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 grew up in the Bronx, New York City. Shortly after graduating high school in 1945, she was drafted into the US Army for World War II. After her service she attended several schools, worked, and around this time heard about transitioning surgery. She travelled to Europe, and in Copenhagen, Denmark, obtained special permission to undergo a series of operations starting in 1951.
She returned to the United States in the early 1950s and her transformation was the subject of a New York Daily News front page story. She became an instant celebrity, using the platform to advocate for transgender people, and became known for her directness and polished wit. She also worked as an actress and nightclub entertainer, and recorded several songs.
Christine Jorgensen was born George William Jorgensen, Jr., the second child of the carpenter and contractor George William Jorgensen Sr. and his wife, Florence Davis Hansen. She grew up in a crime-ridden area of the Bronx, New York City and 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 afterwards was drafted into the US Army.
After being discharged from the army, Jorgensen attended Mohawk 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.
Sex reassignment surgery
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 the female hormone ethinyl estradiol and researching the 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, where the only doctors in the world who performed the surgery were located. During a stopover in Copenhagen to visit relatives, she met Dr. Christian Hamburger, a Danish endocrinologist and specialist in rehabilitative hormonal therapy. Jorgensen then stayed in Denmark and took hormone replacement therapy under Dr. Hamburger’s direction. 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. She referred to how the surgery affected her in a letter to friends on October 8, 1951:
“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, thirteen months after her first procedure, 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 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 advisor.
Jorgensen chose the name Christine in honor of Dr. Hamburger. She became a spokesperson for transsexual and transgender people.
As a transgender spokesperson, Jorgensen entered the public eye. She influenced other transsexuals to change their sex on birth certificates and to change their names. Christine Jorgensen’s case is 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 questioned that stability. This case is an example of something that undid gender binaries that were thought to be permanent. 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 your biological sex. Jorgenson was an example of this; her sexuality was not a result of her biological sex. The question of what determined sex emerged, and the spectrum of sexuality identity included: chromosomes, genitalia, and body actions. This spectrum was not clear and people did not know whether chromosomes, genitalia, or body actions determined someone’s sex. Due to Jorgensen’s surgery, her definition of sexuality changed, and this led the public challenged to think about the definition of biological sex. The topic was overall complicated, as doctors tried to define and reclassify sexuality, but it did not come easily. For example, doctors tried to distinguish transexuality 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 original sexuality. She took on the notions of femininity. She saw herself as a founding member in what became known as the “sexual revolution.”
When the New York Daily News, December 1, 1952, carried a front-page story (under the headline “Ex-GI Becomes Blonde Bombshell”) announcing that Jorgensen had become the recipient of the first “sex change”, it caused a sensation. However, the claim that this was the first was not true, as this type of surgery had previously been performed by pioneering German doctors in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Danish artist Lili Elbe and “Dorchen”, both patients of Magnus Hirschfeld at the Institut für Sexualwissenschaft (Institute for Sexual Research) 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 on February 13, 1953. The first authorized account of her story was written by Jorgenson 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. 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 an inappropriate and misguided 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 John Traub, a labor union statistician, but the engagement was called off. In 1959, she announced her engagement to Howard J. Knox, a typist, in Massapequa, New York, where her father had built her a house 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.
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 Spiro T. Agnew, the U.S. vice president, when he called another politician “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”, and at the end 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 said in 1989, the year of her death, 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.