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21 November 2008

What happened to ... Agnes (1939 -).

Agnes (a pseudonym) grew up the youngest of four children in a Catholic working-class family. Her machinist father died when she was eight. The mother did semi-skilled work in an aircraft plant to raise the children.

From the age of twelve Agnes took her mother's post-hysterectomy estrogen pills and feminized her body. At 17 she was living as a woman. She was tested in Portland Oregon, and found to have XY chromosomes, and neither a uterus nor the hypothesized tumor that might produce estrogen.

In 1958 she was working as a typist for an insurance company, and had a boyfriend. His insistence on intercourse and marriage led to a series of quarrels, and she disclosed her details to him. The affair continued.

She was referred to Dr Robert Stoller at the University of California at Los Angeles Medical Center, and interviewed by him, Dr Alexander Rosen, a psychologist, and Harold Garfinkel, a sociologist interested in the way sex (gender as it would later be called) works in society.

Agnes was taken to be an example of testicular feminization syndrome. She refused to meet or be classified with any other trans person or any homosexuals. She was vigorously conventional (heteronormative) in her opinions on sexual matters. Agnes refused to discuss certain topics, and as she refused to let the doctors interview her family, this led to some suspicions being raised. Stoller and his colleagues did discuss whether she had taken external estrogens, but they decided that she was conventionally feminine, as opposed to the “caricature” and “hostility” found in transvestites and transsexuals, and therefore must be genuine.

She was recommended for surgery as an intersex patient, at a time when such surgery was regularly denied to transsexuals. Surgery was done in 1959 by a team of doctors including Elmer Belt. Stoller presented his findings at the 1963 International Psychoanalytic Congress in Stockholm; Garfinkel included an extensive chapter on Agnes in his pioneering 1967 book on Ethnomethodology.

Post-operative infection of and partial closure of her vagina, weight loss that led to a reduction in breast size, and unpredictable mood changes led to problems with her boyfriend.

In 1966 Agnes confessed to Stoller that she had indeed taken external estrogens. This did cause Stoller to doubt his own theories. He retracted his earlier findings at the 1968 International Psychoanalytic Congress in Copenhagen.
  • A.D Schwabe, David H. Solomon, Robert J. Stoller & John P. Burnham. “Pubertal Feminization in a Genetic Male with Testicular Atrophy and Normal Urinary Gonadotropin”. Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism. 22, 8 Aug 1962: 839-845.
  • Harold Garfinkel and Robert Stoller. “Passing and the managed achievement of sex status in an ‘intersexed’ person”. Studies in Ethnomethodology. Prentice Hall, Inc 1967: 117-185. Online at:
  • Leia Kaitlyn Armitage. “Truth, Falsity, and Schemas of Presentation: A Textual Analysis of Harold Garfinkel's Story of Agnes”. The Electronic Journal of Human Sexuality. 4, April 29, 2001.
  • Joanne Meyerowitz. How Sex Changed: A History of Transsexuality in the United States. Cambridge, Ma, London: Harvard University Press. 363 pp 2002: 159-161.

This is a really great story. The self-appointed experts and gatekeepers are outwitted by a 19-year old girl.

"Agnes" managed to keep her real name - the female one as well as her birth name - out of the press. Once she had finished at the UCLA Medical Center she disappeared from history. She will now be 69 and presumably retired. Agnes, if you do read this, many people would like to know what happened to you afterwards.

It is sad that she did not want to meet any other transsexuals. Her journey must have been very lonely.
I was put off by the conventionality of Agnes' opinions as reported by Garfinkel, but I had to remind myself that a) it was 1959 b) she is a pioneer in telling the doctors what they want to hear, and does not know just what will work.

Stoller - unlike Money especially - had the honesty to return to his professional peers and admit that he had been wrong.

There is nothing on Agnes in Lillian Faderman & Stuart Timmons, Gay L.A.: A History of Sexual Outlaws, Power Politics, and Lipstick Lesbians, which there should have been, but then the book also has nothing on Edward Wood either.


Anonymous said...

I have to question one detail in this article, birth control pills were not available until 1960, when Agnes would have been 21.

Perhaps her mother was taking estrogen for menopausal symptoms, which was available at the time.

Zagria said...

You are perfectly right. I have altered the posting in correction

Anonymous said...

Diethylstibestrol was the estrogen in question, the notorious DES blamed for cervical cancer. My relatives were with the company that made it, so I noticed when it was mentioned in a (Stoller?) book many years ago.

Anonymous said...

The common trade or label name for diethylstilbestrol was 'Stilbestrol,' the drug that Agnes and Stoller describe in one of your linked articles:

JS said...

FYI I was also "interviewed" and treated by Stoller and his team around this same time period. I found him and his team extremely arrogant and frankly ignorant. I was fortunate enough to have avoided any extensive treatment by these fools.

I am just slightly younger than "Agnes" and I am happy to report that they never knew my real name. I have been living happily with absolutely no mention of my history or experience anywhere.

PS To my knowledge,I have never met any transsexuals either. My life has been anything but lonely.

I am sure that you might be surprised to learn that there are tens of thousands of us living quiet successfully normal lives throughout the world without anybody's "help" or 'knowledge.