The Ethics of Intersex: A 1960s Ethnographic Study of a Girl Called Agnes

Georgia O'Keefe's "Music Pink" taken from arthound.net

Agnes was a 19-year old woman with an accidental penis appendage. Studied by anthropologist Harold Garfinkel and written about in a 1967 report titled Studies in Ethnomethodology, Agnes became recognized by her researchers as an example of “passing.” After undergoing a sex transition operation at UCLA in 1959 that amputated her existing penis and transformed it into a “manmade” vagina, Garfinkel’s research presents Agnes’ construction of her own personal history of femininity, draws attention to the secrets she refuses to disclose to anyone, and paints a portrait of a woman raised as a boy and fighting to fit into a society of “normal” gendered people.

At 17, Agnes (then identified by society and her family as a male) left home to live with her grandmother for a month–leaving one day with all of her belongings, changing into “female” attire in a booked hotel room, and creating a new life for herself as a woman. Because she was living in a society that “prohibits willful or random movements from one sex status to the other,” (125) Agnes consciously learned the accepted and expected mannerisms that accompany being a woman. She “passed” effectively–noticed in bars and mistaken for a wife when she ventured out with her brother. She gained a boyfriend and avoided (for as long as possible) the day when she would have to tell him about her “vestigal penis.”

In interviews about her experiences both before and after the UCLA “castration,” Agnes identifies as a natural woman living in an environment that does not recognize her penis as accidental. She is the victim of a mistake made by nature and corrected by man. After the operation, Agnes still fights to conceal her past. She has lived a life of concealment and aversion (hiding breasts as a 12-year old “boy” due to a later diagnosed excess of estrogen) and  claims to have 19 years of her life to “make up for.”

Her stories to researchers are filled with positive overtones and rosy colors. She claims her sex transition was easily accepted by her parents and her boyfriend, and easily constructs a plotline that gives an impression of herself as she wants to be seen. Garfinkel struggles with separating the truth of Agnes’ story from its reality. He seems to cringe at her stories of learning (from her boyfriend) about the norms of femininity–that she should not give her opinions too readily and should fulfill his sexual needs.

Reading through the conflicted and often confusing accounts of Agnes, I was most shocked by her determination to subscribe to the black and white traditional definitions of man and woman. Despite her own personal ambiguous “sex,” she is dismissive of homosexuals and transsexuals. She is extremely uncomfortable when these categories are seen as parallel to her life, and she recurrently refers to them as “abnormal.” She does not want to be classified with “them.”

Unlike many transexuals known to work toward raising public awareness and acceptance, Agnes only wanted to fit easily into the mainstream. She did everything possible to become the media representations of housewives and ladylike women that were ubiquitous in the 50s and 60s (and today.) She didn’t long for a greater social openness or even think that she should not have to hide her “condition.” As Garfinkel explains, avoiding any examinations or inquiries that could reveal the presence of her penis (prior to castration) became a game. Agnes learned the script of society’s stereotypes and rules to a T. This was the act of “passing.”

Reminiscent of the “passing” that occurred during the Harlem Renaissance as light-skinned African Americans reaped the benefits of being acknowledged as white in American society, I was uncomfortable with Agnes’ cover-up. I wanted her to be accepted by society as a woman, but I also wanted society to accept sex and gender more openly. I wanted it to be seen as a choice–to give the opportunity to identify with what Agnes referred to as her “natural” femaleness. Perhaps this is more true in our modern age, but I think that the black and white boundaries of male and female still exist (even if they have blurred a bit.)

Watching an MTV reality show called “Plain Jane,” these stereotypical boundaries are more than evident. A grungy-looking brunette with glasses and a monotone black and baggy wardrobe stands beside a smokey-eyed and stiletto clad British fashionista guru. She walks through a street fair with an ear piece feeding her tips from the glamorous tutor about how to flirt–given advice like “guys like to hear themselves talk! Ask him questions!”

By the end of the show, the formerly drab 20-something has been made into a Va-Va Voom hourglass model in a bright purple dress and honey-colored tresses. She flirts through bright red lips and bats hyper-extended eyelashes. She is a complete success. I look at her as she delicately forks her salad, and I see the stigmatized version of the beautiful woman made real.

I think then about the Irish “Real Rape” stereotype I learned about recently in a policy class at NUIG. Until 1990, men could not be raped. Even today, legislation does not allow for the possibility that a man can be raped by a woman. Until the 1980s, “marriage rape” did not exist in Ireland. This traces back to the idea of women as property–the consent of marriage synonymous with the consent of sex. In 2011, the false belief that rape usually is perpetrated by a stranger, at night, and with resistance from the victim results in cases that don’t fit this outline are quickly dismissed.

We read facts like these (and see black and white stereotypes play out on screen,) and we recognize that they are troubling. And yet, they persist. How could (or should) we change the way society perceives?

Agnes might have told us that we don’t necessarily need to.

The below video is an example of the masculine and feminine portraits given by the media. Its ending sheds light on the many movements that have been developed to work toward a paradigm shift in perception:

Agnes’ story carries with it a twist ending. At the time of her operation at UCLA, it was believed by her doctors and researchers that she possessed male organs, but that her estrogen levels were naturally on the same level as a “normal” woman. They saw removal of the penis as the most “humane” thing to do–particularly because Agnes was experiencing extreme depression at the time. They agreed to perform the procedure with minimal fees if Agnes participated in ongoing follow-up research. Agnes agreed.

Despite years of interviews and research, Agnes still had secrets. After she was finally settled into a new life as a married woman with nothing recognizably “unnatural” about her outward sex, Agnes revealed to one of her doctors that she had been taking very high levels of estrogen since the age of 12. She was a biologically “normal” male until she stole her mother’s pills at this young age. The supplements were taken at just the right time–halting the developments of male puberty and beginning the development of breasts. Scientists believed that her “feminine” skin, breasts, voice, and convincing “passing” were a result of biology. This added knowledge made clear that her transformation was an even clearer choice.

How does this change her story? Does it discount it, or give it even more credibility?

I don’t have the answers, but this week will be full of wondering.

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One Response to The Ethics of Intersex: A 1960s Ethnographic Study of a Girl Called Agnes

  1. Pingback: Loving Livvy | growingupinamerica

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