On December 1, 1952, the headline Ex-GI Becomes Blonde Beauty dominated the front page of New York’s Daily News.1 This was the first introduction many Americans had to Christine Jorgensen, who twenty-six years earlier was born with male genitalia and named George Jorgensen, Jr.2 A few months after Christine first graced the front page of the Daily News, she returned to the United States, having received sexual realignment surgery and hormone treatments in Copenhagen, Denmark. Upon stepping off her return flight, Christine Jorgensen was greeted by reporters and gawkers alike. Americans were captivated by her, and wanted to learn more. Christine’s open discussion of her gender reassignment surgery forced the American public to question their preconceived notions of gender and sex. “People turn to science, trying to use the biological criteria for male to define a man and the biological criteria for female to define a woman. However, the definition of social rests with society, not science, and social can’t be made to coincide with biological categories.”3 Her embrace of the spotlight and frank nature about what drove her to transition made Christine a trailblazer in the field of Transgender Studies.4 Christine’s public transition also marked a watershed moment in history for transgender people.
Transgender, sometimes referred to as trans, is a term for an individual whose identity or self-expression does not match their assigned gender.5 Christine underwent surgery to realign her physical self with her biological self. She had ongoing hormone treatments to help with that realignment as well.6 Christine knew she was a woman long before she underwent surgery or hormone injections. That is why, when speaking of George—even pre-gender realignment—or Christine-after her return from Denmark—she will be referred to using the pronouns “she” and “her.”
Shortly after graduating from high school in 1944, George was drafted into the U.S. Army. The Army stationed George at Fort Dix in New Jersey to help process thousands of Army veterans back into civilian life. In 1946, after her discharge, George spent a year in Hollywood and tried her hand at professional photography. While in Hollywood, she stayed with her old friend, June Jensen, and June’s friend from Denmark, Helen Johnson. Helen Johnson would later play a large part in Christine’s transition. The three of them often stayed up late into the night talking. These talks led George to vocalize her feelings for the first time. She told her two friends about her homoerotic feelings, and, very importantly, of her desire to live as a woman.7 Raised as a boy, Christine recounted for her friends that while growing up, she struggled with what she described as “an ineffable, inexorable, and increasingly unbearable yearning” to live her life as a woman.8 She did her best to articulate her attraction to men as something not akin to the way another man would be, but instead to the way a woman was attracted to a man. George was disgusted by the thought of someone mistaking her for a male homosexual. Not much later, Helen moved back to Denmark and June remarried. George was left feeling hopeless and decided to return to her parents’ house in the Bronx.9
Once there, George enrolled at the New York Academy of Medicine, and worked at the local Throggs Neck Public Library. She did these things to pass the time while fighting feelings of detachment from herself. The monotony of this continued until the day she was re-shelving books at the library, and came across the 1945 book, titled The Male Hormone by Dr. Paul De Kruif.10 This book would change George’s life. The book gave George the push she needed to dive headfirst into research at the New York Academy of Medicine where she read about intersexed conditions and learned of “conversion experiments” being conducted in Sweden.11 There was at least one doctor in the U.S. performing sexual realignment surgeries at the time, but George was unaware of that because the operations were being performed quietly.12
On May 1, 1950, George Jorgensen set off on a ship headed for Denmark. Once George arrived in Denmark she was greeted by her old friend Helen Johnson with whom she would be staying during her trip. George was determined to find out more about the sex change operations she had heard about, but was not sure where to start. Helen urged George to visit her doctor, from whom George received a referral to see Dr. Christian Hamburger, an expert medical researcher in Scandinavia whose focus was endocrinology and the man who would change her life.13 During George and Dr. Hamburger’s initial meeting, George insisted that he was not homosexual and needed to live life as a woman, and that living as a man any longer was not an option. Dr. Hamburger agreed that the solution was for George to undergo a sex change operation. The only problem was, although Dr. Hamburger had extensive knowledge about hormone treatments, he had yet to perform a sexual realignment surgery. He told George that he would be willing to supply George with the necessary hormones and even perform the operation, all free of charge, if George agreed to be a test subject.14 George agreed without hesitation and almost immediately began taking estrogen injections. George attended weekly visits to the clinic, where a urine test and quick exam was given. George’s body reacted to the hormone injections in several ways, including softened facial skin and a more curvaceous body. During this time, she even let her blonde hair grow out. In 1953, after spending nearly three years in Copenhagen, Denmark, and enduring multiple surgeries, Christine decided it was time to return home to New York.15
In 1950s America, the ideal of gender was a breadwinner-husband and a stay-at-home mother. There was an expectation that one would live within the boundaries set by these ideals regarding gender. The public was wary of anything that threatened this way of life, including homosexuals. In 1950, for example, during the Lavender Scare, there was a prevailing fear that homosexuals had infiltrated the government and that they were spreading their influence throughout the United States. Government workers who were suspected of being homosexual lost their jobs, military status, and social status, and they became isolated.16 It was a tough time to be anything other than a “normal.”
With those societal expectations ringing in her ears, she made her way back to New York. On the crisp, cold morning of February 13, 1953, Christine’s plane touched down at Idlewild Airport in New York, and she descended the stairs of her plane, smiling to the 350 people waiting for her arrival.17 She was draped in a mink coat and held a cigarette between her slim fingers. The reporters surrounded her and clambered for answers as they spit out their questions at full speed. Christine’s only response was “I am very happy to be back, and I don’t have any plans at the moment, and I thank you very much, but I think it’s too much.”18 She was visibly uncomfortable with all of the attention, but that would not last long, because there was no escaping the public spotlight. The press would spend the next few years fascinated with Christine and writing multiple articles about her transition. Historian Genny Beemyn explains Christine’s popularity “in part because she had been a US serviceman, the epitome of masculinity in post-World War II America….and had been reborn into a ‘blonde bombshell,’ the symbol of 1950s white feminine sexuality.”19
While it may seem as if a majority of the public was captivated by Christine, that captivation wasn’t necessarily positive. In their April 1967 edition, a tabloid paper, Uncensored, published an article titled: “Those Legal U.S. Sex Changes: For those who’d rather “switch” than fight, John Hopkins is performing sex change surgery.” The article contained negative stereotypes and misinformation regarding Christine and what it meant to be transgender. The article went on to mention the fact that the John Hopkins Clinic recently started doing sexual realignment surgery and would be the second major American medical institution to do so. The first was the University of California Medical Center in Los Angeles. After public pressure and a district attorney’s threat of prosecution, the UCLA Medical Center was forced to abandon the practice.20 Also, the New York Times ran six highly critical articles in an attempt to persuade readers that Christine Jorgensen was a fraud and argued that because she was unable to bear children, she could not possibly be a real woman.21 There were members of the press who spewed nasty remarks her way, asked if she would be willing to pose nude for them, and making jokes at her expense.22
Christine adjusted quickly, out of necessity, to being in the public eye, and was determined to use her notoriety for good. She began receiving thousands of letters from men and women seeking information about their transsexual feelings. These letters contained heart-wrenching stories that Christine could relate to all too well. Among those letters though, was one from New York physician, Harry Benjamin, who had quietly performed a partial transsexual surgery on a patient. Christine set up a meeting with Dr. Benjamin, and the two met in New York and discussed ways in which they could help other transsexuals obtain the information and medical referrals necessary to live the lives they desired. Together they went through the mountains of mail and responded with help in whatever way they could. Into the 2000s, the ability to transition would be guarded and guided by the “Harry Benjamin Standards of Care,” the same doctor that Christine worked with.23 When Christine was not giving interviews, she performed at multiple clubs, including the Copa Cabana and the Tropicana in Havana, Cuba. In 1959, Christine met and fell in love with Howard J. Knox. He proposed, but when they went down to city hall to acquire a marriage license, they were turned away due to the “male” designation on Ms. Jorgensen’s birth certificate.24 Christine refused to take no for an answer and immediately obtained a letter from Dr. Harry Benjamin, which stated:
This is to certify that I have known Miss Christine Jorgensen for over six years. It is my opinion that she must be considered female. I have examined Miss Jorgensen and have found her in a condition that would fully enable her to have normal marital relations.25
This letter, unfortunately, did not sway the city clerk, and no marriage license was issued. But it is very similar to the letter that would eventually be required under the standards of care to be eligible for hormone therapy and reassignment surgery. Despite her best efforts, Christine was not able to change the law regarding marriage. That would take another fifty-seven years.
We now know that there were a few trans people who underwent surgery and lived healthy lives in their communities. People began to ask Christine why she did not do the same. Why did she put herself in the spotlight, only to face discrimination? Why did she allow reporters and the public to satisfy their curiosities with such invasive questions? Christine finally answered that question by pointing out that “when a question was being asked…It was because the world was ready for this step…the opening of the sexual understanding explosion.”26 Christine was willing to subject herself to undignified questioning and the invasion of her privacy if it meant she could further public education on the topic of sexual realignment surgeries and the trans individuals behind them. That spotlight ultimately cost her the ability to live as a woman in the eyes of many people, who would never see her as anything other than a man once they knew of her transition. That was a great sacrifice to make in order to further education on what it meant to be transgender.
Jorgensen’s transition from male-to-female launched a national discussion about gender identity. She put a name and a face to something that thousands of Americans were silently suffering with, and her story has stood an inspiring example to others.27 Jorgensen’s story and the history of transsexuality are central parts of the reconceptualization of sex in the twentieth century. Joanne Meyerowitz, author of How Sex Changed, eagerly points out that “Jorgensen was more than a media sensation, a stage act, or a cult figure. Her story opened debate on the visibility and mutability of sex.”28 It forced the public to stop and think about how we define a person’s sex. Christine continues to serve as an important historical figure to the transgender community. A symbol of courage to live as her authentic self, that inspired others to do the same.