Reading Guide to

Reading Guide to: Garfinkel, H (1967) 'Passing and the managed achievement of sex status in an intersexed person' , in Studies in Ethnomethodology, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice - Hall Inc.

Dave Harris

Changes in sexual status are rare and highly regulated. Every day life is highly gendered at a taken for granted level. This case study concerns Garfinkel's work in a clinic in Los Angeles with intersexed persons, usually those with anatomical irregularities, including one in particular -- a '19 year-old girl raised as a boy... [with]... female measurements... accompanied by a fully developed penis and scrotum' (117). For such people, sexual status is self assigned, a matter of personal election. People in the clinic had to achieve the right to medical treatment, to avoid stigma, and then learn to relate to other people in their new sex status. In doing so, they drew on unusual perceptions of the commonsense backgrounds to sexual status. Sexual passing [in the sense of concealing an identity and passing oneself off in another one] shows the strongly structured nature of interpersonal relations, which are normally routinised and taken for granted.

'Agnes' appeared convincingly female, with a conventional figure, no facial hair, and rather small hands and feet. She seemed perfectly at ease in normal female clothing, and her voice and manner were conventionally female. Biologically, she also had male genitalia, and no uterus or ovaries. There was some evidence of female hormonal activity, however. Agnes was raised as a boy until she was 17.

The biographical account she offered showed continual problems with a masculine identity and the gradual emergence of feminine signs. She finally left home, dressed as a girl, and lived in another town for a while where she sought hospital treatment [for a sex-change operation]. Her adult life was fraught with problems especially since she formed a close relationship to a boyfriend 'Bill'. She was offered a sex-change operation, involving castration and the partial reconstruction of female genitalia. While in the clinic, she underwent a number of conversations with Garfinkel [we learned that she was not a volunteer in this research, and Garfinkel himself confesses that he misled her with a bit of passing himself - it is not clear, but I read this to mean that he represented himself as a medical doctor].

Agnes showed a strong 'Practical preoccupation with competent female sexuality', revealed as her strange ability to be objective about what most of us take for granted. Agnes insisted that the conventional sexual divisions were indeed 'natural', legitimate, a moral matter [in the sense of involving social acceptance], and she wanted to locate herself in this natural and moral world. In explaining her views, she describes the signs of a normal sexual status as the possession of appropriate genitalia and the possession of 'appropriate feelings, activities, membership obligations' (123). Sexual identity is seen normally [i.e. by normals] as permanent, assigned on first contact, natural, and this is clearly shared by some physicians too. It is rarely treated as a matter of objective theoretical interest. No transfers between sexual statuses are permitted, except temporary and playful ones [during carnival or masquerades, for example]. Any transfers or ambiguous cases tend be stigmatised, as 'freaks of nature', for example.

Agnes fully accepted these conventional views, which obviously presented problems in explaining and justifying her own transfer. She saw her own masculine sexuality as an error, and claimed that her case was unusually difficult to understand. She was certainly unable to assume any reciprocity with the position of other people. This helped her to claim that it was impossible to generalise from her experience to include other transfers -- she claimed to be unique. Thus she fully agreed that females have vaginas, but argued that she had one that 'should have been there all along... the vagina that the person is entitled to' [this is Garfinkel's account, not a verbatim quote] (127). It was acceptable to repair 'nature', because there had been an error, although Agnes had to struggle with her family about whether a man-made [sic] vagina was 'the real thing' (128). She argued that the surgical vagina confirmed reality, that surgery was seen as merely confirming her claim to being a real female.

Her story was supported by an extensive 'idealised biography' (128). She talked up her femininity and minimised her masculinity, such as claiming that she was considered a sissy as a child, that she never liked rough games, she denied ever having acted as a boy (for example when taking gender roles in dancing), and she somehow had coped with school medical exams. She therefore presented herself as 'a 120 per cent female' (129). Correspondingly, her boyfriend was presented as 120 percent male. Her penis was an 'accidental appendage', never erect, never really even noticed, akin to a 'painful wart that had been removed' (129).

She insisted that her desire was to be female, and she was particularly keen to avoid classification as a male homosexual: she saw that as a degrading identity [she would not have received a sex change operation as a male homosexual either]. Agnes constantly policed that division between herself and male homosexuals, claiming, for example that she found it hard to understand homosexuals, just as 'normals' did. She denied any interest in contacting other surgical transferees too. She valued her desire to be female, and admired her own 'prominent' breasts -- one fear was that these would be amputated instead of her penis. She liked being treated as a female, including liking the way that Garfinkel responded to her as one. She hoped to be a 'normal, natural female', with a permanent and unproblematic femininity. She saw being female as involving a rise in status [and a way of reducing some of the stresses of passing, no doubt, as we shall see below].

There were problems to manage even after having had her penis and testes amputated, however. Some of them were medical problems involving uneven healing and partial closure of the new vagina. This led to what looked like post-operative depression [although we are given an alternative medical explanation by one of the physicians in a footnote, which we shall discuss below].

Social problems including her having to act like a woman, with no way back. The need to pass continued as well, with Agnes having to mask her male background, and her man-made vagina, and to cope with her boyfriend's sexual demands (both before and after the operation). She had had to cope as well with her altered appearance, and in trying to tell her story to the physicians. There were still great risks of discovery, and Agnes had to continue to pay particular attention to how women behave, and to take steps to keep her secrets.

Such passing involved lots of planning and stamina, and a considerable wit, especially in being able to offer 'good reasons' for difficulties, or to be able to avoid difficult situations. These included avoiding any possible close friends for a long time, managing first encounters, especially with her boyfriend, and carefully watching her conversations with the medics. As an example of her management skills, she was able to cope with the requirement for a physical examination in a job interview by deciding to forbid all genital exploration -- if challenged she would explain this refusal as a result of excessive modesty, or just simply walk out without offering any explanation. This dilemma expressed a fairly common choice between keeping her identity secure, and pursuing ordinary goals, such as getting a job: for Agnes, security always came first.

Garfinkel tries to explore these manoeuvres as if they were a game, initially, but then rejects the analogy [partly because he wants to distinguish his position from other interactionists who see passing like this, especially Goffman, as we shall see]. Some of Agnes's passing examples might be game-like, such as the way she was able to avoid revealing her body when going swimming (she wore concealing swimming costumes, tried to change beforehand, and if that was not possible, announced a sudden change in 'mood' to excuse her non-participation). Other examples seem quite strategic, such as when she had to persuade members of her family to keep a secret in front of visitors, or when she took the greatest care over possible dating partners (to make sure that their petting behaviour could be checked out first), or in deciding never to get drunk. On one occasion, fearing that unusual hormones might be detected, she arranged to swap urine samples with a girl friend, and, on another, she got her local doctor to lie about her sex change operation to her employer.

Other examples seem less like a game. For example she had to learn to be a 'lady' over quite a time span. She was surprised by the angry reaction of her boyfriend when she sunbathed in public, or acted inappropriately in company -- she used these occasions to learn about appropriate female behaviour. She also had to manage 'passive acceptance' (147). This involved a continuous project of self-improvement, a 'secret apprenticeship' (147), and this continued even during the interviews with Garfinkel, where she picked up tips from his questions and 'more subtle cues' [the mind boggles about what these might have been!] (147). She had learnt how to avoid questions about her past, by adopting an excessive niceness and modesty, and soon realised that men were often extremely pleased to do most of the talking about themselves anyway.

Thus Garfinkel thinks that these occasions show her actions to be permanent and stressful, not like a game or a limited episode. She had learnt the need to remain inconspicuous, to avoid contact, wear loose clothing, avoid talk, even to follow standard routes to and from school [to avoid risks of new contacts?]. Her brother helped her to cover her feminine attributes [quite literally -- he complained about her feminine appearance and insisted she wear looser clothing!]. Post-transfer, she had to learn to live again with her family, and generally to cope with other situations where too much might be known of her -- she left Los Angeles after the operation, for example.

She responded to some of Garfinkel's questions with ' vagueness and amnesia' (152), such as one which asked precisely when she became prepared to accept her status as 'abnormal', or or how she managed after the operation [and, later, what her sexuality had been like before the operation, whether she had ever felt sexual arousal as a man, and so on]

[At this stage, Agnes's symptoms post-operation become problematic. A medical account of these problems, included in a footnote, mentioned a failure of the new vagina to heal, the partial closure of the new canal, shrinkage of the breasts, and considerable changes in mood after the amputation of testes and the consequent hormone imbalance. The physician diagnoses these effects as an indication that 'a mistake had been made', that Agnes was not a genuine transsexual, but that she had opted for the operation for 'purely psychological reasons'. There had been another source of suspicion that she had induced female characteristics by taking female hormones, and that she had permitted frequent anal intercourse. Certainly hormone replacement therapy seemed to cure many of the post operative problems. Garfinkel does not confirm this diagnosis himself, but there are strong hints that he came to support it as well. If this is the case, of course, it is a compliment to Agnes's passing strategies which apparently fooled even an experienced medical team -- and probably Garfinkel too!].

Bill the boyfriend was at the centre of much of Agnes's activity: he focused all the efforts to pass as female, and he also raised the most serious problems for Agnes -- for example, he wanted to know why no sexual intercourse was possible, at first, and then why Agnes was attending hospital. Agnes tried to cover by telling Bill she was a virgin, and then that she had had medical problems with sexual intercourse, and she even persuaded a doctor to write a suitably general letter about her condition to explain to him. She refused to say how Bill finally got to know that she had a penis. She had been worried that he had been homosexual [and another medic did suspect this, especially following his 'swishy manner' (160)]. Bill refused any contact with Garfinkel.

It is clear that Agnes was also passing with the researchers [it seems like some psychologists were involved too], for example by asking to complete the psychological tests at home. She was able to keep much of her life secret, including whether she had used hormones, how she had lived with her mother, what she used her penis for, how she satisfied herself and her boy friend sexually, and whether she had any homosexual feelings. Garfinkel admits that he was passing too, and gives examples of how he was able to cover his ignorance of medical facts or the legal aspects of sex changes [this would be considered very unethical these days!]. Garfinkel says he decided to bluff 'to preserve the friendship, the conspiracy, and the sense that we were in league with each other, that there were no secrets between us...' (164). He suspected that Agnes wanted help from him to pass the tests in order to get the operation.

Agnes's management techniques are like those described by Goffman, as in his Presentation of Self..., but Agnes was not just involved in a game. She had genuine fears that the doctors would amputate her breasts and not her penis; she insisted on normal views of sexuality, which she took as a given; her actions were not entirely instrumental; she was involved in managing a great deal of inner-time, including 'recollections, remembrances, anticipations, expectancy' (166). Her passing was not episodic but continuous, and this sort of passing is not accounted for by Goffman's work.

Agnes's speech involved the use of euphemism, vagueness, and exaggeration. She spoke in generalities and impersonal terms, feigned misunderstanding, and practiced 'legalism' [involving a strategically literal interpretation of words]. She let the others take the lead in conversation to see which way the wind was blowing --'permitting the environment to teach her the answers that it expected to its own questions' (168). [This sounds exactly like the interpersonal style of modern management!]. However, she would expose herself by checking to see if her answers were acceptable!

Generally, though, she thought out the possibilities beforehand, and did her best to acquire relevant knowledge -- of the types of physical examinations for jobs, for example. She provided information to lead the inquiry away from anything embarrassing [just like freemasonry?], including simply denying that she'd had major operations, on application forms. She told 'little white lies a lot of the time' (169), some prefigured, some improvised. She was very good at assessing the conventional expectations of others and adapting accordingly. She was careful to police any ambiguities about her status, especially as a possible homosexual or freak [and this included challenging Garfinkel's use of apparently speculative terms about sexual identities]. She was very keen to correct any minor misunderstandings, and was very suspicious about any attempt to be playful, to theorise or to be speculative. She wanted to get the operation and avoid another 'nasty betrayal' (171). Generally, she developed a studied casualness, accompanied by inner vigilance.

The sociological implications from this study are that 'routine... [is]... a necessary condition of social action' (172) [and Weber's distinction between formal and substantive rationality is cited here -- I'm not sure why]. It is essential that action is routinised, and this means taking much about social order on trust. An unquestionable background is necessary for rational action, just as in Durkheim's example about the normative context for contracts (173).

The case of Agnes helps us to do more than just diagnose, though [which seems to be another dig at the descriptive tendencies of Goffman] (174). People do manage impressions, but they also need to manage 'structural incongruities'. For Agnes, it was not always a matter of deliberate lying or calculation. She has shown the importance of how much the rest of us take on trust in our relationships with others, by seeing a great deal of the background as problematic. Thus for her, management meant 'coming to terms with practical circumstances as a texture of relevancies over the continuing occasions of interpersonal transactions' (175). She paid special attention to what others saw as 'the facts', and she did this as a practical rather than a theoretical or speculative matter.

She was very precise in dating and regulating matters in the past and in the future. Her future task, becoming fully 'normal', validated all her past efforts in terms of jobs and her relationships with the family. She engaged in constant monitoring and self reassessment both to explain her difficulties and to assess her progress towards the desired outcomes. This forced her to both think about and control large areas of life, such as biography, or even encounters with Garfinkel, all of which were subordinated to the goal. Nothing was to be left to chance: she had no interest in speculation or in the politics of sexual identity, but tested her account as some kind of proof of her grasp of events. She constantly adjusted her own history in a 'skilled, unrelieving and biased' manner (178). Her 'realism' involved heavy interpretations of events and an assessment of their significance for her plans, as means to an end. She over-reacted to small changes and events. She was never secure. She developed no impersonal sense of the correctness of her own performance, but judged herself always against who agreed with her [managers again!]. She verified her views of herself according to what normal females would experience, yet denied that she shared the experiences of other transsexuals or transferees.

Agnes helps to see how normal sexuality is accomplished in 'practicable recognition', using 'seen but unnoticed backgrounds of commonplace events' (180), as a good example of 'indexicality' [roughly, the way in which a single statement is never self-sufficient but always refers to, 'indexes', calls to mind, draws upon a broader context of understanding --see Garfinkel's opening essay in this volume]. Agnes is a 'practical methodologist' (180), 'self consciously equipped to teach normals how normals make sexuality happen in common place settings as the obvious, familiar, recognisable, natural and serious matter of fact' (180). She learned to produce 'natural facts of life', and to help others react naturally, for example in helping in the construction of 'tellable mutually biographies' (181). This indicates that 'normally sexed persons are cultural events... members' practices alone produce the observable-tellable normal sexuality of persons and do so in actual, singular, particular occasions through actual witnessed displays of common talk and conduct' (181).[ This is also a good place to introduce a common critique of ethnomethodology -- it is empiricist and strangely amnesiac with this endless commitment to study actual events and singular occasions. Do ethnomethodologists never generalise? Do participants never generalise?].

Agnes got everyone to agree that a vagina was the natural and right for thing for her all along. Yet hers was not a natural identity but a performed one. For her, normal people also did this performing work, a significant difference from 'normal' perceptions. [Room for another common critique? Apparently, most 'normals' go around unaware of the complexitites of their social lives -- except marginals and ethnomethodologists. Marginals are propelled into insight by their unusual lives -- what propels ethnomethodology?] She attempted to demonstrate a certain continuity in her identity, that she remained the 'self same person' throughout. She did so deliberately, and recognised it as a device. She saw it as 'flattering and innocent' to see normal sexuality as role play (183), far more flattering than accepting the scientific accounts of sexuality as objective in various senses. In this way, she saw her ability to manage her identity as confirming her subjectivity as a 'real and valuable person' (184). She was aware that she was managing what others were taking for granted but not just in the Goffman sense of management of impressions -- there were definite elements of unknown consequences and goals, risks, the absence of clear rules, and thus a necessary unremitting improvisation, and a constant requirement to explain herself.

People require these rationalisations of their past and of each other. Some management and accountability is essential to maintain stable routines, to come to terms with practical circumstances, 'i e social structures of everyday activities' (185). These practical circumstances and accomplishments require '"value stability", "object constancy", "impression management", "commitments to compliance with legitimate expectancies", "rationalisation"' (185).

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