The Life of Transgender Pioneer Christine Jorgensen (1926–1989)
The first person to become widely known for having gender confirmation surgery.
“As you can see, 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.“
- Christine Jorgensen
Transgender icon Christine Jorgensen departed the United States for Europe after WWII, known to her family and friends as a shy, effeminate 24-year-old young man. She returned two years later as a confident, headstrong 26-year-old female. Jorgensen became an author, actress, singer, and nightclub performer who later toured talk shows and college campuses to speak about her life and try to help others dealing with the same philosophical experiences that she had shared. Christine was a pioneer, helping others find the courage to look further into who they were. She did her own thing at a time when people were conforming to gender patterns dictated by society.
Christine was born on May 30, 1926, in Bronx, New York, to George W. Jorgensen Sr. and his wife Florence Hansen and named George William Jorgensen Jr. She grew up in the Throg Neck neighborhood alongside stringent gender conformity in which young boys played with trains, and young girls played with dolls and did not understand why she felt she was different from her peers. Her teenage years only brought more confusion. Christine tried to identify herself as male but found it to be an impossible challenge. The gender norms of the time left her without someone to turn to help understand what she was feeling, leaving her to fend for herself.
After graduation from Christopher Columbus High School, she became a photographer, choosing to bury herself in her work. In August of 1945, months after the end of WWII, she was drafted into the Army as a clerk-typist at Fort Dix in New Jersey, having been previously turned down multiple times due to being underweight. Jorgensen received an honorable discharge after fourteen months of service. The time spent in the military cemented the realization that Jorgensen was not a boy. It also helped her understand that others were dealing with similar philosophical questions.
Upon her release from the military, Christine moved to California and tried for a year to get a job at Paramount Studios. Unsuccessful, she moved back east to go to the Manhattan Medical and Dental Assistant School to become an x-ray and lab technician. Her goal was to understand better what was making her feel the way she was. Jorgensen researched the subject of sex change operations with Dr. Joseph Angelo, the husband of a classmate at the school, and began taking the female hormone Ethinylestradiol independently.
While in school, she learned about groundbreaking research in Sweden, the only place in the world where doctors were performing gender confirmation surgery at the time. Jorgensen saved money, and on May 1, 1950, sailed aboard the MS Stockholm for Europe to take part in a series of procedures and hormone treatments. First, she planned a stopover in Copenhagen, Denmark, to visit relatives. Her family, including her parents, were completely unaware of her pending decision.
In Denmark, she met Danish endocrinologist Dr. Christian Hamburger, who specialized in rehabilitative hormone therapy and someone she had learned about during her research. He was the first medical professional in her journey-to-date to diagnose her as trans instead of gay. The two began three-year research of the biochemistry, hormonal, and endocrine aspects of transition. After receiving permission from the Danish Minister of Justice, Christine’s first surgery was conducted on September 24, 1951, and the second was performed a year later in November 1952. During her time in Denmark, she named herself Christine. It was to honor of her doctor, a man she greatly respected.
On December 1, 1952, two months before her return to the United States, the New York Daily News ran a full-page, front-page article titled, “Ex-GI Becomes Blonde Bombshell: Operations Transform Bronx Youth.” A media sensation was created. Christine landed at John F. Kennedy Airport (then called Idlewild Airport) on February 12, 1953, and was greeted by hundreds of reporters, autograph seekers, and onlookers. By the close of 1953, newspapers had printed over a million words about her, more than they printed about the newly inaugurated American president Dwight D. Eisenhower, newly crowned queen of England, or anyone else in the world.
Her parents had learned of Christine’s transformation via a State Department letter after her legal name change, and only months before the story broke in the newspapers. They were both very understanding of her decision.
Christine, understanding that she had become an international star, realized that her lack of privacy would make a return to her career as a photographer impossible. She chose instead to take advantage of her moment in the spotlight and take ownership of her celebrity. Jorgensen immediately began a career as a singer, dancer, and storyteller who excited audiences and charmed the paparazzi. Soon after, Hollywood welcomed her, and theater and film contracts began to roll in. She also used her platform to speak out about transgender rights and issues.
Jorgensen endured relatively little public hostility during this time; however, her experience was less than perfect. She received unwelcome offers from the print media to pose nude in their publications, as well as intimate details of her life being found in newspaper articles with titles like “Impostor” and “Female Impersonator.” Throughout it all, she had to weigh her want for a private life against her need to make a living with paid public appearances.
Her celebrity waned by the mid-1960s, and she turned to talk shows and the college tour circuit to discuss gender identity and other transgender issues. Jorgensen provided a platform for people throughout the gender spectrum to ask her questions without concern for fear or embarrassment. Nothing gender-related was taboo. Her autobiography, “Christine Jorgensen, a Personal Autobiography,” was released in 1967. The book was made into a film, “The Christine Jorgensen Story,” that was released in 1970.
In the fall of 1970, Jorgensen got into a highly publicized verbal feud with Vice President Spiro Agnew after he accused GOP Senator Charles Goodell of flip-flopping and being the “Christine Jorgensen of the Republican Party.” She asked for an apology, noting that you don’t make demands of the Vice President of the United States, but never received one.
Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, she made a comfortable living touring the country singing and performing in her own show. Her charisma and wit made her a hit on college campuses and talk shows. Both were a highlight to Jorgensen, allowing her to connect with her audience in a way she couldn’t in other mediums. She celebrated the younger generation she met during these sessions, lauding them for their openness about the science, psychology, and philosophy of gender.
By the early 1980s Christine semi-retired from public life and made her home in San Clemente, California. A heavy smoker with a two-pack a day habit since her teens, she was diagnosed with cancer in 1987. Jorgensen died of bladder and lung cancer on May 3, 1989 at the age of 62. She was cremated and her ashes were scattered off Dana Point, California on June 9, 1989. She never got to realize one of her dreams: to guest star, opposite her idol Angela Lansbury, on an episode of “Murder She Wrote.”
Toward the end of her life she was asked about her transformation and ensuing celebrity, she replied, “It wouldn’t get on the 95th page of the newspaper if it happened today. It’s not news anymore.”
Christine Jorgensen was a class act that helped pave the way for all transgender people that followed. Unabashedly unapologetic about who she was, Jorgensen helped open the door to an increased understanding of sexuality and gender fluidity. In doing so, she didn’t necessarily start the sexual revolution, but, as she so eloquently said, definitely gave it “a good swift kick in the pants.”
Bibliography available here.