More About Agnes

Reposted from Shakesville with permission from both
Blogger: Melissa
and author Eastside Kate

Originally posted at: http://shakespearessister.blogspot.com/2010/06/queer-history-qorner.html

Queer History Qorner

Posted by eastsidekate at Wednesday, June 16, 2010

[I’m assuming today’s protagonist didn’t/doesn’t identify as queer, but I think this story is relevant to a lot of us. Plus, all the cool qids are into faux-alliteration these days.]

I first encountered Agnes in early 2007, a time when co-incidentally, I was struggling to find a doctor who would write prescriptions to allow me to have a hormonal balance (and in turn, life) society considered plausible for a person of my gender.

A chapter in Susan Stryker and Stephen Whittle’s excellent Transgender Studies Reader reprinted a book chapter by sociologist Dr. Harold Garfinkel on Agnes.

I’ve since found out that poor Agnes is the stuff of queer studies legend. I certainly haven’t gotten through many of the wordy academic texts on this young woman. However, I can relate my initial reaction to her story, as told through the eyes of Dr. Garfinkel.

In October 1958, 19-year old Agnes showed up at UCLA’s Department of Psychiatry, having been referred there by a series of physicians. Dr. Garfinkel noted her “convincingly female appearance”, her “peaches-and-cream” complexion and so on. Her demeanor was that of what Dr. Garfinkel and colleagues referred to as a “120 per cent female”; painstakingly and stereotypically female in all regards.

The root of Agnes’ difficulties stemmed from her genitals, which Dr. Garfinkel repeatedly assures readers are completely normal and functional, or so they would have been had they appeared on a male. Because of these organs, Agnes was forced to spend the first 17 years of her life attempting to “pass” as a boy. This, despite the fact that at age 12, according to Agnes, her body began to spontaneously feminize, resulting in the “convincing” appearance Dr. Garfinkel noted.

Needless to say, Garfinkel, who specialized in studying the social construction of identity (as well as Dr. Robert Stoller, a psychiatrist who would later be a part of UCLA’s gender clinic, and psychologist Dr. Alexander Rosen) found this all very interesting.

The three UCLA professors conducted over 30 hours of interviews, with Dr. Garfinkel presenting certain observations in said book chapter.

To me, Garfinkel’s text is one of the more heartbreaking, painful, and yet subtly inspirational things I’ve ever read. Garfinkel goes on and on (and on) about construction of gender categories by social actors, and about the manifest need that individuals (including Agnes) have for other people to perceive them as “normal” (e.g., cissexual).

Agnes talks of her boyfriend (himself a “120 per cent male”), people who knew her in the first 17 years of her life, and the paramount need to protect herself from her secret. Garfinkel, IMO, appears to understand the stressful (and crucial) importance of all of this, and goes on and on (and on) about practical mechanisms for “passing” within a constructed sociological framework.

The homophobic (and transphobic) side of Agnes certainly makes me cringe. Garfinkel gives her ample opportunity to express her views on folks who aren’t “normal”, on homosexuals, transvestites, and “transsexualists,” three groups that Garfinkel doesn’t always appear (on my reading) to distinguish between. In all cases, Agnes is careful to proclaim her distaste for and avoidance of those people.

Agnes clearly and repeatedly proclaims herself to be a real woman with a horrible biological condition. Soon, doctors at UCLA agree with this assessment, proclaiming that Agnes suffered from an extraordinarily rare (she is, as far as I know, the only person to be so diagnosed) intersex condition know as testicular feminization syndrome, whereby her testes spontaneously began producing estrogen at puberty. In March 1959 (six months after she first appeared at UCLA), surgeons performed SRS/GRS on the young woman.

Eight years later, long after leaving UCLA, Agnes admitted the truth. Her mother had had a hysterectomy, after which she was prescribed estrogen therapy. Since the age of 12, Agnes had been secretly taking her mother’s pills, and filling her prescriptions.

As far as I know, Agnes is still a controversial figure. She lied to doctors, said homophobic and transphobic things, and misappropriated an intersex identity in order to receive adequate health care (which she received, as far as I know for free within a matter of months). There’s lots to say there, and a lot of it has been said, usually multiple times.

I’m frustrated by the text, particularly the fact that Dr. Garfinkel seems to be a fairly thoughtful, caring, intelligent person who can’t seem to wrap his mind around the fact that transsexual people are who we say we are, and that the people who disregard our identities are, at best, severely misguided. This fundamental idea reduces much of his text to what I might call a masturbatory exercise in social theory that has little to no bearing on understanding or improving the life of his subject. While much has changed since Garfinkel’s work first appeared in 1967, it’s depressing to consider what hasn’t.

For me, the key point in the text, where I feel that Garfinkel captures the real essence of Agnes and her situation is here:

[Agnes] wanted to know as well whether [further research] would help “the doctors” to get to the “true facts.” I [Dr. Garfinkel] asked Agnes, “what do you figure the facts are?” She answered, “What do I figure the facts are, or what do I think everyone else thinks the facts are?” emphasis original

Agnes’ question, in a nutshell, summarizes the key dilemma that I think LGBTQ people have faced, (that I have faced) for generations. I know very well that I’m a woman, but I have to manage myself very carefully, as other people are prone to think otherwise. I know very well that the woman I often venture out with in public is my wife, my partner, my sweetie, but there are plenty of times when I have to be aware that other people may not think this is the case. Furthermore, there are often seriously good reasons why I may not want them to understand the facts as I do.

We have spent generation after generation “passing”, painstakingly manipulating and carefully disclosing bits and pieces of the way we “really” are. A lot of time, people don’t see us, and sometimes, that’s because we know it’s not safe for us to be seen. This is a particularly troublesome proposition for transsexual people– to the extent that we’re out as such, cissexual society often views us as somehow “not really” the men and women we claim to be.

Dr. Garfinkel appears to have been acutely aware of the strain of passing as it applied to Agnes. Passing is stressful. Passing was (and is) sadly necessary.

My dream, for Pride month and beyond, is for all of us to envision a world where passing isn’t necessary. I can’t imagine living in a world where simply being one’s self is sufficient grounds for full membership in society. That said, I can’t imagine a more beautiful goal.

11 Responses to “More About Agnes”

  1. Andrea B Says:

    The author should attend a homphobic clinic before commenting.

    Even speaking to a gay person in passing was a big no no in the clinic I attended. Homphobia was required in the clinic, otherwise no hormones. I was required to be homophobic and avoid all contact with TS people.

    That was very common in most clinics back then in Europe and still occurrs in some.

    Agnes was out to get her surgery. If she had to lie to a bunch of liars, fair enough. Agnes did not set the rules and stage. That was the psychiatrists and there lies and fetishes.

    Agnes just fitted a narrative into the delusions, fetishes and framework of lies of the psychiatrists.

    Agnes used the bigotry and lower intelligence of the psychiatrists, against them.

    Well done Agnes.

  2. Andrea B Says:

    Also, regarding the authors personal comments about passing.

    If she does not want to resemble her new physical sex, that is her personal business.

    Do not impose that ideology on me.

  3. Angela Says:

    I don’t think anyone can be blamed for what they had to do to survive and get the help they needed. I do think though that these days there are unnecessary divisions between people that need not be there.

    • Suzan Says:

      People may be members of classes but people are also individuals and therefore they have individual differences.

  4. Anna Says:

    Very good comments Andrea.

    Now my own:

    > A chapter in Susan Stryker and Stephen Whittle’s excellent
    > Transgender Studies Reader reprinted a book chapter by
    > sociologist Dr. Harold Garfinkel on Agnes.
    >
    > I’ve since found out that poor Agnes is the stuff of queer
    > studies legend.

    It is sick that transgender and queer studies have claimed the first transsexual to get SRS in the USA, and a once transsexual child too, when they so often deny we are transsexual as children.

    > Agnes was forced to spend the first 17 years of her life attempting
    > to “pass” as a boy. This, despite the fact that at age 12,
    > according to Agnes, her body began to spontaneously feminize,
    > resulting in the “convincing” appearance Dr. Garfinkel noted.

    More to the point despite having been born transsexual and always needing to be female. But then late-transitioners (such as the author) too often invisibilise that vital aspect.

    > The homophobic (and transphobic) side of Agnes certainly
    > makes me cringe. Garfinkel gives her ample opportunity to
    > express her views on folks who aren’t “normal”, on homosexuals,
    > transvestites, and “transsexualists,” three groups that
    > Garfinkel doesn’t always appear (on my reading) to distinguish
    > between. In all cases, Agnes is careful to proclaim her distaste
    > for and avoidance of those people.

    The context for that was that the team was trying to persuade her to join a group of such people they were running as an alternative to providing SRS. And no, Garfinkel didn’t see the difference.

    > Agnes clearly and repeatedly proclaims herself to be a real
    > woman with a horrible biological condition. Soon, doctors at
    > UCLA agree with this assessment…

    To claim that her necessary compliance with the narrative required to obtain SRS was transphobic is utterly sickening; a total perversion.

    She was a teenager with nothing but her wage from an office job in a country where SRS for such as her was banned, but available to the “intersex”, which wasn’t defined. She need the surgery desperately, for many reasons. No one should judge her. Or any of us.

    Back in 1971 (22 years later), my psychiatrist, the only one in the UK with access to a surgeon, required patients to be straight and have no contact with the drag scene. I didn’t feel any affinity with the latter since I’d always identified with women, but I had two quite traumatising near-eascapes from serious assaults in demonstrating to him that I could date straight men. In fact I was and am bisexual but that pretty much scared me off men and I’ve never dated one since.

    Agnes simply was straight.

    more…

  5. Anna Says:

    > in order to receive adequate health care (which she received, as
    > far as I know for free within a matter of months).

    Actually she received appalling care, since some of the staff disagreed with her being given surgery, and she had awful complications. She then suffered very badly from being denied hormones – which as vital in post-surgical healing and maintaining mental heath.

    > …Dr. Garfinkel seems to be a fairly thoughtful, caring,
    > intelligent person who can’t seem to wrap his mind around the
    > fact that transsexual people are who we say we are, and that the
    > people who disregard our identities are, at best, severely
    > misguided. This fundamental idea reduces much of his text to
    > what I might call a masturbatory exercise in social theory that
    > has little to no bearing on understanding or improving the life
    > of his subject. While much has changed since Garfinkel’s work
    > first appeared in 1967, it’s depressing to consider what hasn’t.

    He was a sociologist. When, in 1970, it became necessary to put my proceeding transition on record with my college, where I was studying sociology and psychology, they showed no understanding and expelled me. No universities in the UK allowed transsexual people on the premises, and sociology was no exception. Today is seems the main location for the poisonous, and ill-informed belief that gender is just a social construct.

    > For me, the key point in the text, where I feel that Garfinkel
    > captures the real essence of Agnes and her situation is here:
    >
    > [Agnes] wanted to know as well whether [further research] would
    > help “the doctors” to get to the “true facts.” I [Dr. Garfinkel]
    > asked Agnes, “what do you figure the facts are?” She answered,
    > “What do I figure the facts are, or what do I think everyone
    > else thinks the facts are?” emphasis original

    I so hope that wonderful young woman, who might be 70 now, had, and maybe still has a good life. She so deserved it.

    > We have spent generation after generation “passing”,
    > painstakingly manipulating and carefully disclosing bits and
    > pieces of the way we “really” are.

    “Passing”, as a concept, comes from Black people who could avoid discrimination by being taken for White, and, as such is a really bad term to use for those of us who live as we really are – as women. We are in sore need of better terms. But then it seems the author has only partially transitioned. She is right, though, in saying that we’ve long had to manage what people know, but wrong, I think, in saying there might ever be a time when that isn’t at all needed since the human brain seems constructed in such a way that will always give most people problems in reacting appropriately to the full facts of our lives. And, to different extents, I guess that may be true for all humans. Aren’t some things best kept intimate?

  6. Anna Says:

    I wrote:
    > Back in 1971 (22 years later)

    Oooops, only 12 years on from 1959.

  7. Anna Says:

    A bit more context for Agnes.

    There was, in LA in 1959, no sign that SRS was ever going to be available in the US. It was even illegal to remove testicles. There is therefore no case to say that Agnes was impatient or irresponsible. The only surgeon that she could have been referred to, as a transsexual patient, would have been in Borou in Casablanca, Morocco, North Africa – an impossible dream for a girl of her economic class in the days before cheap travel. Indeed, for April Ashley, who enjoyed the tender benefits of Dr Burou just about that time, it was quite a stretch, and she spoke French, had saved years of income from “female impersonation” in Paris, and could simply catch an Air France flight down there.

    It was also illegal, locally, for a “male” to be in public wearing more than so many items of female clothing. The members of the “support” group Garfinkel and his colleagues tried, unsuccessfully, to persuade Agnes to join, that she is condemned as “transphobic and homophobic” for distancing herself from, would have been subject to that law, as would she is she had wavered from the SRS-tracked line.

    More than a decade later Suzan herself was thrown in the cage, with men, for exactly that “offence”.

    With a very female face and body (except for the terrible defect of the male genitalia – can there be a worse defect for a girl to be born with?), Agnes could not have survived after that – if she could have coped mentally and physically then she would have been destroyed financially since she her only income was from a female job in a world where most jobs were strictly segregated (which is almost unimaginable today) and she had no family to fall back upon (having, necessarily, fled her home town).

    And some context on Garfinkel and Stoller: instead of seeing Agnes’ history as the success it actually was, demonstrating that a transsexual child, with access to simple hormones at an age determined by herself, and SRS without charge, could become a happy and fulfilled woman, who thought of others and was ooncerned that the scientific record be complete, they wrote her up as a liar, and tried to paint all transsexual women as liars and dangerous to medical programmes. They come out of it very badly, and yet it is their writing that the transgender and queer academics reproduce.

    And, to an extent, their attitude still colours patients’ experience. Even though Benjamin, back then, was prescribing hormones to children at the age Agnes chose to start, around the age children usually start wherever they need and the ability coincide (where there are hormones in the home, on the street, or available over the pharmacy counter), the HBIGDA/WPATH SOC, the Endocrine Society Guidelines, and such as Professors Spack, Cohen-Kettenis, and Gooren, GIRES, PFC, The Australian Family Court, and more, ignore the all their totally successful case histories and claim there is no evidence to support hormones before 16.

    They deny those girls puberty before 16, when it now starts, in western girls, on average, at 9.

    It is impossible but to believe that they too, as instructed by Garfinkel, see all such girls, and the women we become, as dangerous liars, because of Garfinkel’s telling of the Agnes case.

    And that is to condemn not Agnes, but them, as prejudiced, unscientific, unethical, and cruel.

    • Suzan Says:

      Actually less than a decade… 1968 and if I hadn’t been busted by the Red Squad/Narc Squad/Tac Squad I might have been thrown in the queen tank like I was on another occasion.

      For what it is worth Aleshia Brevard got her surgery from Dr. Elmer Belt in the same time frame roughly as Agnes. By the early 1960 Dr. Jose Jesus Barbosa was doing some of the best surgeries of the time at his private clinic in Tijuana. I almost went to him but was intimidated by potential language issues with the Spanish speaking nursing staff and my order in restaurants ask where the bathroom is etc level of Spanish.

      I was also concerned about his not thinking I had enough for him to work with. He did pretty much a straight inversion without grafts.

      Those 10 years made a major difference in other ways. SRS went from experimental to having text books written about it and surgeons being trained to do it.

      Stanford’s Program was Medical University Hospital based and taught how to do it as well as doing it. Further those of us who came out 10 years or so after Agnes were better educated as to what was there and had greater knowledge of others. In a sense there were so many of us around we lost the feeling of being the “only one”.

  8. Anna Says:

    Suzan:
    > Actually less than a decade… 1968 and if I hadn’t been
    > busted by the Red Squad/Narc Squad/Tac Squad I might have been
    > thrown in the queen tank like I was on another occasion.

    Nssty.

    > For what it is worth Aleshia Brevard got her surgery from Dr.
    > Elmer Belt in the same time frame roughly as Agnes.

    Hmm, one lives and learns, and I had not heard of him. http://zagria.blogspot.com/2009/04/elmer-belt-1893-1980.html rather overturns the picture, saying that he was Agnes’ surgeon too. Also that he was working, doing SRS at UCLA before 1954 (strangely it does give a start date). Yet Garfinkel’s account doesn’t acknowledge any earlier SRS there, Agnes’ complications don’t sound like an experienced surgeon, and AF says her SRS in 1962 was one of the first. Of course its a history of “gender variance”, where the only heterosexuals are those T->Fs in relationships with T->Ms, so it might be total tosh.

    > By the early 1960 Dr. Jose Jesus Barbosa was doing some of
    > the best surgeries of the time at his private clinic in Tijuana.
    > I almost went to him but was intimidated by potential language
    > issues with the Spanish speaking nursing staff and my order in
    > restaurants ask where the bathroom is etc level of Spanish.
    >
    > I was also concerned about his not thinking I had enough for him
    > to work with. He did pretty much a straight inversion without
    > grafts.

    You were probably wise to pass that up.

    The learning process continued for decades, and maybe still does, although things seem unchanged in the lsst 5 years.

    My surgeon in 1972 complained that I had been circumcised and the scrotal skin he additionally used caused big problems, which he didn’t seem to have anticipated, so I guess it was experimental. I was also his youngest patient by quite a bit, and looked far younger still (some say fourteen), which probably made him try harder and experiment.

    > Those 10 years made a major difference in other ways. SRS went
    > from experimental to having text books written about it and
    > surgeons being trained to do it.

    Whole books by 1968? So why were the inaccurate sketches of Burou’s lecture slides so influential?

    Gillies published his tecHnique, created in 1951 for Roberta Cowell, in 1958 in his compendium but died the next year. He was deeply into training but I don’t know if he trained on SRS, or even did any further cases after hers in 1951. It turned out too sophisticated (sensate clitoris and engorging labia which Cowell found too much and had reduced) so Burou is not a clear successor. Most used his signature flap technique though.

    > Stanford’s Program was Medical University Hospital based and
    > taught how to do it as well as doing it. Further those of us who
    > came out 10 years or so after Agnes were better educated as to
    > what was there and had greater knowledge of others. In a sense
    > there were so many of us around we lost the feeling of being the
    > “only one”.

    Experiences vary. In London, through my mentor, I met older patients from various backgrounds, but it was decades before I encountered, through the Net, anyone who had had been a child like me and had surgery at he same sort of age. I hadn’t realised how singular, in an isolated way, I had felt up to that point. It had a profound effect.

  9. Anna Says:

    I posted:
    > and AF says

    Ooops, that should be AB, as in Aleshia Brevard.


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