Jorgensen in 1954
George William Jorgensen Jr.
May 30, 1926
|Died||May 3, 1989 (aged 62)|
|Occupation||Actress, night club singer|
|Known for||Pioneering gender reassignment|
Christine Jorgensen (May 30, 1926 – May 3, 1989) was an American transgender woman who was the first person to become widely known in the United States for having sex reassignment surgery. Jorgensen grew up in the Bronx, New York City. Shortly after graduating from high school in 1945, she was drafted into the U.S. Army during World War II. After her military service, she attended several schools and worked; it is during this time she learned about sex reassignment surgery. Jorgensen traveled to Europe, and in Copenhagen, Denmark, obtained special permission to undergo a series of operations beginning in 1952.
She returned to the United States in the early 1950s and her transition was the subject of a New York Daily News front-page story. She became an instant celebrity, known for her directness and polished wit, and used the platform to advocate for transgender people. She also worked as an actress and nightclub entertainer and recorded several songs. Christine often lectured on the experience of being transgender and published an autobiography in 1967.
Jorgensen was baptised George William Jorgensen, Jr, the second child of carpenter and contractor George William Jorgensen, Sr., and his wife Florence Davis Hansen. She was raised in the Belmont neighborhood of the Bronx, New York City. Jorgensen later described herself as having been a "frail, blond, introverted little boy who ran from fistfights and rough-and-tumble games".
Jorgensen graduated from Christopher Columbus High School in 1945 and was soon drafted into the U.S. Army at the age of 19. After being discharged from the Army, Jorgensen attended Mohawk Valley Community College in Utica, New York, the Progressive School of Photography in New Haven, Connecticut, and the Manhattan Medical and Dental Assistant School in New York City. She also worked briefly for Pathé News.
Returning to New York after military service, and increasingly concerned over, as one obituary later called it, a "lack of male physical development", Jorgensen heard about sex reassignment surgery. She began taking estrogen in the form of ethinylestradiol and started researching the surgery with the help of Joseph Angelo, the husband of a classmate at the Manhattan Medical and Dental Assistant School. Jorgensen intended to go to Sweden, where the only doctors in the world who then performed the surgery were located. During a stopover in Copenhagen to visit relatives, she met Christian Hamburger, a Danish endocrinologist and specialist in rehabilitative hormonal therapy. Jorgensen stayed in Denmark and underwent hormone replacement therapy under Hamburger's direction. She chose the name Christine in honor of Hamburger.
She obtained special permission from the Danish Minister of Justice to undergo a series of operations in that country. On September 24, 1951, surgeons at Gentofte Hospital in Copenhagen performed an orchiectomy on Jorgensen. In a letter to friends on October 8, 1951, she referred to how the surgery affected her:
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 marvelous spirits.
In November 1952, doctors at Copenhagen University Hospital performed a penectomy. In Jorgensen's words, "My second operation, as the previous one, was not such a major work of surgery as it may imply."
She returned to the United States and eventually obtained a vaginoplasty when the procedure became available there. The vaginoplasty was performed under the direction of Angelo, with Harry Benjamin as a medical adviser. Later, in the preface of Jorgensen's autobiography, Harry Benjamin gave her credit for the advancement of his studies. He wrote, "Indeed Christine, without you, probably none of this would have happened; the grant, my publications, lectures, etc."
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The New York Daily News ran a front-page story on December 1, 1952, under the headline "Ex-GI Becomes Blonde Beauty", announcing (incorrectly) that Jorgensen had become the recipient of the first "sex change". This type of surgery had previously been performed by German doctors in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Dorchen Richter and Danish artist Lili Elbe, both patients of Magnus Hirschfeld at the Institut für Sexualwissenschaft in Berlin, were known recipients of such operations in 1930–31. What was different in Jorgensen's case was the added prescription of female hormones.
Jorgensen was an instant celebrity when she returned to New York in February 1953. Soon after her arrival, she launched a successful nightclub act and appeared on TV, radio, and theatrical productions. The first of a five-part authorized account of her story was written by Jorgensen herself in a February 1953 issue of The American Weekly, titled "The Story of My Life" and in 1967, she published her autobiography, Christine Jorgensen: A Personal Autobiography, which sold almost 450 thousand copies.
The publicity following her transition and gender reassignment surgery became "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."
New York radio host Barry Gray asked her if jokes such as "Christine Jorgensen went abroad, and came back a broad" bothered her. She laughed and said that they did not bother her at all. However, another encounter demonstrated that Jorgensen could be offended by some questions. When she appeared on an episode of The Dick Cavett Show, the host asked a question about the status of her romantic life with her wife, Jorgensen walked off the show's set. As she was the only scheduled guest, Cavett spent the rest of that show stating that he had not meant to offend her.
After her vaginoplasty, Jorgensen planned to marry labor union statistician John Traub, but the engagement was called off. In 1959 she announced her engagement to typist Howard J. Knox in Massapequa Park, New York, where her father had built her a house after her reassignment surgery. However, the couple were unable to obtain a marriage license because Jorgensen's birth certificate listed her as male. In a report about the broken engagement, The New York Times reported that Knox had lost his job in Washington, D.C., when his engagement to Jorgensen became known.
After her parents died, Jorgensen moved to California in 1967. She left behind the ranch home built by her father in Massapequa and settled at the Chateau Marmont in Los Angeles, California, for a period of time. It was also during this same year that Jorgensen published her autobiography, Christine Jorgensen: A Personal Autobiography, which chronicled her life experiences as a transsexual and included her own personal perspectives on major events in her life.
During the 1970s and 1980s, Jorgensen toured university campuses and other venues to speak about her experiences. She was known for her directness and polished wit. She once demanded an apology from Vice President Spiro T. Agnew when he called Charles Goodell "the Christine Jorgensen of the Republican Party". (Agnew refused her request.)
Jorgensen also worked as an actress and nightclub entertainer and recorded several songs. In summer stock, she played Madame Rosepettle in the play Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mamma's Hung You in the Closet and I'm Feelin' So Sad. In her nightclub act, she sang several songs, including "I Enjoy Being a Girl", in which, at the end, she made a quick change into a Wonder Woman costume. She later recalled that Warner Communications, owners of the Wonder Woman character's copyright, demanded that she stop using the character; she did so, and instead used a new character of her own invention, Superwoman, who was marked by the inclusion of a large letter S on her cape. Jorgensen continued her act, performing at Freddy's Supper Club on the Upper East Side of Manhattan until at least 1982, when she performed twice in the Hollywood area: once at the Backlot Theatre, adjacent to the discothèque Studio One, and later at The Frog Pond restaurant. This performance was recorded and has been made available as an album on iTunes. In 1984, Jorgensen returned to Copenhagen to perform her show and was featured in Teit Ritzau's Danish transsexual documentary film Paradiset er ikke til salg (Paradise Is Not for Sale). Jorgensen was the first and only known trans woman to perform at Oscar's Delmonico Restaurant in downtown New York, for which owners Oscar and Mario Tucci received criticism.
Jorgensen said in 1989, the year she died, that she had given the sexual revolution a "good swift kick in the pants". She died of bladder and lung cancer four weeks short of her 63rd birthday. Her ashes were scattered off Dana Point, California.
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Jorgensen was faced with a world that placed strong societal emphasis on adhering to gender binaries and strict notions of masculinity and femininity. When Jorgensen was first exposed to the book The Male Hormone in the 1940s, the same traditional ideas of masculinity were reinforced through its pages. As the book posed, masculinity could be restored to individuals by utilizing male hormones. It was then that Jorgensen realized that the attitudes of the book were not aligned with her personal experiences and questions about gender identity. She refused to dismiss her personal sentiments and questions as confusion about sexuality and began taking estrogen. The significance of Jorgensen choosing this path was one of the first stages of transgender identity being legitimized and explored as a subject for both Jorgensen and the American public. Jorgensen's highly publicized transition helped bring to light gender identity and shaped a new culture of more inclusive ideas and accepting notions about the subject.
As a transgender spokesperson and public figure, Jorgensen influenced other transgender people to change their sex on birth certificates and to change their names. Jorgensen's case was also significant because, for the first time, it led to complications over sex and science and the changing definition of sexuality. Gender was thought of as a set binary (where one could only be male or female) that was permanent, but Jorgensen's case questioned that stability. Gender was not the set binary as people once thought of it, and doctors were redefining gender with the term "psychological sex". This new "psychological sex" showed that psychologically, one might not relate to one's biological sex.
Jorgensen was an example of the new definition; her gender was not a result of her biological sex. The question of what determined sex emerged, and the spectrum of sexual identity included chromosomes, genitalia, and body actions. This spectrum was not very clear, nor definitive; people did not know which of the three determined someone's sex. Due to Jorgensen's surgery, her definition of sexual identity changed, and this led the challenge to the public thinking about the definition of biological sex. The topic was complicated overall, as doctors tried to define and reclassify sexuality, but that did not come easily. For example, doctors tried to distinguish transsexuality from transvestism and homosexuality, but at the same time also tried to decontextualize them to make it simpler for people to understand. Traditional gender norms were questioned, and Jorgensen reinforced what it meant to be a woman despite her birth sex as she fulfilled and embodied the notions of femininity. She saw herself as a founding member in what became known as the "sexual revolution". Jorgensen stated in a Los Angeles Times interview, "I am very proud now, looking back, that I was on that street corner 36 years ago when a movement started. It was the sexual revolution that was going to start with or without me. We may not have started it, but we gave it a good swift kick in the pants."
In 2014, Jorgensen was one of the inaugural honorees in the Rainbow Honor Walk, a walk of fame in San Francisco's Castro neighborhood noting LGBTQ people who have "made significant contributions in their fields".
In June 2019, Jorgensen was one of the inaugural 50 American "pioneers, trailblazers, and heroes" included on the National LGBTQ Wall of Honor within the Stonewall National Monument (SNM) in New York City's Stonewall Inn. The SNM is the first U.S. national monument dedicated to LGBTQ rights and history, and the wall's unveiling was timed to take place during the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots.
In popular culture
Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, during his earlier career as a calypso singer under the name The Charmer, recorded a song about Jorgensen, "Is She Is or Is She Ain't". (The title is a play on the 1940s Louis Jordan song, "Is You Is or Is You Ain't My Baby".)
Posters for the Ed Wood film Glen or Glenda (1953), also known as I Changed My Sex and I Led Two Lives, publicize the movie as being based on Jorgensen's life. Originally producer George Weiss made her some offers to appear in the film, but these were turned down.
In Christine Jorgensen Reveals, a stage performance at the 2005 Edinburgh Festival Fringe, Jorgensen was portrayed by Bradford Louryk. To critical acclaim, Louryk dressed as Jorgensen and performed to a recorded interview with her during the 1950s while video of Rob Grace as comically inept interviewer Nipsey Russell played on a nearby black-and-white television set. The show went on to win Best Aspect of Production at the 2006 Dublin Gay Theatre Festival, and it ran Off-Broadway at New World Stages in January 2006. The LP was reissued on CD by Repeat The Beat Records in 2005.
Transgender historian and critical theorist Susan Stryker directed and produced an experimental documentary film about Jorgensen, titled Christine in the Cutting Room. In 2010 she also presented a lecture at Yale University titled "Christine in the Cutting Room: Christine Jorgensen's Transsexual Celebrity and Cinematic Embodiment". Both works examine embodiment vis-à-vis cinema.
The 2016 book Andy Warhol was a Hoarder: Inside the Minds of History's Great Personalities, by journalist Claudia Kalb, devotes a chapter to Jorgensen's story, using her as an example of gender dysphoria and the process of gender transition in its earliest days.
- April Ashley, second publicized British citizen to undergo SRS
- Coccinelle, first publicized French citizen to undergo SRS
- Roberta Cowell, first publicized British citizen to undergo SRS
- Lili Elbe, first publicized Danish citizen to undergo SRS
- Charlotte Frances McLeod, second American woman to undergo SRS in Denmark
- Maryam Khatoon Molkara, first publicized Iranian citizen to undergo SRS
- Xie Jianshun, Taiwanese intersex soldier who was often called "Chinese Christine"
- "21 Transgender People Who Influenced American Culture". Time Magazine.
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- Works cited
- Jorgensen, Christine (1967). Christine Jorgensen: A Personal Autobiography. New York, New York: Bantam Books. ISBN 978-1-57344-100-1.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
- BBC article about Christine Jorgensen, November 2012
- GLTBQ.com article: Christine Jorgensen
- Christine Jorgensen Website, with newsreel footage, songs, and other performances
- Christine Jorgensen on IMDb
- Christine Jorgensen at Find a Grave
- Christine Jorgensen, A Transsexual Media Sensation, Transgender Zone Media Archives.
- Christine Jorgensen Collection (Digital Transgender Archive)