Inventors of Gay: Christine Jorgensen
May 30, 1926 – May 3, 1989
Although Jorgensen was not the first transgender woman to undergo gender reassignment surgery, she is the first to have been widely-known.
George William Jorgensen, Jr., grew up in the Bronx with the signature traits of early gender dysphoria. She was an introverted boy, who felt at odds with the other boys her age, showing early signs of gender identity disorder. In 1945 she was drafted into the military.
After her service she started exploring the possibility of sex reassignment surgery. She began taking the female hormone ethinyl estradiol on her own. She researched the subject with the help of Dr. Joseph Angelo, a husband of one of Jorgensen's classmates at the Manhattan Medical and Dental Assistant School.
Sweden was the only place where doctors were currently performing this surgery. During a trip to Copenhagen to see relatives, however, Jorgensen met a Dr. Christian Hamburger, a Danish endocrinologist and specialist in rehabilitative hormonal therapy. Jorgensen stayed in Denmark and began more advanced hormone therapy as well as the first of a series of operations.
A few years later in the United States, Jorgensen underwent a vaginoplasty under the direction of Dr. Angelo and Dr. Harry Benjamin, who was integral in advancing the transgender rights wordwide.
Jorgensen was preternaturally suited to being one of the first spokespersons for the TS and TG community. She was unafraid of publicity and made the most of her media fame.
Her sense of humor held her in good stead most of the time, but she stood adamant when she was offended.
New York radio host Barry Gray asked her if 1950s 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 queries: Jorgensen appeared on an episode of The Dick Cavett Show, in which the host offended her by asking about the status of her romantic life with her "wife," and she walked off the show. Because she was the only scheduled guest, Cavett spent the rest of that show talking about how he had not meant to offend her.
Jorgensen went on to a fairly successful career in entertainment, recording, performing in clubs, appearing on radio and television shows, and writing books and articles. A film version of her autobiography was also made.
She was the go-to reference for anything to do with sex-reassignment. She was thwarted by legal technicalities several times when trying to be legally married to a man—a problem that continues for transgender people today. But at the end of her life she said she never regretted the surgery.
Why we care:
Jorgensen was the most storied person on AP in 1953, more the new president Eisenhower or Marilyn Monroe. The world did not fear transgendered people then as much as hold them in awe, and she was the perfect first experience for many.
Jorgensen imitated many of her favorite stars in her nightclub act: Marlene Dietrich, Talullah Bankhead, and strangely enough Doris Day. They all became fans and friends along with many of the old guard entertainment folk of the day.
"Inventors of Gay" is our series on important people and cultural influences in LGBT history that helped create the culture we enjoy today.