Next year will be the 70th anniversary for the world’s first sex change operation, which involved both surgery and hormone therapy. Christine Jorgensen was the first celebrity transgender. Her story speaks to the emerging tensions between science and sexuality in the 20th century.
Christine Jorgensen was born in 1926 as George Jorgensen Jr., ”a frail, tow-headed, introverted little boy who ran from fistfights and rough-and-tumble games”in the Bronx, New York to an American-Danish family. George had ”a typical, white, middle-class upbringing”, but even as a young child, she knew something wasn’t quite right. Disliking all things boyish, the clothes, haircuts and toys, Jorgensen dreamt of having long hair, female attire and playing with dolls. This early clash of personal needs and social expectations caused young George to feel ”unhappy and hopeless” when it came to her identity.
”What people still don’t understand is that the important thing is identity. You don’t transition for sexual reasons, you do it because of who you are.” – Christine Jorgensen
As a teenager, Jorgensen realized that she was, in fact, different. She felt attracted to other boys, usually male friends but kept denying that she might be homosexual. She felt like ”a woman trapped in a male body”, which deepened her personal trauma. In her wish to adjust, to be needed, to belong and to make her parents proud, George Jorgensen enlisted in the U.S. Army right after finishing high-school in 1945.
At that time, American soldiers that identified as LGBT, if exposed, were at risk of being brought to a military court, which usually resulted in them being dishonorably discharged or put in jail. Jorgensen’s brief army career was publicized in the media, which represented her as a heroic transgender American WWII veteran. Jorgensen, herself, was dismissive of the media coverage saying that people had ”a vivid imagination” regarding her army career. ”No guns, no cannons, no walking through the mud”, she said, explaining that she was not even close to combat because she served as a clerk in Fort Dix, New Jersey.
After an honorable discharge from the U.S. Army, Jorgensen moved to Hollywood with the hopes of finding a job as a photographer. Even though she didn’t succeed at her primary goal, she openly talked about her personal turmoil – for the first time – with her close friends. In 1948, Jorgensen left Hollywood and moved to New Haven, Connecticut where she applied for photography classes in the Progressive School for Photography. She also attended Dental Assistant School in NYC. It was during this period that she read Paul De Kruif’s ”The Male Hormone”.
As a result, Jorgensen recognized that the solution to her “problem” might be taking estrogen, so she contacted Dr. Harold Grayson, a well-known endocrinologist. He, however, refused her wish to undergo hormonal treatment and directed her to psychiatric therapy instead so she could ”get rid of female inclinations”. Soon enough, Jorgensen learns about medical research being performed on transsexuals in Sweden. On her way to Sweden in 1950, she took a detour to Copenhagen where she meets Dr. Christian Hamburger, a specialist in rehabilitative hormonal therapy. Doctor Hamburger was the first to diagnose Jorgensen as a transsexual. Jorgensen’s sex reassignment surgery procedures began in 1951 and were completed a year later in 1952. Jorgensen choose the name Christine to honor her doctor.
Even before Christine lands back in the U.S., she was a press sensation. No one knows whether or not she informed the media or if it was a close family friend or a lab technician. Either way, the Daily News revealed her story in December 1952. Her arrival at New York Idlewild Airport (now J.F.K. International) in 1953 was a public spectacle with hundreds of reporters including a police escort. Whether she intentionally caused the attention isn’t important, she embraced it!
Christine Jorgensen’s fame didn’t allow her to have ”a quiet life of her own design”, but it did offer a space for Jorgensen to be a public figure, which she used to educate and advocate for things and causes she cared about. However, the controversy regarding Christine Jorgensen’s vaginoplasty took its toll on her after the media found out that she didn’t have one in Denmark. Christine rarely commented on the details regarding the procedures she had, but the reality is she only underwent the procedure in the U.S. a couple of years later when it became available.
Public appearances were the only way for Christine to earn a living and, while proudly displaying her femininity in a rather traditional way, Christine was banned from television at first, so she started her career as a nightclub performer while also giving lectures and sharing her story. In 1967, she published a chronicle of her life and personal experiences of transition – “Christine Jorgensen: A Personal Autobiography“.
In her interviews and public speaking engagements, especially with young students, Jorgensen often emphasized the issue of relating gender identity to one’s physical attributes. When interviewed by Gary Collins in the early 80s, they discussed all the scientific advancements of the era including heart and liver transplants. Jorgensen said, ”By today’s standards, Christina is a very old hat” – referring to a more metaphysical than the physical aspects of one’s identity. In the same interview for The Hour Magazine, she explained that opting for sexual reassignment surgery with an expectation of avoiding all the challenges and hardships of a gender is not going to change one’s life. ”It’s who you are that is important”, she said.
Christine led a comfortable life, lecturing and performing around the country, but the public often saw her as lonely considering that she had no success in her personal or more precisely romantic life. After being engaged a couple of times, deeply in love with and deeply loved by, Christine Jorgensen stated: ”I am very comfortable with my life. I kind of go very low-key. I’m content with my life. I live on a hill in Laguna, and it takes a horde of lions for me to come up to LA. But, when I do, I always have a great time”.
Even though Jorgensen was not the first person to undergo sex reassignment surgery, she is considered the first internationally known person to have a sex change operation along with hormone replacement therapy. She used her celebrity status ”to control the narrative about her life and advocate for acceptance of transgender people”.
”We seem to assume that every person is either a man or a woman. But, we don’t take to account the scientific value that each person is actually both, in varying degrees.” – Christine Jorgensen, LP Interview with Julius Russell, 1957.
In 1987, Christine was diagnosed with bladder and lung cancer and passed away two years later in San Clemente, California. A few years before her passing, she traveled back to Denmark too, once again, reunite with her doctors. ”We didn’t start the sexual revolution but I think we gave it a good kick in the pants!”
Thanks to Christine Jorgensen for creating her narrative, being a pioneer and living her life as her true self.