When the world never stops questioning you, do you refuse to answer... or do you play along to get what you want? These questions are at the heart of Framing Agnes, an award-winning documentary about the legacy of a young trans woman in the 1950s who was forced to choose between access and honesty. The film uses the format of a talk show to reenact interviews with the eponymous Agnes and five other trans people – conversations based on newly discovered case files from a decades-old gender clinic at UCLA.
Host Brittany Luse sits down with director Chase Joynt, who also plays the role of the talk show host in the film, and historian Jules Gill-Peterson, who narrates the documentary. Together, they interrogate the ways our society tells trans stories. And they dive into the limits of representation, the power dynamics of interviews and the nature of truth itself.
The interview highlights below are adapted from an episode of It's Been A Minute. Follow us on Apple Podcasts or Spotify, and keep up with us on Twitter. These excerpts have been edited for length and clarity.
What Agnes represented, and what the new case files reveal
Brittany Luse: Talk to me about these transcripts that the film is based around. What was the significance of that discovery?
Jules Gill-Peterson: You know, we've had this story of Agnes, the young trans woman who went to UCLA, for a long time. Her story has been told both in medical and research communities and in trans communities. But all of a sudden there was this whole array of other people very different from her, who had gone to see the same people at the same time. So it really represented kind of one of those moments where you stumble upon something and you're like, "Oh, this is too good to keep to myself," but [also] actually really complicated to think about. What would you do if all of a sudden, instead of one story standing in for 1950s trans people, you have maybe seven or eight? Where does that get us? And what is the problem in sort of trying to make those stories do something that Agnes's story hasn't been able to do yet?
Luse: Chase, I see you nodding vigorously. Let me know what's on your mind and also tell me about what that moment of discovery was like.
Chase Joynt: Yeah, I'm nodding because Jules is illuminating so many of the central tensions of the project. I think we have all been born of a culture that imagines that archives give us access to some kind of perhaps historical truth to help us make sense of ourselves. And I think we as a collective in the film are suspicious of these archives and already recognize in our trans historical kin that they were telling very particular versions of their own life histories, because they were interfacing with a gatekeeping medical establishment which was designed to keep people like them away from the kinds of services and access points that they needed. And so we don't approach the archive imagining that we are revealing some incredibly important, truthful version of a trans history that we had not had access to prior. But rather [we] think critically together about the role that questions play in dictating the kind of information that we gain access to.
Luse: I want to back up a little bit. What has Agnes's story signified in the past, and where's the correction or complication that you want to make in the film?
Gill-Peterson: You know, that phrase that the truth is stranger than fiction? Part of what that might mean for trans people is that our lives are so compelling sometimes that they just make for unbelievable storytelling. We have to go through all of these hoops, you know? To live our lives. We face so many kinds of barriers. But I think if we actually zoom out a little further, the reason that trans people's lives are almost so fictionally rich and almost bigger than real life is not because there's something intrinsic to being trans that's like that. It's because the world puts us in situations where we have to live out dramatic storylines.
And so I think what the film is trying to do is sort of slow that down and say, "Well, hold on. If we can't actually find out whether Agnes was proof that lying is bad or lying is amazing, then what is it that her experience tells us?" It puts us in a really difficult situation because of course we want connection to the past. We want to know where we come from. But we actually can't know the answer to that, in part because of how we've been made into these sorts of larger than life narratives.
Power dynamics in the talk show format
Luse: These conversations are re-imagined within a talk show format. Something I think about a lot, even just with this job interviewing people, and I think that's something that medical contexts and talk show contexts have in common, is like [these] very prescribed roles and very prescribed power dynamics.
Gill-Peterson: Yeah, it's like, you know, I grew up in the 90s watching trans people on Jerry Springer and Sally Jessy Raphael, and that was probably the first exposure I ever had to the idea of trans people. And so the film asks in one part: What if Agnes was on a talk show in the 50s? What if these other people whose transcripts we are digging into, what if they were on a talk show like The Mike Wallace Show? And it doesn't matter that they literally weren't because they were. They were sitting down at UCLA, talking to these really credentialed, well-dressed white guys in sociology. That is a kind of talk show.
And we're still doing that today. I think one of the things that's so intense to watch on screen is you see our actors, you watch Zackary Drucker or Angelica Ross or Jen Richards. You watch them and they know how to be these people from the 50s. Not because they see themselves necessarily in some 1-to-1 relation, but because they know how to play that role. They know how to step on stage, they know how to have the spotlight on them, and they know what it's like to be on the talk show of American culture. And that is a place where trans people are today in some ways even more intensely than they were in the 50s.
Luse: You know, thinking more about this role of the host, Chase, I wanted to ask you about playing the role of that like white cis interviewer. Half medical, "expert," half talk show host. But outside of the re-enactments, you're interviewing Jules and the actors as well. What was it like to play the role of the interviewer in a project that is so much about the dynamics of interviewing?
Joynt: Yeah, so complicated and unsettling to recognize that for all the ways in which I might approach collaboration, using the words like "democratization," these things that feel very true in my gut – ultimately, I am the one making those edits and making those cuts and choosing what Jules offers in the edit. Ultimately, that authority is mine. And there are all kinds of ways I try to undercut that authority even in post-production. But ultimately, I am the person asking those questions, and I have to think long and hard about the ways in which I am reproducing the power dynamics that I am seeking to critique.
And in some ways, Jules arrives as our most trusted interlocutor, someone who is reaching toward the audience to say, "Grab my hand, I'm going to walk with you and help you interpret some of the things that are happening." But what Jules is also doing is holding me to account. By walking toward the apparatus of the film as a subject, someone who sits outside of the UCLA archive and library and says, "This is about me too," I think we all start to kind of join hands in the muck of authority and hopefully unsettle who gets control ultimately at the end of the film.
Luse: Now I want to take a turn toward a different interview subject, someone whose transcripts were found at UCLA. Jules, you said it's hard to sit with Georgia, the only Black trans woman in the transcripts. It's very specific because she's talking to this white cis guy who stands between her and care. What about Georgia's story was so hard for you to sit with?
Gill-Peterson: You know, Georgia has this impossible burden. Agnes's struggle is: "Am I going to make it in America, not just as a woman, [but] as a middle class white woman?" That actually means fading away, disappearing into the suburbs, having a beautiful domestic life, marrying a man and never being seen again. OK. Not to say it's not hard, but that's quite a reward at the end.
For Georgia, the struggle is: "Can I live and be taken seriously as a black woman in 1950s America?" The reward or the arrival point – already shot through with so much difficulty. We're talking about a city of Los Angeles that is profoundly racially segregated in the 1950s. She can't walk down the street safely because police will stop her – dressed very nicely and conservatively – and accuse her of sex work. She can't get a job, she says, as a man or a woman. It doesn't matter how she looks because employment has a color line built in. And so Georgia has a very different life.
But here we are in 2022, and there's been this intense investment in the idea of Black trans women as if they are our culture's redemption. That because they are the most oppressed, the liberation we're apparently promising them will be our deliverance. I think it's incredibly condescending. It drives me up the wall. Black trans women have faced this staggering cultural and political problem for a long time. They have a bunch of ingenious solutions to it, but the public never listens to them. They want to keep them confined in a little box, as ornamental, as tangential, as symbolic, and not as real people. And so how are we going to deal with that in the film? Because we can't deal with it by restoring Georgia. She doesn't exist beyond these transcripts. We can't make there be more Black trans women in the archive. Our job is not to rescue Georgia.
One of the counterintuitive ways to deal with that is actually to let Georgia be a little bit. And so we kind of get towards the end of the film and it's like, OK, well, it sucks that we don't know more about Georgia. It's sad that we don't know the full account of Georgia's story. But the fact that we don't know – maybe that restores a little bit of agency to her. Maybe that gives a little bit of interiority back to her. And maybe we could imagine that she gets the last laugh because whatever her life went on to be, for once, it wasn't an object for us to pick apart and ask, "Oh, how does that make me feel?" Well, that's not what Georgia's life was for. She wasn't for us.
The problem with demanding truth from trans people
Luse: So much of this documentary is about the concept of truth. And something our producer Liam said he thought about while watching this film is that many people talk about someone's transition using the euphemism, "living their truth." Which when we were talking about this, we both were kind of like, "That's kind of condescending and weird." But still, a lot of trans narratives are about trans people either embracing truth or hiding truth. What do we miss out on when that is the focus?
Joynt: I would say, at the easiest and most surface level, we lose the ability to change our minds. And there's something really dynamic and important about growth and malleability and flexibility and change over time, that a narrative that constrains trans people as being in one place at one moment in time and arriving at another place at another moment in time, completely negates the circuitous routes in which we all navigate our lives – emotional, physical and otherwise.
Gill-Peterson: Yeah. I mean, by asking trans people to bear the burden of "living truth," we miss everything. We miss the business of life. We miss the interesting things about being trans. We miss, frankly, every single thing that it is to be trans because "living truth" is an impossible standard. What kind of culture asks people to have to come to a truth in order to be recognized, in order to stand on two feet, and in order to survive, let alone flourish? And who is being asked to do that?
I mean, we live in a culture that loves to pretend that we all have some truth hiding on the inside, but we don't. And so the problem then is, is that trans people are being asked to live their truth because they're establishing what truth means for a broader culture, for a cis culture. We provide the truth of gender. We provide the truth of what sexuality is. We provide the truth of what medicine can and can't do. We provide the truth of what kind of life you're allowed to live. We set the boundaries by crossing them. This is not a way to treat a group of people. And it's frankly not an interesting thing to ask of trans people. I love that we can give up truth in this film because I have to tell you the feeling, for me? It's relief. It's like letting go of the heaviest weight and saying, "Wow, now that I'm not carrying that around, what do I now? What am I doing? What is interesting in my life?" And it turns out it's a lot of things.
Luse: Jules, you said [in the film] that trans people never leave the frame, that they're eternal subjects. What would it look like for trans people to be out of, or behind, the frame?
Gill-Peterson: Wow. To be honest, I don't think we know. And I actually don't think that's what Framing Agnes shows us. I think Framing Agnes sets up the problem. I think Framing Agnes drops us into a few situations where we get really close and it walks us up to this kind of feeling that I know I've had in my life, especially with other trans people, where I'm like, "Hold on, I think we might have just gotten there. I think we might have just lived 5 seconds of the answer to your question." But my brain can't translate that into words. There's nothing weirder for me to say as a professor, as someone who makes a living off of thinking: I can't translate that feeling into language.
And I think that is part of the process of artmaking that we're trying to deal with. It's like we have to invent, not the truth of that, not the actual experience [of] trans people being behind the frame or walking off set, finally. It happens sometimes. It's that it's illegible. It has no meaning in our culture. And that is profoundly disturbing in one sense. It's also elating. It's exhilarating. And so to me, the answer to the question is like, "Well, we don't know. But that's why we need to keep making stuff, right? That's why we need to create better conditions for trans people not to have to live under that constraint in the first place."
So first, it's like turning down the volume. It's lowering that intensity. We can lower that intensity politically by supporting trans people, making their lives more possible. But then we have to start to follow that talent, and let us make things about these dilemmas and start to put words to those incredible life-altering experiences that for so long trans people just carry around in our flesh and blood, in our love, in our anguish, in our relationships, but that are just so unmetabolized and so untapped. And we don't need to make them into things so that people can consume them. We need to do it for us.
And 10 years from now, I hope we're sitting down to talk about a film that has finally kind of gotten there and put some language to it, invented a grammar, and given us some ways to feel through and attach meaning to what we know we're capable of right here, right now – but that just has no formal status yet.
This episode of 'It's Been a Minute' was produced by Barton Girdwood, Liam McBain, Alexis Williams and Corey Antonio Rose. It was edited by Jessica Placzek, Kitty Eisele, and Jessica Mendoza. Our fact checkers were Brin Winterbottom and Sarah Knight. Engineering support came from Josh Newell. Our executive producer is Veralyn Williams, our VP of Programming is Yolanda Sangweni and our Senior VP of Programming is Anya Grundmann.