Trans Figures in History Pt. 1: Christine Jorgensen
When you think of trans visibility and notable trans people who are out in the world being their authentic selves and contributing to society while simultaneously trying to improve the lives of trans people, who do you think of? I think of people like Laverne Cox and Janet Mock and so many others. For me the earliest example of trans visibility would be Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera considering their involvement in the gay liberation movement. I didn’t expect to come across someone who predates them. That person is Christine Jorgensen.
I had come across Christine in an article done by Samantha Reidel at Them.us and was astonished to discover that Christine had received peak celebrity status for being trans. However, the celebrity status that she received, though it allowed to her have a career, also dehumanized her in a way because of the American public’s obsession with her body. She was looked at as more of an oddity than a person at times. She had to continuously take back her humanity throughout her life and it led her to write an autobiography that was published in 1967. She told her story through her eyes. Christine Joregensen: A Personal Autobiography gave humanity back to a person who was continuously being disrespected and dehumanized. I recommend that you guys give her book a read! I just recently purchased it and plan to read it myself. My reading list is never ending!
Christine Jorgensen was born in the Bronx to Danish parents in 1926 and lived a relatively standard middle-class life. As a small child and then a teenager, she constantly struggled with her sexuality and gender identity. She was known to people around her as the boy with feminine tendencies but it was something that just came natural to her. In that time, gender identity was not a very talked about issue and neither was homosexuality. Society didn’t have use of the majority of the terminology we have today so as a young queer person you felt something or knew something about yourself but never had a way to put it into words. Combined with the rigidity of society's attitude towards sex and gender identity in the 20th century and the strict adherence to the gender binary, so many queer people were confused, scared, and depressed. You felt like you were the only one in the world. In the mid 20th century the topic of homosexuality was starting to be talked about more and there were terms being developed and studies being done but for a transgender person there wasn’t much to go on. You were left to figure things out in the dark.
Christine had tried to take on the traditional gender roles that had been assigned to her at birth and even went so far as joining the army after high school in 1945. Before she was drafted in (only to receive a desk job), she was rejected twice by the army because of her small physical stature. While in the army she still never seemed to fit in with the other men there and after an honorable discharge (after only being in the army for a little over a year), she returned home. She had a dream of being a photographer and attended classes at the Progressive School of Photography in New Haven, Connecticut after a short stint in Hollywood where she had originally wanted to start her photography career. It was there that she first opened up about her gender identity to a close friend but at the time didn’t have words to describe what she was feeling on the inside.
In 1950 at the age of 24, Christine set sale for Denmark to seek the answers she had always wanted. To her parents’ knowledge, she was simply going on a sightseeing trip but it was so much more than that. While there she met Dr. Christian Hamburger who explained to her that it was very possible that she could be transsexual (also note that there is a difference between transsexual and transgender). On September 24, 1951, Christine began her series of surgeries to become the woman she always knew she was. In October of 1952 her surgeries were completed and in June of 1952 she came out to her family. Prepared to make a clean break from her family if they were to reject her, Christine was surprised to find that her parents accepted her and were more than willing to accept her as their daughter and love her unconditionally. What amazes me about her story is that her family accepted her fully and wholeheartedly. For the time period that she was in I find that to be incredible. If only all trans people and queer people as a whole were able to receive that level of love and acceptance. It would save so many lives.
In February 1953, Christine returned to the United States with every intention of living as normal a life as she possibly could. She had planned to start her photography career and make a film about her travels in Denmark but all of that was nixed when it was leaked to the press that she had undergone gender reassignment surgery. The story of how this information leaked is so ambiguous because some reports say that her family was pressured by the press to hand over the coming out letter she sent to them, others say that a close family friend betrayed he or a lab technician at the hospital where she received care. Whichever story is true, it skyrocketed her into national stardom and instead of belonging to herself it seemed that Christine would now belong to the American public. She was constantly hounded by paparazzi and was at the center of a media whirlwind where papers and magazines wrote articles poking fun at her and misgendering her. There were scientists and other members of society who tried to use to her to push their agenda that being transgender was a mental illness.
Heteronormative ideas were pushed onto her. People assumed that she would marry a man and fully take on the traditional roles of a woman of that time. She states herself that she fell in love twice but a marriage never happened. She had been denied a marriage license because her birth certificate stated that she was male and was also denied the right to use the women's restroom in some places (sound familiar?). Christine became so relatable to other Americans questioning their identity that Denmark moved to ban non-Danish people from receiving gender reassignment surgery there. They received so many letters and requests that they were overwhelmed.
In light of her fame she chose to use it for good. She started to become the voice of queer people everywhere, especially gender non-conforming people. She also used her fame to start a nightclub act where she performed all around the country and the world. She became known for performing to the song "I Enjoy Being a Girl". Later in life she began to lecture at universities about herself and queer issues and it was estimated that she talked to over 200,000 students in all and was well received. With her lecture series she was able to talk about her personal story and enlighten those who had no true understanding of the meaning of gender identity and no true understanding of queer people. She proved that trans people were complete, functioning members of society despite the continued rhetoric that LGBT people were mentally ill and suffering from something that shouldn’t happen to a “normal” person. When you watch and listen to interviews that she had done she was so willing to answer all and any questions about herself. Personal questions about her love/sex life and even her anatomy were discussed. By today’s standards so many of these questions would be deemed extremely invasive and offensive (which honestly, they were) she was willing to answer because she felt it was the only way to help society truly understand. It takes a very large amount of strength to undergo that on a regular basis.
The injustices and dehumanization Christine endured is extremely relatable to trans people today. Something I can’t help but think about is how she would have been received in the world if she were black. Would she have received the same national attention (no matter how misguided and cruel at times)? Would she have been treated in an even more hostile manor? Christine was the product of a white middle class upbringing. She was afforded the means to go about the exploration of her gender identity in relatively safe manor. She had a career as a performer, an activist, a writer. People were willing to listen to what she had to say especially on the topic of human sexuality, which became more and more of a hot topic throughout the 20th century. She was one of the great catalysts of that movement. She even had a movie made about her life in 1970 called The Christine Jorgensen Story. How would all of this have differed for a trans person of color? More specifically a trans woman of color in this time period?
The biggest thing that we can take away from Christine’s story is the importance of queer visibility and the importance of communication between human beings. Throughout her life Christine opened herself up to the world as a performer and a public speaker and took the platform that her fame gave her to advocate for queer people. She realized that the conversation must be had and the tough questions answered. I think that she would be happy to know that trans and queer visibility as a whole is constantly growing. There is still a very long way to go until all trans people are supported and safe but groundwork has been laid. If you look below you will find pictures and an interview and performance from 1982. I urge you all to give her autobiography a read (and google her) and think about the queer people in your life. Think about what you can do to contribute to the protection and well being of those queer people around you. This month we saw the Supreme Court begin the discussion of whether LGBT people can be discriminated against in the workplace, the lives of trans woman of color are at stake as more and more of their deaths come to the surface, many queer youth are homeless and suffering from bullying and depression. Where do you fit into this? How can you help? We all have a part to play in the fight for equality!