Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Born Today In 1926, Actress, Singer, Author and Transgender Pioneer, Christine Jorgensen


Christine Jorgensen was born today, May 30, in 1926.  She was an American transgender woman who was the first person to become widely known in the United States for having sex reassignment surgery.

Jorgensen was born under the name George William Jorgensen Jr. She grew up in the Belmont neighborhood of the Bronx, New York City, and later described herself as having been a "frail, blond, introverted little boy who ran from fist fights and rough-and-tumble games."

Returning to New York after military service and increasingly concerned over (as one obituary later called it) a "lack of male physical development," Jorgensen heard about sex reassignment surgery. She began taking estrogen in the form of ethinylestradiol and researching the surgery. Jorgensen intended to go to Sweden, where the only doctors in the world who then performed the surgery were located. During a stopover in Copenhagen to visit relatives, she met Dr. Christian Hamburger, a Danish endocrinologist and specialist in rehabilitative hormonal therapy. Jorgensen stayed in Denmark and underwent hormone replacement therapy under Dr. Hamburger's direction. She chose the name Christine in honor of Dr. Hamburger.

She obtained special permission from the Danish Minister of Justice to undergo a series of operations in that country. On September 24, 1951, surgeons at Gentofte Hospital in Copenhagen performed an orchiectomy on Jorgensen. In a letter to friends on October 8, 1951, she referred to how the surgery affected her:

"As you can see by the enclosed photos, taken just before the operation, I have changed a great deal. But it is the other changes that are so much more important. Remember the shy, miserable person who left America? Well, that person is no more and, as you can see, I'm in marvelous spirits."
In November 1952, doctors at Copenhagen University Hospital performed a penectomy. In Jorgensen's words, "My second operation, as the previous one, was not such a major work of surgery as it may imply."

She then returned to the United States and eventually obtained a vaginoplasty when the procedure became available there.

The New York Daily News ran a front-page story on December 1, 1952, under the headline "Ex-GI Becomes Blonde Beauty," announcing (incorrectly) that Jorgensen had become the recipient of the first "sex change." (This type of surgery had previously been performed by German doctors in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Danish artist Lili Elbe and "Dorchen," both patients of Magnus Hirschfeld at the Institut für Sexualwissenschaft in Berlin, were known recipients of such operations in 1930–31. What was different in Jorgensen's case was the added prescription of female hormones.)

Jorgensen was an instant celebrity when she returned to New York in 1953. The first authorized account of her story was written by Jorgensen herself in a February 1953 issue of The American Weekly, titled "The Story of My Life." The publicity created a platform for her, and she used it to advocate for transgender people. New York radio host Barry Gray asked her if jokes such as "Christine Jorgensen went abroad, and came back a broad" bothered her. She laughed and said that they did not bother her at all. However, another encounter demonstrated that Jorgensen could be offended by some questions. When she appeared on an episode of The Dick Cavett Show, the host asked a question about the status of her romantic life with her wife, Jorgensen walked off the show's set. As she was the only scheduled guest, Cavett spent the rest of that show stating that he had not meant to offend her.


After her vaginoplasty, Jorgensen planned to marry labor union statistician John Traub, but the engagement was called off. In 1959 she announced her engagement to typist Howard J. Knox (at right with Jorgensen) in Massapequa Park, New York, where her father had built her a house in Massapequa, NY after her reassignment surgery. However, the couple was unable to obtain a marriage license because Jorgensen's birth certificate listed her as male. In a report about the broken engagement, The New York Times noted that Knox had lost his job in Washington, D.C. when his engagement to Jorgensen became known.

In 1967, Jorgensen moved to California after her parents passed away. She left behind the ranch home built by her father in Massapequa and settled at the Chateau Marmont in Los Angeles, California for a period of time. It was also during this same year that Jorgensen published her autobiography Christine Jorgensen: A Personal Autobiography, which chronicled her life experiences as a trans woman and included her own personal perspectives on major events in her life.

During the 1970s and 1980s, Jorgensen toured university campuses and other venues to speak about her experiences. She was known for her directness and polished wit. She once demanded an apology from Vice President Spiro T. Agnew when he called another politician "the Christine Jorgensen of the Republican Party" (Agnew refused her request).

Jorgensen also worked as an actress and nightclub entertainer and recorded several songs. In her nightclub act, she sang several songs, including "I Enjoy Being a Girl" and at the end made a quick change into a Wonder Woman costume. Jorgensen continued her act, performing at Freddy's Supper Club on the Upper East Side of Manhattan until at least 1982, when she performed twice in the Hollywood area: once at the Backlot Theatre, adjacent to the discothèque Studio One, and later at The Frog Pond restaurant. This performance was recorded and has been made available as an album on iTunes. In 1984, Jorgensen returned to Copenhagen to perform her show and was featured in Teit Ritzau's Danish transsexual documentary film Paradiset er ikke til salg (Paradise Is Not for Sale). Jorgensen was the first and only known trans woman to perform at Oscar's Delmonico Restaurant in downtown New York, for which owners Oscar and Mario Tucci received criticism.

Jorgensen said in 1989, the year of her death, that she had given the sexual revolution a "good swift kick in the pants." She died of bladder and lung cancer four weeks short of her 63rd birthday.

As a transgender spokesperson and public figure, Jorgensen influenced other transgender people to change their sex on birth certificates and to change their names. Jorgensen's case was also significant because, for the first time, it led to complications over sex and science and the changing definition of sexuality. Gender was thought of as a set binary (where one could only be male or female) that was permanent, but Jorgensen's case questioned that stability.

In 2012 Jorgensen was inducted into the Legacy Walk, an outdoor public display which celebrates LGBT history and people.

3 comments:

Joe Bearnickel said...

Christine Jorgensen was a pioneer. However she is now forgotten by most of the trans community who want to rewrite history.

Sooo-this-is-me said...

Wow, this is amazing to me that this happens so long ago. She must have been so brave, it certainly shows the need to live your life as the gender you feel you truly are.

Bill Christie said...

Glad you brought her up. She really made the headlines as a major pioneer. She made up her mind as to who she truly was and remained classy. Too bad people today know so little about history, even if it affects them directly. Any more, if it doesn't happen at the moment, people are oblivious as to the history that everyone should know.