Story by Francine Uenuma
June 12, 2023
|Jorgensen, stepping off a plane|
in Los Angeles in May 1953
She became one of the most
discussed figures of that year.
When the New York Daily News blared the headline “Ex-GI Becomes Blonde Beauty; Operations Transform Bronx Youth” on Dec. 1, 1952, Christine Jorgensen was still recovering from surgery in a hospital bed in Denmark.
The 26-year-old had sailed there two years earlier in a desperate bid for answers and, at last, had written to her parents to explain why. “Nature made a mistake which I have now corrected,” she wrote, in a letter leaked to the Daily News. “And now I am your daughter.”
Long before “transgender” was part of our shared lexicon, the revelation of Christine Jorgensen captivated the public. In a postwar America with expanding scientific horizons, her transformation raised the fascinating — and, to some, unsettling — idea that one’s sex could be altered.
“News of Christine Jorgensen was a seismic event for trans people. It brought attention to possibilities that many people didn’t know about,” said Susan Stryker, author of “Transgender History: The Roots of Today’s Revolution” and professor emerita of gender and women’s studies at the University of Arizona.
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When Jorgensen was born in New York City in May 1926, the experiments that would eventually help her were well underway in Europe. The Austrian scientist Eugen Steinach had conducted sex-altering experiments on animals a decade before, and the German physician Magnus Hirschfeld built on that work in Berlin, searching for biological causes for those who didn’t conform to conventional notions of sexuality.
Among those Hirschfeld evaluated was Lili Elbe, subject of the 2015 film “The Danish Girl,” who underwent a series of surgeries and died in 1931 of complications from her final procedure. Hirschfeld’s Institute for Sexual Science, caught in the crosshairs of Nazi ideology, was destroyed in 1933 and the contents of its library burned. Hirschfeld was exiled, but his ideas endured.
When Jorgensen landed in New York on Feb. 12, 1953, she was inundated by flashing bulbs as she stepped off the plane, escorted by police, in heels and a fur coat. Reporters shouted questions.
“Thank you all for coming,” she told them. “But I think it’s too much.”
But media fascination only ramped up. According to one magazine’s tally, Jorgensen and her transition were the most-discussed story of 1953, outranking the execution of suspected spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.
“It’s like the world changed, and new ideas about gender and technology and the engineerability of the self were very current in that time,” said Stryker, the author and professor. “Jorgensen became an avatar of this new post-World War II techno-cultural moment.”
Her personal quest portended sweeping change — something she had sensed from all the way back in Denmark.
Jorgensen wrote to friends in 1950:
“Can you realize what success for me will mean to literally thousands of people? For I am not alone in this affliction."