When the Daily News published “Ex-G.I. Becomes Blond Beauty” in 1952, gay rights activism had yet to reach a tipping point in America with the Stonewall Riots of the late 1960s. The term “transgender” had yet to exist. And throughout the world, homosexuality was considered a mental disorder and was yet to be legalized. In 1954, just two years after the Daily News headline, mathematician and Nazi code-breaker Alan Turing was arrested and chemically castrated for the “crime” of homosexuality.
This is why the Christine Jorgensen story requires noting. Born William George Jorgensen Jr in 1926, Jorgensen became Christine after traveling to Denmark in 1950 for sexual reassignment surgery. The name Christine was chosen in honor of Dr. Christian Hamburger, who was responsible for Jorgensen’s gender transformation and even did the initial operation for free (at the time, sex reassignment surgery was still experimental).
This alone shows Jorgensen’s bravery since gender affirmation in the medical world had yet to be fully explored. When Jorgensen returned to the U.S., as an ex-G.I. veteran and physically as the gender she always identified with, the media was frenzied. Paparazzi and reporters swarmed her after the Daily News story. In 1953, she was named Woman of the Year by the Scandinavian Societies of Greater New York. She even toured nightclubs throughout the country singing her signature “I Enjoy Being A Girl”. In 1967, she published her autobiography Christine Jorgensen: A Personal Autobiography, which inspired the 1970 film The Christine Jorgensen Story in which Jorgensen herself served as a consultant.
On the surface, this fame seems like acceptance when compared to how Alan Turing was treated. But really, this spotlight turned Jorgensen into an anomaly, revealing just how far the transgender community was from receiving mainstream acceptance and understanding. At the time, Jorgensen herself didn’t understand why the world was so fascinated. “I could never understand why I was receiving so much attention,” Jorgensen is quoted as saying in a featurette by NBC News.
For Jorgensen, publicly announcing her sex change wasn’t about pioneering the LGBTQ+ community, or about welcome fame, or even about promoting the various definitions of sexuality. It was about life, embracing it, and living it to the fullest. And how can one enjoy life without loving themselves? Jorgensen recognized this from an early age, which was reflected in her decision to undergo estrogen treatments and physical operations. It is also reflected in how progressive Dr. Christian Hamburger was when he described Jorgensen not as a homosexual but as a transsexual, highlighting the difference between the terms.
How can one enjoy life without loving themselves?
In an interview from the 1980s with Hour Magazine host Gary Collins, Jorgensen explained that when she lectured on college campuses throughout the country, people were “fascinated because we have come into an era of identification: human identification. Not only sexual identity but also the pressing and universal question of ‘who am I?’”. This unabashed embrace of self-love was unbelievably ahead of its time, even for the 80s.
“I did my own thing during a period when people were not doing their own thing,” Jorgensen continued. This is in the face of the discrimination she faced when she first announced her new identity in the 50s; the ambiguity of her genitalia branded her not as a woman but as some kind of an altered man in the eyes of many. While offensive in today’s society, this is not very surprising. When Jorgensen was in the army, she actively hid her gender identity and sexuality, both, to find long-awaited acceptance in the military and to avoid scandal; soldiers whose homosexuality was discovered could face court-martial, discharge, and even jail time.
Although Jorgensen passed away in 1989 of bladder and lung cancer, she took control of her identity and in that regard, had lived a life that was unapologetic for who she was. All of the risks- social ostracism, legal consequences, and physical discrimination- were amplified during Jorgensen’s lifetime. This is one of the many ways Jorgensen was a pioneer of trans rights in the history of LGBTQ+ liberation, even if her intentions weren’t rooted in activism, but to simply be Christine.
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