By poring through Garfinkel’s archives, Joynt and Schilt realized that the sociologist had in fact interviewed other gender non-conforming people.

“That was very unexpected,” said Schilt, who directs the Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality and studies the sociology of culture. “I’m sure his peers knew at the time, but he didn’t write about these interviews. It didn’t appear in the written record.”

Funded in part by a fellowship from UChicago’s Gray Center for Arts and Inquiry, Schilt and Joynt began searching through Garfinkel’s unsorted archive in 2015, four years after he died. They weren’t sure what they were looking for or what they would find—only that they were curious about this particular moment in trans history. So, they made over a dozen trips to Newburyport, Mass., where Garfinkel’s archives were held by sociologist Anne W. Rawls.

“There was something that captivated us about this case,” Schilt said.

On the first trip to the archive, Schilt expected maybe around 20 boxes. There turned out to be hundreds, arranged in no particular order. One box might hold papers from 1962, complete with handwritten notes in the margins. The next might be filled with random stationery and memorabilia from 2010.

But eventually, the search paid off. Not only did they find a tape of Garfinkel’s interview with Agnes, but they also discovered that the sociologist had met and spoken with others who understood themselves at the time to be gender non-conforming. While much of the audio had degraded over time, the transcripts were invaluable in contextualizing Garfinkel’s work.

Framing Agnes bounces from past to present, immersing the viewer in Garfinkel’s interviews while also giving them a road map to modern transgender experiences. Many scenes have Joynt playing Garfinkel as a riff on the style of journalist Mike Wallace, sitting across from Agnes and her contemporaries; several others shift the camera behind the scenes, showing the artists’ personal reflections on their work.

Joynt realized early in production the value of juxtaposing the two perspectives. During a pre-shoot meeting not shown on film, he recalled, actress Angelica Ross suddenly redirected the conversation. Her character, she told him, had risen off the paper.

“Angelica stopped me and said, ‘I know her,’” Joynt said. “‘I feel her in my body.’ I knew then that the project would become something beyond my control. It was in the bodies and minds and voices of our actors as well.”

That current runs throughout the project. Early in the film, Zackary Drucker listens to the voice of Agnes, whom she plays in the documentary: “This person was just in a straitjacket. And the straitjacket was the culture around them.”

In addition to Ross and Drucker, best known for their respective work on Pose and Transparent, the documentary features film industry veteran Silas Howard and writer Max Wolf Valerio.

Joynt is currently developing the short film into a full-length feature. He and Schilt are also working on a book called Conceptualizing Agnes: Exemplary Cases and the Disciplines of Gender.

In the meantime, the two hope that Framing Agnes helps more people understand how modern medicine and media continue to stifle gender non-conforming people, forcing them to navigate specific narratives of what it means to be trans.

“I hope that there is a way in which audiences can step into a more complicated story about trans history,” Joynt said. “And I hope that they walk out of the film wanting to Google our incredible cast, and to attach themselves to the incredible work they’re doing.”

Added Schilt: “We’re really part of a zeitgeist of a different kind of trans representation.”