On December 1, 1952, a very private life became a matter of public record
EX-GI BECOMES BLONDE BEAUTY:
Christine Jorgensen, a World War II-era GI became the subject of often lurid questions and cheap, hackneyed jokes. Yet, she rose above all that, setting her gentle voice to music and her mind to education. She had not sought publicity, but publicity gave her an opening to light a small candle on behalf of those who shared her entrapment in the wrong gender. Those of us, who remember her wit, her will and her way, offer this place in cyberspace in remembrance of a pioneer in diversity training.
America trusted not only in God, on December 1, 1952. It trusted in Richard Nixon, who had ridden the good Republican coattails of General Dwight Eisenhower to the office of Vice President of the United States. It trusted the words of a Wisconsin US Senator who had found potential communists hiding under every bed. Men trusted that the “Y” chromosome would always rule, and that women would always do what men would tell them to do. It was unimaginable therefore to read the headlines on the front page of the New York Daily News that day:
EX-GI BECOMES BLONDE BEAUTY: OPERATIONS TRANSFORM BRONX YOUTH
Was this another Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale out of Denmark? Or was this the opening shot in the coming sexual revolution? Suddenly, America became obsessed with the words “sex change,” and the “privates” of a former World War II Private, George Jorgensen.
They came not to admire the courage of a once-inhibited photographer, but to examine the contents of her private laundry basket. Christine Jorgensen made it clear to her parents and her friends that she was simply correcting a birth defect. ” “Does it take bravery and courage for a person with polio to want to walk?” she once said. “It’s very hard to speculate on, but if I hadn’t done what I did, I may not have survived. I may not have wanted to live. Life simply wasn’t worth much. Some people may find it easy to live a lie, I can’t. And that’s what it would have been - telling the world I’m something I’m not.”
There was a lot to consider on that fateful day in December. Would America ever extricate itself from Korea? What path would the newly elected Eisenhower administration assume when it took office the following January? The Italian people lost a premier on this day. Yet, all eyes were on an enigma, a mystery wrapped in an riddle. America’s collective thoughts could focus only on the words “sex change.”
The New York Daily News had come across a hand-delivered private letter sent by Jorgensen to her parents. The letter was three pages long, but the newspaper and the national instinct of the time were struck by a single sentence. “I am still the same old “Brud,” the letter said.” but Nature made a mistake, which I have had corrected, and I am now your daughter. “ Jorgensen’s parents had received the letter some months before. Jorgensen’s parents cooperated with the newspaper when it became clear that the story would run with or without their cooperation.
Christine Jorgensen had traveled to her ancestral home in Denmark to privately undergo a series of operations then available only in Europe. Along with a series of primitive gender reassignment surgeries she also underwent extensive hormone treatments that feminized her body. She literally became a guinea pig for Dr. Christian Hamburger, already a renowned Danish endocrinologist. Patiently she watched her body develop into the woman that she saw inside herself.
Although Jorgensen was not the first to undergo gender reassignment surgeries, her public courage helped bring hope to those who faced similar trials by nature. In Jorgensen’s own autobiography, she described her concern for others who shared her condition in a letter to her American doctor:
“I read The Well of Loneliness not long ago. It made me more determined than ever to fight for this victory. The answer to the problem must not lie in sleeping pills and suicides that look like accidents, or in jail sentences, but rather in life and the freedom to live it. “
Upon publication of the newspaper story, however, Jorgensen lost her valued privacy. She was the center of a three-ring circus staged by invasive “journalists” armed with cameras and sometimes vulgar questions. There was nothing too private for a reporter’s question. Along with the questions came bundles of money offered for even more intimate details.
Tell us about your love affairs as a man or a woman.
How does it feel to wear women’s clothing?
Do you plan to be a mother some day?
Are the historic parts you had removed stored someplace?
Jorgensen accepted an offer of exclusive rights to her story from American Weekly magazine, a Hearst publication. The magazine shepherded her return from Denmark to New York, and paid Jorgensen $20,000. Other newspapers and radio reporters continued to besiege her in an effort to get their lurid questions answered. When they failed, they made up their own answers. In a matter of weeks, even before she returned from Denmark, Jorgensen became a circus freak with a household name.
On February 13, 1953, Jorgensen returned to her family’s home in New York. Hundreds of reporters jammed New York’s Idyllwild International Airport to hurl questions at the instant celebrity, ignoring even the presence of a member of the Danish royal family on the same airplane.
Jorgensen was able to transform her experience in the limelight into a career as an entertainer and performer. With the gates of celebrity opened for her, Jorgensen was able to accept performance dates in Las Vegas, Hollywood and New York. She shut out the often hateful detractors who would disparage her life, noting that “I don’t need the opinions of others, I have my own.”
Her situation defined the gender reassignment surgery process that is now more common in the US and around the world. Jorgensen helped separate the transsexual experience from someone who simply received sexual pleasure from wearing women’s clothing. She allowed doctors to experiment with glandular and hormonal treatments that helped isolate the correct medications for the conditions. She also isolated the transsexual experience from that of a homosexual. “No one is 100 percent male or female,” she would explain, “We all have elements of both male and female in our bodies. I just am more of a woman than I am a man.”
After her public exposure she received hundreds of offers to appear on stages and on dozens of college campuses. She rejected many of the salacious offers that demanded she appear in the nude. She answered questions of enquiring college students, closeted transsexuals and medical professionals.
She worked with many of the first professionals who explored the transsexual phenomenon in the U.S., including Dr. Harry Benjamin who coined the word “transsexual.” In 1967, Jorgensen wrote her life story in an autobiography that became an inspiration to many who shared her affliction. The biography became a movie three years later.
She continued to lecture on the college circuit until her retirement in Southern California during the early 1980’s. She was diagnosed with cancer in 1987, and died in May 1989.
She had hoped to update her autobiography and continue her work to bring notice to the beleaguered life of those suffering from gender dysphoria. The quiet photographer who wanted only to take pictures, had become a star for all the wrong reasons. Yet, she acknowledged in interviews that entertainment was the only road left open to her after her public exposure.
Even in her death, the closet door would never close again.
|Christine Jorgenson died of bladder and lung cancer at age 62 (May 3, 1989). Following cremation, her ashes were scattered off Dana Point, California on June 9, 1989 by her two nieces and two of her closest friends.|
© 2006 ChristineJorgensen.org