Reposted from Shakesville with permission from both
and author Eastside Kate
Originally posted at: http://shakespearessister.blogspot.com/2010/06/queer-history-qorner.html
Queer History Qorner
[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.