Christine Jorgensen: The First Transsexual Celebrity

On the 1st of December 1952, the headlines on the front page of the New York Daily read: “Ex-GI Becomes Blonde Beauty: Operations Transform Bronx Youth”. They were announcing the ‘sex change’ of Christine Jorgensen (born George William Jorgensen, Jr.), the first ever person in the United States to have undergone sex reassignment surgery.

The transformation begun in the early 1950s with a hormonal treatment and was followed in September 1951 by the procedure of an orchiectomy (testicle removal). The surgery took place in Copenhagen, same as the penectomy (penis removal) a year later. In a letter to her friends, written after the first surgery, Jorgensen said, “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 marvellous spirits.” (Christine Jorgensen, Christine Jorgensen: A Personal Autobiography).

Jorgensen’s story became an instantaneous hit with the media. After her return from Europe she was made half a celebrity of a freak show format, and half an advocate of the new approach towards sexuality and mutability of sex. “The initial scoop immediately escalated to a frenzy. In the first two weeks of coverage, according to Newsweek, the three major wire services sent out 50,000 words on the Christine Jorgensen story. Reporters cast Jorgensen, who was young and conventionally beautiful, as the personification of glamour, akin to a Hollywood starlet on the rise.” (Joanne J. Mayerowitz, How Sex Changed: A History of Transsexuality in the United States).   

Jorgensen was not the first person in the history to undergo a ‘sex change’. The word, “’Transvestite’ originated in 1910 from the German sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld, who would later develop the Berlin Institute where the very first ‘sex change’ operations took place.” (Prof Stephen Whittle, A brief history of transgender issues, The Guardian, 2 June 2010). There were allegedly two sex reassignment surgeries performed before Jorgensen’s, but her case was different, as she was the first person to have had combined the surgical intervention with hormonal treatment.

The change in Jorgensen’s life was multidimensional. From a man into a woman, from a former US Army member into a charming celebrity, Jorgensen became the first “public symbol of the possibilities of such change”. “What she did was to bring about a radical change in thinking about what constitutes sex and gender. She did not do it by research but by announcing what she did to herself, proclaiming that she had, through surgery and hormones, changed from a male to a female.” (Richard F. Docter, Becoming a Woman: A Biography of Christine Jorgensen).

Jorgensen took part in various talk shows and interviews, in which she successively tried to raise awareness on transgender issues. The interview by Nipsey Russell from 1957 was later used in a theatrical show Christine Jorgensen Reveals. The show premiered in New York in 2005 at the 59E59 Theatres, Dodger Stages and the Edinburgh Festival, and in 2006 won Drama Desk Award for Unique Theatrical Experience. The show is a lip-synched copy of the 1957 interview. Only this time Jorgensen is removed from the TV frame. Her character sits on the stage, exposed to the audience, with a microphone above her head, which gives an indication that she is still within a TV studio environment. But her direct presence, in contrast to the TV presenter who talks to her from a TV screen, makes her more real and more humane than ever. Even though her lips are saying exactly what the original Jorgensen said back in the 1950s, this time her arguments are more direct as stripped of the TV screen barrier. The show gains the character of “something between a docudrama, an elegant drag show, and a sedentary ballet.” (The Boston Phoenix). But most of the show directed by Josh Hecht and starring Bradford Louryk is an intimate confession revealing the truth about the tabu of transsexuality.            

Christine Jorgensen died in 1989 at the age of 62. One of her obituaries stated that, “Her very public life after her 1952 transition and surgery was a model for other transsexuals for decades. She was a tireless lecturer on the subject of transsexuality, pleading for understanding from a public that all too often wanted to see transsexuals as freaks or perverts… Ms Jorgensen’s poise, charm, and wit won the hearts of millions.” (Candice Brown Elliot, 1999)
Film Credit: SplinterGroupNYC