Originally appeared in The Daily.
A carpenter’s son, George Jorgensen was raised to be a good Lutheran kid, hardworking and decent, like the generations of skinny Danish farmers from whom he was descended. During his teenage years in the Bronx, when he realized he was falling in love with a male classmate, he knew instinctively that his feelings were not homosexual, but rather the love of a girl for a boy. So in 1952, at the age of 25, the God-fearing young man went to Copenhagen and had his genitals surgically removed so he could become the girl he thought nature intended him to be. George’s new self, known to the world as Christine Jorgensen, debuted on December 1, 1952, on the front page of the New York Daily News. Hearst newspapers paid Jorgensen $20,000 for an exclusive interview; the banner headline read “EX-GI BECOMES BLONDE BEAUTY.”
Jorgensen was not the world’s first post-operative transsexual (a patient at Berlin’s Institute for Sexual Science beat her by a couple decades), but she was certainly the most public. Reporters had tracked her down in her recovery room at Rigshospitalet in Copenhagen, and 350 curious spectators mobbed her at Idlewild Airport in New York when she returned home.
“I thought for a moment I had entered Dante’s Inferno,” she later wrote, “as flashbulbs exploded from all directions and newsreel cameras whirred.”
Media trade magazines estimated that over the next year, more words were written about this twiggy blonde than about anyone else in the world.
For the American public, Christine’s debut was a shock. In 1952, gender roles were relatively fixed, and the notion that a man might modify his body even with an earring could provoke disgust and confusion.
During the 1940s, while George studied in Manhattan to be a medical and dental assistant, he read “The Male Hormone” by Paul de Cruif, about the new science of hormones. He learned that if you pumped an animal full of opposite-gender sex hormones, the animal would start showing the physical characteristics of the other gender. He obtained and took the new semi-synthetic hormone ethynylestradiol, then saved up for a ticket to Copenhagen to become a research subject at the laboratory of Dr. Christian Hamburger. The Danish endocrinologist injected Jorgenson with more hormones and watched to see whether his patient’s musculature and jawline softened and his breasts and hips filled out.
When all the hormone treatments worked as planned, Jorgensen had his testes removed and his penis cut off. Jorgensen later said that he thought of the surgery not as a change of sex but as a “revised sex determination.” At birth, he looked like a boy. But in that boy’s mind and soul, he was a girl, who wished that his parents could have seen he was a Christine from the start. After the procedure, Christine wrote to her father: “Nature made the mistake which I have had corrected, and now I am your daughter.”
Shocked though the American public was, it instinctively seemed to understand. The initial news reports treated Christine, who renamed herself after her doctor Christian, not as a freak but as a young woman embarking on her life. The AP reporter who ambushed her in her hospital room called her “an attractive blonde.” Quickly and without ceremony, the U.S. ambassador had George’s passport and Veterans Administration records changed.
Back in the U.S., Christine said her castration and penis removal were “not such a major work of surgery as it may imply,” and her own nonchalance about the operation did much to help people feel comfortable about her transformation. (She completed the metamorphosis two years after the initial surgery, with a seven-hour operation to construct an artificial vagina.)
Christine’s physical transformation turned out to be less dramatic than her shift from a private to a public person. In her 1967 memoir, Jorgensen wrote that she returned to America and found herself irreversibly in the public eye, so she had to abandon the pretense of a private life. To her that meant becoming a singer and dancer. She debuted as a performer in Pittsburgh in August 1953 and received warm reviews from Variety and other publications. By November she was in Vegas, performing regularly at the Sahara. Her routine was her livelihood for most of the next thirty years, till her death from bladder cancer in 1989.
Of course, she suffered her share of indignities. Reporters pried into her sex life. Her promoters at the Sahara concocted a love affair for publicity, and Jorgensen was denied the right to marry her real love, a man named Howard Knox, since her birth certificate listed her as male. Some, including Vice President Spiro T. Agnew, used her name as code for “traitor.” Agnew called Charles Goodell, a liberal Republican senator, the “Christine Jorgensen of the Republican party.”
Today, Jorgensen is perhaps an underappreciated social pioneer. When the birth control pill went into mass circulation in the 1960s, few were talking about Jorgensen as an example of someone who had already meddled with her hormones, and been happy with the results. Homosexuals, however, saw her as an early icon and as a sign of successful sexual defiance. In 2009, Playboy magazine ranked her as the 28th most important figure in the last half-century of sex, one notch more important than Pamela Anderson — a unique case of someone who has achieved sex-symbol status not for doing anything with her sex organs, but just for having them.