Monday, 31 July 2017

Christine Jorgensen, the first transgender celebrity in the U.S.

"I am still the same old “Brud,” but Nature made a mistake, which I have had corrected, and I am now your daughter."
Christine Jorgensen

"Jorgensen eventually moved from current event to yesterday's news, but as other stories of sex change appeared and reappeared, the media reminded the public that manhood, womanhood, and the boundaries between them were neither as obvious nor as impermeable as they once had seemed."
Meyerowitz, 2002

Christine Jorgensen (1926-1989) was born George William Jorgensen Jr. and became the first "transgender celebrity" in the U.S. As a teenager, Jorgensen became aware that he was trapped in the wrong body and identified himself "as a woman who happened to be in a man's body" or was "lost between the two sexes". In the 1940s, he came across an article about the Danish doctor Christian Hamburger who experimented with gender therapy by testing hormones on animals. After having served in the Army, Jorgensen headed to Copenhagen. There, Hamburger diagnosed him as transsexual and encouraged George William Jorgensen to take on a female identity and to dress as a woman in public. Jorgensen started taking hormones in 1950 and was also assessed by Georg Stürup, a psychiatrist who successfully petitioned the Danish government "to allow castration for the purposes of the operation." After one year of hormone therapy, Jorgensen "went under the knife"; the transition was completed in 1952 (via and via).

Jorgensen took her surgeon's forename to form her own name and returned to the U.S. as Christine Jorgensen, where she was greeted with fascination, admiration, curiosity and respect by the media and the public. Hundreds of reporters were waiting for her at the airport "ignoring even the presence of a member of the Danish royal family on the same airplane". Tabloids sensationalised her transsexualism ("Ex-GI Becomes Blonde Beauty"). She had a series in the American Weekly that ran five weeks, five weeks during which the greatest circulation boost was reported; it became the number-one story of 1953. The series was translated into fourteen languages and distributed in seventy nations (Meyerowitz, 2002). The German "Der Spiegel" was rather sceptical. Its article from January 1955 read that GI George Jorgensen was alleged to be transformed into a woman.
At the beginning, there was hardly any hostility. Jorgensen, in fact, became a celebrity with hundreds of offers to appear on stages. She became an entertainer and performer in Las Vegas, Hollywood and New York, worked with professionals who explored "the transsexual phenomenon", lectured on the college circuit, wrote an autobiography that became a movie a few years later (via and via and via and via). She managed to turn "sex change" into a household term in the 1950s and became "Woman of the Year" (an award given by the Scandinavian Societies of Greater New York). With her story, the floodgates broke and a "torrent of new stories on other transsexuals made sex change a constant feature in the popular press" (Meyerowitz, 2002).
"After a few months, it became clear that Jorgensen had no desire to be a mother, and thus many called her womanhood into question. People became angry and frightened when confronted with a sexual identity that existed on a spectrum, not the male-female binary." (via)
Her popularity did not protect her from discrimination. Some reporters called her a freak or a pervert. Others observed her searching for "markers that connoted feminine and masculine, to articulate consciously the criteria that cast the person-on-the-street as either a woman or a man." One reporter admitted: "Since I knew she had once been a man, perhaps I was looking for masculine traits." A reporter of the New York Daily News wrote that Christine Jorgensen "husked 'Hello' and tossed off a Bloody Mary like a guy", commented the small size of her breasts and continued: "If you shut your eyes when she spoke you would have thought a man was talking. But her gestures with a cigaret were gracefully feminine. Her legs ... were smooth and trim. However, the planes of her face were flat and hard ... There was no hint of a beard." It was not only reporters who were not sure about her gender. The American Medical Association said that they would study her case as several doctors had questioned whether "it actually is possible for a man to be changed into a woman." When US-American doctors expressed outrage at the "mutilating surgery", the New York Post ran a six-part series claiming that she was a woman in name only and in fact a castrated male with no added female organs. Time magazine called her "an altered male", so did Newsweek and other magazines. Hostile stories began showing up. However, they could not really damage her popularity (Meyerowitz, 2002).
In 1959, she made headlines when she was denied a license to marry since her birth certificate said she was male (via). Her fiancé Howard J. Knox, a labour union statistician, was reported to have lost his job as soon as his engagement with Jorgensen became publicly known (via).
"By the custom of the day, which few questioned at the time, only a woman could marry a man. Where did Jorgensen, who had changed her assigned sex, fit into the categories of female and male? City Clerk Herman Katz, with six staff attorneys, eventually pointed to Jorgensen's birth certificate, which designated her sex a male. Jorgensen, backed by a lawyer of her own, produced her passport, which listed her sex as female, and a letter from her doctor, Harry Benjamin, attesting that 'she must be considered female'. The city of New York refused to issue the license. On April 4 the New York Times described the situation: 'Christine Jorgensen, an entertainer, was denied a marriage license yesterday on the ground of inadquate proof of being a female." (Meyerowitz, 2002)
Jorgensen, who never identified as gay, kept emphasising the difference between homosexual and transsexual - something new at the time. Before her transition, she even found homosexuality immoral as it was "a thing deeply alien" to her "religious attitudes and the highly magnified and immature moralistic views" she entertained at the time. In addition, she also feared "social segregation and ostracism" (Meyerowitz, 2002).

"Fear became part of me. Fear of being wrong. Fear of not fitting into a pattern."
Christine Jorgensen, cited in Meyerowitz (2002)

"We didn't start the sexual revolution but I think we gave it a good kick in the pants!"
Christine Jorgensen

"I read The Well of Loneliness not long ago. It made me more determined than ever to fight for this victory. The answer to the problem must not lie in sleeping pills and suicides that look like accidents, or in jail sentences, but rather in life and the freedom to live it."
Christine Jorgensen

"No one is 100 percent male or female. We all have elements of both male and female in our bodies. I just am more of a woman than I am a man."
Christine Jorgensen

"I think that much that has been classified as abnormal for many years is becoming accepted as normal."
Christine Jorgensen, cited in Meyerowitz (2002)

"During World War II women had temporarily taken on jobs and responsibilities traditionally held by men. And psychiatrists for the armed forces had worried publicly about what they saw as deficient masculinity in surprising numbers of male recruits. In the postwar era the anxieties surrounding shifting gender roles broke into over cultural contests, with conservatives nostaligally invoking a golden age when women were women and men were men. Popular magazines began to describe a "crisis in masculinity", noted the growing number of women in the labor force, and fretted over the fragility of "sex roles."
In this context, the press reports on Jorgensen, with their endless comments on her appearance, enabled a public reinscription of what counted as masculine and feminine. But the story itself, in which an "ex-GI" became a "blonde beauty", inevitably undermined the attempt to restabilize gender through stereotype. Jorgensen posed, more fundamentally, the questions of how to define a woman and how to define a man. The coverage could provoke anxiety about the collapse of the seemingly natural categories of male and female, and it could also incite fantasies of crossing the boundary that divided women from men." (Meyerowitz, 2002)

- Meyerowitz, J. (2002) How Sex Changed. A History of Transsexuality in the United States. Cambridge & London: Harvard University Press
- photographs via and via and via and via


- The Christine Jorgensen Story (1970): WATCH
- From Christine Jorgensen to Jan Morris: LINK
- America's Original Transgender Sweetheart: LINK