In recent years, issues facing transgender people – homelessness, substance abuse, lack of access to health resources – have been prioritized in mainstream media, and popular audiences have gained wider access to some of the trials and tribulations of trans life. In May 2014, transgender artist and activist Laverne Cox was featured on the cover of TIME magazine underneath the declarative headline “The Transgender Tipping Point”—a move that was heralded by many as a cultural milestone for trans people in North America. Only months later, however, organizers of the Transgender Day of Remembrance released their annual report, which stated that 226 trans people had been reported murdered or missing that same year. These statistics suggest that increased visibility of trans people does not necessarily result in decreased rates of violence and discrimination against the most vulnerable members of the community. While we are in a highly pivotal cultural moment wherein transgender issues are foregrounded, the complexity of these narratives and their impact remain underexplored by the media.
The majority of documentaries about people and communities transitioning between genders rely on a “before and after” format of exposition. Stories from friends and family and fractured memories of the past are used to visually punctuate the differences between then and now. Presenting one person’s story, rather than a story about a group, is a common storytelling method in documentary film production and histories of trans people. For example, the 1993 murder of Brandon Teena – as depicted in Kimberley Pierce’s Boys Don’t Cry (1999) – remains a touchpoint of both news media and Hollywood attention. Similarly, Christine Jorgensen’s interviews on early talk shows in the 1950s are still referenced as the singular turning point in televised trans history. In these stories, trans people are positioned in isolation – untethered from community and family – and therefore ever-vulnerable to harm and exploitation. In reality, trans communities have been navigating and world-building together behind the scenes since before “trans” was a thing. Isolation was, in fact, a narrative produced and patrolled by the media.
Understanding that audiences likely expect a “before and after” story about transition, Framing Agnes switches the logic of the reveal to that of “before and after heightened media visibility.” The project is emboldened by a team of artists motivated to blur the lines between fiction and nonfiction, past and present, in pursuit of a more expansive and nuanced future. We’re willing to perform on a talk show to expose the exploitative tactics of a talk show. Agnes is our camp version of using the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house.
— CHASE JOYNT