This pride month, I am giving the spotlight to one of the most controversial celebrities in the United States in the 1950s. She was born as George William Jorgensen Jr. but lived and died as Christine Jorgensen.
She was known in the U.S. for her sex reassignment surgery. Even though Christine was not the first trans woman who underwent such surgery, but she was the first one who became widely known in the country because of her instant celebrity status.
Christine fought for the rights of the LGBTQ+ community in the 20th century, but before that, she served the U.S. military first and served amid the Second World War.
Life of George
George was born on May 30, 1926, in Bronx, New York City. She was the second child of a carpenter and contractor, George William Jorgensen, Sr., and his wife, Florence Davis Hansen.
In her memoir, George described her younger self growing up in the Bronx as a "frail, blond, introverted little boy who ran from fistfights and rough-and-tumble games."
Other boys typically made fun of her because she was too feminine and liked playing with dolls. She even recalled questioning her identity to her mother:
"'Mom,' I asked, 'why didn't God make us alike? My mother gently explained that the world needed both men and women, and there was no way of knowing before a baby was born whether it would be a boy or girl."
The Jorgensen family was very close. George's grandmother was her biggest supporter in expressing her identity. In high school, George developed an attraction to her male friends, but she knew at the time, she was not gay. Instead, she realized that she was a woman trapped inside a man's body.
Enlisted in the Army
However, she got rejected because of her petite size and weight. Nevertheless, after two months, she was drafted into the Army and was stationed at Fort Dix, New Jersey. While in the Army, she admitted that she gets attracted to his comrades, but she kept it to herself.
At that time, many men in the service feared being exposed or even labeled as gay. In addition, homosexuality in the Army at the time was punishable by "imprisonment, dishonorable discharge, or court-martialed."
She labored as a clerical worker, managing thousands of discharged soldiers after VE Day for 14 months until she was honorably discharged in December 1946.
“I wanted to be accepted by the army for two reasons. Foremost was my great desire to belong, to be needed, and to join the stream of activities around me. Second, I wanted my parents to be proud of me.” - Christine Jorgensen
After being discharged from the Army, she attended Mohawk Valley Community College in Utica, New York, the Progressive School of Photography in New Haven, Connecticut, and the Manhattan Medical and Dental Assistant School in New York City. She also worked briefly for Pathé News.
The Making of Christine
George was already doing what he's passionate about after the war. However, she still feels something is lacking in her that she cannot figure out. Then the book, The Male Hormone, piqued her interests. It helped her realize what she wanted - to be a woman.
Initially, she started taking estrogen. Then, she consulted with doctors about surgeons in Europe who had already performed sex reassignment surgery. Finally, George was determined to be transformed into a woman, and in 1950, she traveled to Denmark to pursue her dreams.
In Denmark, she met endocrinologist Dr. Christian Hamburger, who agreed to do the experimental procedure for free. Hamburger's diagnosis was that George was not homosexual but a transsexual.
George underwent hormone treatment, psychiatric evaluations, and finally, surgery to remove her male genitalia. But, unfortunately, she did not receive a surgically created vulva until years later.
Before returning to her home country, she also changed her name from George to Christine, giving honor to her doctor, who made lady Christine possible.
Christine: The Blonde Beauty
Christine intended for her transition to remain private. However, an unidentified person who knew about the procedures she had contacted the press. But on December 1, 1952, the New York Daily News made her a frontpage publishing her before and after photos, with the headline “Ex-GI Becomes Blonde Beauty: Operations Transform Bronx Youth.”
Christine became an overnight sensation; she became an instant celebrity both nationally and internationally. Christine was overwhelmed with the attention she received. However, she used the moment to enlighten the public about the LGBTQ community.
So, when she returned to the United States in 1953, Christine arranged with the press to make her arrival a public spectacle. Hundreds of reporters greeted her at the airport in New York City. She required a police escort to keep the crowds under control. Christine gave an interview at the airport and thanked the press for the warm welcome.
Christine was not the first transgender person in American history, but she was the most publicly recognized to date. Still, being a celebrity also has its price. Christine both had positive and negative publicity about her transition. Although several journalists dubbed her transsexuality as a psychological illness, she was also questioned whether she was a “real” man or a “real” woman.
Christine often emphasized that no one had to be 100% male or 100% female. It was acceptable and normal to be a little of both. And the most important thing is to accept and value who you are.
Being a real woman
Christine had been dodging questions relating to her anatomy; she always pivoted the narrative to her war background and physical appearance. But when the media dig-deeper into the surgery Christine underwent. They found out that Christine's male genitalia was merely removed and not changed into a woman's.
Because of this, her former supporters felt betrayed at the discovery and claimed she could not be a woman without ovaries and women's other reproductive organs. The media soon shunned her and started calling her names such as "altered male" and "morbid transvestite."
Christine also felt her transition wasn't complete without having a female organ. So, in May 1954, she finally had a vaginoplasty performed by Dr. Joseph Angelo and Dr. Harry Benjamin in the U.S.
According to the New York Historical Society, Christine fought for understanding and empathy for herself and others. She used her fame to start a career as a nightclub performer. Christine traveled the world and gave interviews on college campuses and television talk shows. She saw herself as an activist and educator, even in the face of frequent discrimination.
Christine took pride and pleasure in displaying her femininity. She often posed for photographs wearing fur coats, glamorous jewelry, and makeup. Some historians believe that her willingness to play a traditional female role made it easier for her to be accepted.
Cannot be married
Christine fell in love and got engaged twice. First to a labor union statistician, John Traub. But the engagement was called off.
In 1959, she announced her engagement to typist Howard J. Knox. However, the couple could not obtain a marriage license because Christine's birth certificate listed her as male.
In a report about the broken engagement, The New York Times reported that Knox had lost his job in Washington, D.C. when his engagement to Christine became known.
The Legendary Christine Jorgensen
Despite the challenges Christine had gone through, she remained optimistic about life. She moved to Los Angeles, California, in 1967. That same year she published her autobiography, Christine Jorgensen: A Personal Autobiography, which chronicled her life experiences as a transsexual. It also included her perspectives on significant events in her life.
Many people wrote her letters and asking for her guidance, particularly those who wanted to come out of their shells. She was also present in several universities discussing gender identity. As a result, Christine shaped a new culture of more inclusive ideas about the subject.
By simply being true to herself, Christine inspired many people.
In 1970, Hollywood created a film based on her life called, The Christine Jorgensen Story.
Christine Jorgensen became a legend for the "sexual revolution" in the United States. Because of her, many transgender people change their sex on birth certificates and change their names.
In her Los Angeles Times interview in 1988, 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."
On May 3, 1989, Christine died from bladder and lung cancer. But her courage inspired many other transgender to continue the fight for equal rights, respect, and acceptance.
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