Christine Jorgensen was a truly trailblazing American trans woman. A former soldier, she was the first person to become widely known in the US for having gender affirming surgery.
Her story is a fascinating one, and shows how – almost overnight – she became a pop culture icon. She was also treated more sensitively than you might expect for a trans person who was born in 1926.
Christine was born under the name George William Jorgensen Jr and grew up in the Bronx, New York. She described herself as a “frail, blond, introverted little boy who ran from fistfights and rough-and-tumble games.”
After graduating, Christine was drafted into the US Army for World War II. Following her time in the army, she gained permission to move to Denmark, where she had gender affirming care, which began in 1951.
“Everyone is both sexes in varying degrees. I am more of a woman than a man… Of course I can never have children but this does not mean that I cannot have natural sexual intercourse – I am very much in the position right now of a woman who has a hysterectomy” – Christine Jorgensen
In December 1952, when she returned to America, the New York Daily News splashed Jorgensen across their front page under the headline “Ex GI becomes blonde beauty,” making her instantly famous.
The article read: “Operations Transform Bronx Youth. George Jorgensen Jr. son of a Bronx carpenter served in the Army for two years and was given honorable discharge in 1946.
“Now George is no more. After six operations, Jorgenson’s sex has been changed and today she is a striking woman, working as a photographer in Denmark.
“Parents were informed of the big change in a letter Christine Jorgensen (that’s her new name) sent to them recently.”
Sex reassignment surgery
Christine began her transition by taking oestrogen in the form of ethinylestradiol while researching the surgery with the help of eminent Dr Joseph Angelo.
While visiting relatives in Copenhagen, Christine also met Dr Christian Hamburger – a Danish endocrinologist and specialist in rehabilitative hormone therapy.
She underwent hormone replacement therapy under Dr Hamburger’s direction, and chose the name Christine in honour of him.
Hamburger encouraged Jorgensen to take on a female identity and begin dressing as a woman in public.
As the hormones started to take effect, Hamburger noted the changes.
“The first sign was an increase in size of the mammary glands and then hair began to grow where the patient had a bald patch on the temple. Finally the whole body changed from a male to a female shape.”
Christine Jorgensen and Divine, 1980 pic.twitter.com/XGGjEEoito
— Sarah Cleary (@SarahAJCleary) March 29, 2021
After more than a year of hormone therapy, Jorgensen had the first in a series of operations that would attempt to change her genital organs from male to female.
Jorgensen was also assessed by a psychologist, Dr Georg Sturup, who accepted that she wanted to proceed with sex reassignment surgery.
“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” – Christine Jorgensen
As a result, Sturup successfully petitioned the Danish government to change the law to allow castration for the purposes of the operation.
“I was a bit nervous because there were too many people at that period who insisted I was crazy,” Jorgensen said in an interview. “But Dr Hamburger didn’t feel there was anything particularly strange about it.”
In 1951, Christine had an orchiectomy (a surgical procedure in which one or both testicles are removed), and in 1952, she had a penectomy (penis removal through surgery). Describing it, she said: “My second operation, as the previous one, was not such a major work of surgery as it may imply.”
After the procedure, Christine wrote to her parents in New York: “Nature made a mistake which I have had corrected, and now I am your daughter.”
Finally, in the US, she had a vaginoplasty, performed under the direction of Dr Angelo.
The first transgender celebrity
Following the New York Daily News story, Christine became a celebrity. She wrote about her own journey in a 1953 issue of The American Weekly, titled The Story of My Life.
When she returned to the US, she returned a star – and was greeted by a horde of journalists and admirers at Idlewild Airport (now JFK).
Christine used her publicity as a platform to advocate for transgender people, while Hollywood welcomed her. She was even crowned Women of the Year by the Scandinavian Society in New York.
“I guess they all want to take a peek,” she said.
She went on to make a living as an entertainer, actress and nightclub singer, and in one act performed ‘I Enjoy Being a Girl’ while wearing a Wonder Woman costume.
Christine Jorgensen’s personal life
Following her vaginoplasty, Jorgensen became engaged to a man named John Traub, but it was called off. In 1959, she got engaged to American medical doctor, Howard J Knox.
However, the pair were unable to get a marriage license because Christine was listed as male on her birth certificate.
In 1967, she moved to California and wrote her autobiography Christine Jorgensen: A Personal Autobiography. Three years later it was filmed as The Christine Jorgensen Story.
During the 1970s and 80s, she toured university campuses and other venues, speaking about her experiences as a transgender spokesperson and public figure.
Christine died in 1989, at the age of 62, of bladder and lung cancer. In the year of her death, she said:
“I am very proud now, looking back, that I was on that street corner 36 years ago when a movement started. It was the sexual revolution that was going to start with or without me. We may not have started it, but we gave it a good swift kick in the pants”