Tuesday, June 18, 2024

A gender-affirming surgery gripped America in 1952: ‘I am your daughter’

A gender-affirming surgery gripped America in 1952: ‘I am your daughter’

When the New York Daily News blared the headline “Ex-GI Becomes Blonde Beauty; Operations Transform Bronx Youth” on Dec. 1, 1952, Christine Jorgensen was still recovering from surgery in a hospital bed in Denmark.

The 26-year-old had sailed there two years earlier in a desperate bid for answers and, at last, had written to her parents to explain why. “Nature made a mistake which I have now corrected,” she wrote, in a letter leaked to the Daily News. “And now I am your daughter.”

Long before “transgender” was part of our shared lexicon, the revelation of Christine Jorgensen captivated the public. In a postwar America with expanding scientific horizons, her transformation raised the fascinating — and, to some, unsettling — idea that one’s sex could be altered.

“News of Christine Jorgensen was a seismic event for trans people. It brought attention to possibilities that many people didn’t know about,” said Susan Stryker, author of “Transgender History: The Roots of Today’s Revolution” and professor emerita of gender and women’s studies at the University of Arizona.

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When Jorgensen was born in New York City in May 1926, the experiments that would eventually help her were well underway in Europe. The Austrian scientist Eugen Steinach had conducted sex-altering experiments on animals a decade before, and the German physician Magnus Hirschfeld built on that work in Berlin, searching for biological causes for those who didn’t conform to conventional notions of sexuality.

Among those Hirschfeld evaluated was Lili Elbe, subject of the 2015 film “The Danish Girl,” who underwent a series of surgeries and died in 1931 of complications from her final procedure. Hirschfeld’s Institute for Sexual Science, caught in the crosshairs of Nazi ideology, was destroyed in 1933 and the contents of its library burned. Hirschfeld was exiled, but his ideas endured.

All this was unknown to a young Jorgensen, who was “keenly aware that I was different from other boys,” she recalled in her 1967 autobiography. Born into a close-knit family of Danish immigrants, she struggled with feelings of “aching loneliness” in her youth, Jorgensen wrote, knowing that she “didn’t measure up to the acceptable standards of a budding young male.”

She was drafted into the Army in 1945, performing clerical work to discharge soldiers at the end of World War II. Working and living amid the “girl-chase” GIs, she “felt embarrassed by them and could in no way share in their enthusiasms,” she later wrote. Jorgensen harbored romantic feelings for a male friend, feelings that remained painfully unrequited.

Reflecting on her time in the Army two decades later, Jorgensen remembered it as a clarifying period that “convinced me more than ever that I wasn’t George Jorgensen, Jr.”

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After she was discharged in 1946, Jorgensen went west, attempting a career in Hollywood. But she was plagued by a nagging sense of unbelonging that geography could not fix. She returned to New York, where she tried to “convince” herself that her photographic work, a favorite artistic outlet, “would be fulfilling enough,” she wrote.

In 1948, she saw a psychiatrist who sought to cure her of her feminine tendencies. But when Jorgensen came across a book on male hormones in a library in late 1948, it “opened a door on a new and shining vista,” she later recalled, giving hope that her feelings had some explanation. The scientific terminology was dense, but it resonated with Jorgensen’s experiences and hinted at tantalizing possible answers.

Jorgensen enrolled in medical technician classes, managed to obtain the potent female hormone estradiol and began experimenting on herself. She learned through a classmate’s physician husband that related treatment and research were taking place — an ocean away.

In the spring of 1950, Jorgensen left for Denmark, where she had relatives, sailing away on a “one-way ticket to a new life.”

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It was there that a Danish endocrinologist, Christian Hamburger, reassured Jorgensen that “your trouble is deep-rooted in the cells of your body,” as she later wrote. He began experimenting with hormone injections, monitoring Jorgensen in meticulous detail, including her daily urine output; she enthusiastically referred to herself as a “guinea pig.” After securing psychiatric and legal approval, Jorgensen prepared for surgery in September 1951, a first of three to complete the process.

“George Jorgensen was never coming home,” she later wrote in the magazine American Weekly. This change meant she needed to obtain a new passport in Denmark. The name she chose reflected the gratitude and fondness she felt for the doctor who had treated her: In May 1952, Christine Jorgensen emerged.

It was also time to tell her parents the reason for her trip, which she had withheld for fear of causing them hurt and confusion. In the letter that was soon to be shared with the rest of America, she reassured them their daughter was “healthier and happier than ever.”

Though her parents struggled to grasp the full meaning, they cabled back: “We love you more than ever.”

When Jorgensen landed in New York on Feb. 12, 1953, she was inundated by flashing bulbs as she stepped off the plane, escorted by police, in heels and a fur coat. Reporters shouted questions.

“Thank you all for coming,” she told them. “But I think it’s too much.”

But media fascination only ramped up. According to one magazine’s tally, Jorgensen and her transition were the most-discussed story of 1953, outranking the execution of suspected spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.

“It’s like the world changed, and new ideas about gender and technology and the engineerability of the self were very current in that time,” said Stryker, the author and professor. “Jorgensen became an avatar of this new post-World War II techno-cultural moment.”

Every inch of Jorgensen was scrutinized. Her height and weight were considered public record (she “NEVER wears a girdle and doesn’t need one,” the Los Angeles Times said), the shape of her legs or lack of facial hair written up in obsessive detail. Every mannerism was analyzed for its degree of perceived femininity.

Speculation was rife, too, about the anatomical boundaries of her womanhood. One New York Post piece, “The Truth About ‘Christine’ Jorgensen,” claimed she was not really a woman because she had previously had male organs; another euphemistically explained that someone like Jorgensen “could be a wife, but not a mother.”

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Jorgensen initially shied from sharing intimate details, but in later years, she grew more comfortable, publicly likening herself to a woman who had a hysterectomy. She also adapted quickly to fame. By 1953, she had an agent and a full nightclub act ready to debut. She toured throughout the 1950s and 1960s, relying on show business for her livelihood.

“I decided if they wanted to see me,” she recalled, “they’d have to pay for it.”

Offstage, Jorgensen received thousands of letters from fans, many grateful they now had a public figure who embodied and had shared their struggles with gender identity.

“Tears came to my eyes as I realized how often the problems of my life have been repeated in others,” Jorgensen wrote in American Weekly. She highlighted a letter thanking her for “the hope you have brought to so many others with whom Nature has played a rotten trick.”

Not all were as gracious. While touring in Washington, D.C., in 1953, she wrote in her autobiography, she was forbidden from using the women’s restroom, foreshadowing a debate that endures to this day. (Jorgensen, in a 1957 interview, dismissed the question of whether women felt there was a “man among them” when she used public restrooms.) In 1965, the Army refused to allow her to perform for troops in Germany.

But the intense publicity, positive and negative alike, spotlighted the medical possibilities of gender-affirming care. In 1954, another American, Charlotte McLeod, made headlines by flying to Denmark for similar surgery. In 1966, the endocrinologist Harry Benjamin — who had studied under Hirschfeld in Germany — published “The Transsexual Phenomenon,” a medical textbook that introduced the term into public discourse.

Without Jorgensen, Benjamin wrote, transgender care “might still be considered to be something barely on the fringe of medical science.”

Legal clarity lagged further behind. When Jorgensen applied for a marriage license in 1959, she was denied on account of her birth certificate. In 1966, a New York court ruled against changes of sex on a birth certificate in the case of Anonymous v. Weiner.

Jorgensen said she didn’t regret her radically unconventional life or her emergence as a cultural figure. “Looking back, all of these wonderful things would not have happened to me if it had been kept a secret,” she told the Los Angeles Times in 1988, months before her death from cancer at the age of 62.

Her personal quest portended sweeping change — something she had sensed from all the way back in Denmark.

“Can you realize what success for me will mean to literally thousands of people?” Jorgensen wrote to friends in 1950. “For I am not alone in this affliction.”

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