Christine Jorgensen was the first person in the US to gain fame for having sex reassignment surgery. She used her celebrity status, despite its accompanying hardships, to advocate for the rights and acceptance of transgender people.
She was born in The Bronx on May 30, 1926 to Danish-American parents. Jorgensen was aware that she identified as female from a very early age. She wrote for American Weekly in 1953 that she disliked boy’s clothes as a child and envied her older sister Dorothy’s dresses. As a teenager, she found herself more envious of girls than interested in them, and felt an attraction to boys. To escape her personal turmoil, she took up photography. Her father, an amateur photographer himself, built a darkroom for them to use. Christine took classes at the New York Institute of Photography but remained a shy, introverted person.
After graduating from high school in 1945, Jorgensen was drafted by the US Army. She served as a clerk in Fort Dix, New Jersey for a year and was discharged after the war ended. In the late 1940s she discovered a book called The Male Hormone at a library, which suggested that the solution to the “problem” of her femininity was to take testosterone. Instead, she decided to pursue an official transition, recognizing herself as a woman, not as an un-manly man or as a homosexual man. She began taking estrogen, but sex reassignment operations were not available in the United States at the time, so Jorgensen traveled to Denmark and began treatment in 1950 under Dr. Christian Hamburger. Hamburger was one of the few doctors willing to recognize that Christine was not homosexual and was genuinely transgender, and he treated her free of charge. She adopted the name Christine in his honor. She kept her transition extremely private for the two years it required her to remain in Denmark. Her story was leaked in 1952 while she was still in hospital in Copenhagen, and she had to deal with massive amounts of publicity and unsavory headlines. “Ex-GI Becomes Blonde Beauty” was the first headline, circulated by the New York Daily News on December 1, 1952. This first leaked story included photos of her both pre- and post-transition, which was a massive violation of her rights to her privacy. Christine returned to the US in 1953, where she was met with a barrage of media at the airport. In an act of both self-preservation and foresight, she decided that she would not be putting herself on display without fees. She told her story to American Weekly magazine. She developed a nightclub act and, according to The New York Times, said, “I decided if they wanted to see me, they would have to pay for it.”
“You don’t do it primarily for sexual reasons, you do it because of who you are.”– Christine Jorgensen on transgender identity
Despite her fame, Christine Jorgensen was severely discriminated against. She never wavered in her transition, but was ridiculed persistently in the press and public, often being the subject of offensive questioning and disparaging jokes. Even in “supportive” articles, she was often back-handedly described as someone that had overcome an illness or a condition. This was the atomic age: the public’s view of science was shifting into one that offered both miraculous solutions and destructive disasters. It is no surprise that Christine’s transition was seen on both sides of that binary. She was denied a marriage license to Howard Knox in 1959 due to her birth certificate listing her as male, and the two were never able to marry. Knox lost his job as a result of the engagement. In spite of this, Jorgensen had some public support and used her newfound fame, despite its challenges, to become an activist. She gave interviews at colleges and on television shows regularly. She was a glamorous woman, and this exuberant display of femininity worked in her favor when it came to receiving general acceptance. The media was full of insensitive comments about every aspect of her gender and sexuality, and presenting as flamboyantly feminine helped quell the remarks about her “masculinity.” At the same time, she made it clear that she viewed gender as being on a spectrum. She often noted that being “100% male” or “100% female” aren’t the only options, and that it is perfectly normal to feel yourself as a combination of both genders. Her autobiography, published in 1967, emphasized her inward changes and growth into a confident person. In 1970, a movie was made of her life. In the final decades of her live, she continued her nightclub acting and activism with rigor.
Christine Jorgensen died of bladder and lung cancer in California on May 3, 1989.
Christine Jorgensen was not the first transgender woman in history, but she was the first to gain notable fame. At the time of her transition in the 1950s, her glamorous appearance was vital to her acceptance. Her outward gender was unambiguous; she presented herself with vibrant femininity. Being a “convincing woman” was, unfortunately, completely necessary to her success. The fact that she was only accepted because of severe conformity to gender standards is very problematic and a poor reflection of society at the time, but Jorgensen should be revered for her courage regardless. She embraced and remained in the spotlight throughout her life, despite the associated hardships, and used this platform to argue for all-encompassing transgender acceptance. Her story and fame helped other transgender people seek out transitional medicine in Europe. Christine Jorgensen was a strong woman who never wavered on her mission to help other transgender people gain acceptance.
Material sourced from:
– Meyerowitz, Joanne. “Transforming Sex: Christine Jorgensen in the Postwar U.S.” OAH Magazine of History 20, no. 2 (2006): 16-20. http://www.jstor.org/stable/25162028.
Christine Jorgensen: A Personal Autobiography (1967)