LGBTQ+ History Month: Christine Jorgensen

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Christine Jorgensen (May 30, 1926 – May 3, 1989) was an American trans woman who was the first person to become widely known in the United States for having sex reassignment surgery.

Jorgensen was born under the name George William Jorgensen Jr., the second child of carpenter and contractor George William Jorgensen Sr. and his wife Florence Davis Hansen. She grew up in the Belmont neighborhood of the Bronx, New York City, and 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 shortly afterward was 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 her military service ended, Jorgensen began taking estrogen in the form of ethinylestradiol and researching sex reassignment surgery with the help of Dr. Joseph Angelo, the husband of a classmate at the Manhattan Medical and Dental Assistant School. Jorgensen intended to go to Sweden which was, at the time, the the only place in the world where doctors performed the surgery. During a stopover in Copenhagen to visit relatives, she met Dr. Christian Hamburger, a Danish endocrinologist and specialist in rehabilitative hormonal therapy. Jorgensen stayed in Denmark and underwent hormone replacement therapy under Dr. Hamburger’s direction. She chose the name Christine in honor of Dr. 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. She then returned to the United States and eventually obtained a vaginoplasty when the procedure became available there. The vaginoplasty was performed under the direction of Dr. Angelo, with Harry Benjamin as a medical adviser. Later, in the preface of Jorgensen’s autobiography, Harry Benjamin gave Christine credit for the advancement of his studies.

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. 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. The first 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”. The publicity created a platform for her, and she used it to advocate for transgender people.

In 1959 Christine announced her engagement to typist Howard J. Knox in Massapequa Park, New York, where her father had built her a house in Massapequa, NY after her reassignment surgery. However, the couple was 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 noted that Knox had lost his job in Washington, D.C. when his engagement to Jorgensen became known.

In 1967, Jorgensen moved to California. It was also during this same year that Jorgensen published her autobiography Christine Jorgensen: A Personal Autobiography, which chronicled her life experiences as a trans woman 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. Jorgensen also worked as an actress and nightclub entertainer and recorded several songs. At the end of one of her cabaret acts, she would make a quick change into a Wonder Woman costume. Warner Communications, owners of the Wonder Woman character’s copyright, became aware of this and demanded that she stop using the character; she complied and, instead, began using 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 Clubs in Manhattan and Hollywood.

Jorgensen died in 1989 of bladder and lung cancer, four weeks short of her 63rd birthday. Her ashes were scattered off Dana Point, California.

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 and inspired other transgender people and helped bring about greater awareness that Gender was not the set binary as people once thought.

In 2012 Jorgensen was inducted into the Legacy Walk, an outdoor public display which celebrates LGBT history and people.

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