With heartfelt thanks to Kristina Mayhem, the author of this story, for permission to reprint and to Angela Gardner, Publisher of TG Forum, where the article originally appeared.
The transgender movement has a long and rich history and its most important person is Christine Jorgensen. She became a worldwide sensation in 1952 when a sex-change operation transformed her from a man into a woman. People were captivated, as most were unfamiliar with what transgender means. Many were startled to learn a person could change their sex, others were fascinated, and some found a role model to call their own.
Jorgensen’s instant rise to stardom led to a career as an entertainer and made her an authority. Her stage show poked fun at gender-switching, but she defended herself strongly in interviews and writing. She didn’t waver from her right to be a woman, and for others to recognize and respect that right. She was a pioneer who faced many challenges, transcended them, and helped others find strength in a difficult world.
Jorgensen’s fame started with a bold headline on the front page of the New York Daily News. People sat down with their morning coffee to read how an “ex-GI” became a “blonde beauty.” It was a splashy front-page article with before and after pictures that told how an Army veteran changed his sex. Sixty years later, her name has all but disappeared; a sex change is no longer front page news, but she was once the most publicized person on earth and the world’s most talked about figure. Jorgensen went from being a nameless person recovering from sex-change surgery in Denmark to becoming a celebrated figure who set records for newspaper coverage
When her story broke, she could not have imagined how big it would become. She was still recuperating in bed when large numbers of letters, phone calls, and cables started pouring in. One reporter said “All of America is anxiously awaiting a statement from you (Jorgensen, 1967, p. 131).” Everything started when a newspaper reporter named Ben White interviewed her while she was transitioning in Denmark and pursuing her career as a filmmaker (Docter, 2007, p. 119). Because of the controversial nature of the subject matter, it was decided that she would play the role of a reluctant participant. Everything was made to appear like it happened without her knowledge or consent after her family did a reluctant interview.
All this media attention would make one think Jorgensen was the first person to have a sex change operation. The reality is that sex changes began decades earlier in Germany, and by some accounts are a centuries-old procedure. There were already many news stories about sex changes and crossdressing in newspapers before her story broke (Terry, 2012, p. 4). What made Jorgensen’s story unique was the bold headline and large close-up pictures. Her femininity shone brightly, and her physical attractiveness created an added element of interest. She also had a charming personality and an ease in social situations that promoted her appeal.
This was an important selling point for transgender people. The world saw an ordinary person with a benign variation. Her behavior was legitimate, genuine, and based on acceptable principles of reasoning. She said everyone has male and female hormones and no one is completely one gender or the other. People saw that male and female were not polar opposites, and it was a simple logic that was easily understood. She used this explanation so much it became her mantra (Meyerowitz, 2002, p. 97). Her reasoning was grounded in science, and she was firm in her resolution. She once walked off a popular talk show when the interviewer made an undignified remark that questioned her legitimacy. The interviewer spent the remainder of the show sitting by himself explaining his actions (Cavett, 1968).
Historical context gives insight into how Jorgensen’s story garnered the attention that it did. Science and technology played important roles in the Cold War era following World War II. People saw advancements in science and medicine triumph over human nature. Gender beliefs became less rigid as more women worked outside the home, and this opened the way for social change. Political changes such as the sexual revolution and gay-rights became part of the landscape. A hushed subject such as sex could be discussed more openly and a sex-change operation was now part of the discussion. Christine Jorgensen called it the “opening of the sexual understanding explosion (Meyerowitz, 2002, p. 52).” This was also the age of Hollywood and a new starlet who resembled Grace Kelly was on display for people to observe and judge. Jorgensen’s name became synonymous with sex change, and references to her abounded in everyday culture.
Despite this new world and its broader understanding of gender, press coverage was not always positive (Terry, 2012, p. 10). Articles followed the original news story that were skeptical in nature and referred to her in the wrong pronoun. Negative articles emphasized a lost masculinity rather than a newfound femininity, and reflected disillusionment warring with captivation. A competing newspaper published articles claiming she was a woman in name only. Some articles pathologized her, using the differences in opinion to create controversy and generate sales (Terry, 2012, p. 20). A weekly news magazine called Quick said she was not a “real woman” and called her a “mentally ill transvestite.” Time magazine accused her of exploiting her transition to make money (Terry, 2012, p. 13). Her news coverage was usually one of two extremes; complete hostility or total approval, and she was attacked or celebrated depending on which was more profitable at the time.
Christine Jorgensen’s life began on May 30, 1926 when she was born George Jorgensen in New York. She grew up in Manhattan with her parents and an older sister in a working-class socially involved family (Docter, 2007, p. 22). She had a normal childhood, although she was bullied in her early years in school. How much she crossdressed and how much she liked men was uncertain. Her autobiography says she did not dress in women’s clothes until she was an adult, thereby abiding by legal and social proprieties. Given that crossdressing plays a strong part in transsexual development, many find this hard to believe. Other sources say she admitted a lack of candor about her life, and indeed crossdressed in her earlier years (Meyerowitz, 2002, p. 52). Some sources say she wore her sister’s dresses and confessed to a doctor about crossdressing as a youth (Docter, 2007, p. 30 & 257). Some people remembered her as being socially withdrawn, but others remembered her as outgoing, athletic, and confident. The positive traits are the kind important for accomplishments she eventually made.
After graduation, she had a brief stint in the Army and enrolled in college under the G.I. Bill, but was distracted by “ever-present personal problems (Jorgensen, 1967, p. 60).” She was struggling with the kind of traumatic and debilitating problems that transgender people have. She also had questions about her sexuality and reported putting on an acceptable front when asked about dating girls, even though there was turmoil and she searched blindly for answers before coming to terms with her attraction to men. She built a wall around herself and felt isolated, confused, and that life was an affliction. The body of transgender information was much smaller then, and she was unsure of herself. She reports that she did not like falling in love with men, although evidence shows her attraction to men was greater than her autobiography reveals (Docter, 2007, p. 209).
She shared her story with a local physician who recommended abolishing her feminine inclinations, which she did not want to do. She read about similar situations in libraries and was influenced by Paul De Kruf’s book, The Male Hormone. She found solace in his explanations of hormonal imbalances as being the cause, and self-administered hormones she found on her own. European doctors knew more about gender transition than American doctors, so she traveled to Europe in hopes of a remedy. She purchased a one-way ticket to Copenhagen and waved good-bye to her family, who did not know the purpose of her voyage. In Europe she met a doctor who provided the help that she needed. She spent almost three years getting hormone therapy to complete her transition, and then underwent surgery. She began living as a woman after her second surgery, which is when her headline news story broke.
The headline story generated such huge interest that it led to the most important event in transgender history. Jorgensen boarded a plane for the United States and was greeted at a New York airport by three-hundred people. It was a cold day in 1953 when she descended the stairs of her plane as a curious crowd pressed forward calling out their greetings (Docter, 2007, p. 127). It was a disorderly and noisy affair, with cameras rolling and flashbulbs popping as reporters, cameramen, and photographers called out their greetings and questions. She described the scene as chaos and utter madness. This moment ushered in a new age of transgender awareness, with the spectacular beauty, grace, and confidence of a movie star. It was her greatest moment; never before had a transgender person received such recognition and attention.
She made newspaper headlines all across the country and she appeared for the first time in newsreel footage at movie theaters. People were moved by her story because they saw how difficult her situation was. Overcoming such a huge obstacle made their own problems seem small by comparison. People reasoned that if someone could change their sex, then anything is possible. Those who were the most inspired, however, were the transgendered themselves, who now had a celebrated figure to call their own (Meyerowitz, 2002, p. 93). Many didn’t know that there were others like them, and it helped them tremendously (Conway, 2013). Newspaper publishers received letters from others telling similar stories. There were news stories about other transsexuals and a movie on crossdressing and transexualism (Meyerowitz, 2002, p. 90). The only medium that didn’t show much interest in Jorgensen was television, probably because 1950s television was so family oriented.
Jorgenson was now leading the life of a world-famous personality. She was hounded by curious onlookers and reporters wherever she went. It was an insane publicity that determined the direction her life would take. She returned to the United States and lived in her parents’ home in New York, attended charity events and luncheons, and was honored by a Scandinavian group as Woman of the Year. Her heart was set on being a documentary filmmaker, and she had already made a vacation film while transitioning in Europe. She also devoted herself to helping the thousands of others like her, and spent countless hours answering letters asking for advice and referrals. She decided to make a career in showbiz after she met a theatrical agent named Charles Yates, who convinced her of how much money could be made. They put together a live act that played at the many supper-clubs that existed in the United States before the age of television. The act consisted of singing, dancing, and humorous asides, including the song “I Enjoy Being a Girl (New York Times,1989).”
Jorgensen’s act was popular because people wanted to judge for themselves if she was a boy or a girl. She drew sizeable audiences for several years and toured in Europe and South America. It was a self-respecting act that avoided risqué content and pushed aside the negative stereotypes of transsexualism being only about sex. By the mid-sixties, however, her bookings decreased and her publicity started to fade (Jorgensen, 1967, p. 204). She longed for a career as a legitimate actress, and turned down higher paying club acts for small acting roles to advance her goal. She spoke of having movie offers, but her film career never materialized, and her popularity gradually shrank (Biography, 2002, video).
In 1959 Christine Jorgensen made newspaper headlines when she was refused a marriage license by the City of New York. She had accepted a wedding proposal from a man named Howard Knox, but was unable to get married because her birth certificate listed her as male. When she tried to change her birth certificate from male to female, the court refused that, too. Despite this news story being sixty years old, it still has relevance today. Same-sex marriage is still a widely contested topic, and many still experience difficulty getting documentation that matches their gender. Changing documents such as a birth certificate is something that many courts now allow, though it depends on the court and the ways they define gender. Some courts use biological differences and others using identity, appearance, and roles. In some cases, a legal same-sex marriage occurs when one spouse changes their gender (Lees, 1996). In Jorgensen’s situation, she assimilated to heterosexuality, which was an ineffective litigation strategy (Robson, 2006, p. 305).
In the late 1960s Jorgensen released her autobiography. It described her major life events and her show-biz career, and reads as a who’s who of the famous people she met. A promotional tour accompanied its release, with book signings in several US cities. Her book sold half a million copies, boosted her nightclub popularity, and led to a movie deal. The book is unrevealing in that it does not unearth the complexities of her personal life; there are many questions that go unanswered and many important details are missing. When the film went into production, she joined the crew as technical advisor. The Christine Jorgensen Story was released in 1970 to poor reviews. It was a low-budget film that incorrectly showed her making an adult movie. Jorgensen wanted a female to play the lead, but the role went to actor John Hanson. She did another promotional tour in several major cities to promote its release.
In 1970, Jorgensen asked for an apology from Vice President Spiro Agnew after he called another politician the “Christine Jorgensen of the Republican Party.” She said it was with “deep regret” that she asked for an apology and called his statement “unfair” and “unjustified (Spartanburg Herald Journal, 1970).” She was now living in Southern California, having sold the New York home she shared with her parents. She earned money doing speaking at women’s clubs and universities, and she made some appearances on television. She had excellent rapport with her audiences, having honed her experience from years as an entertainer. Her visits generated media coverage and brought her message to a new generation of people. She was still shrinking from public consciousness, however, and by the 1980s her novelty and importance as a transsexual had faded (Docter, 2007, p. 191, 243).
She loved the West Coast and her new home in Laguna Niguel. She lived comfortably on money she earned from her years as an entertainer. She invested in real estate and bought several homes and rental property in the Los Angeles area. She was well-respected among the gay and lesbian community, and participated in fund raising and charitable work (Docter, 2007, p. 248). She was a lively hostess, and opened her home to large parties, sometimes entertaining over one hundred guests. Her annual Christmas-in-July party had an extensive list of notable people, with plenty of food and drink. She dabbled in business ventures and started work on a more revealing autobiography that was never finished.
In 1986, Jorgensen was diagnosed with cancer. She faced the news valiantly and said life owed her nothing (Docter, 2007, p. 251). With declining health, mounting medical expenses, and facing mortality, she confided to friends that she hadn’t received enough recognition (Docter, 2007, p. 255). In his book, Becoming a Woman, Docter feels she exaggerated her significance, relating this to her being teased as a youth. Her judgment was sound and defensible, however, and her assessment was correct. She secured a place in history, but did so beneath a blanket of resentment and hostility. She was a transsexual pioneer who opened doors for other oppressed groups, lived an exemplary life, worked tirelessly for a cause, and made advances that no other rainbow figure has done, and she did this during a more hostile era. Despite this, she lacks recognition the way important members of other oppressed groups do.
In 1988, Jorgensen was an honored guest at a meeting of the International Foundation for Gender Education in Chicago. She usually avoided conventions of this kind, but despite poor health flew from California to speak to an audience of 150 people. Her speech was well received and sparkled with humor (Docter, 2007, p. 251). When she returned home she continued her treatment for cancer, but her health deteriorated and she was forced to sell her home and rent an apartment in San Clemente. In April 1989, her situation became critical, and her final days were spent in a hospital before passing away at age 63. Her ashes were scattered in the Pacific Ocean by friends and relatives in a tearful sunset ceremony (christinejorgensen.org, 1986).
So ended the life of a nationally recognized personality whose flame burned with brilliance for thirty years (Docter, 2007, p. 240). Christine Jorgensen almost single-handedly launched a national awareness of gender identity. She withstood immense public scrutiny, became an international figure, told a story that humanized her, and captured the hearts and minds of millions of people who sympathized with her cause. She was a pioneer, superstar, entertainer, and activist, who showed that being transgender is not immoral or wrong. She said the answer to her problem lie not in suicide or jail sentences, but in life and the freedom to live it (The Legacy Project, Chicago). Despite intense public scrutiny, she lived a dignified life, and showed the legitimacy of her cause. To this day, she is still the world’s most famous transsexual.
Christine Jorgensen on Hour Magazine in the early 1980s.
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