May 30, 1926– Christine Jorgensen:
“Remember, never throw away a chance for happiness too quickly… it can get to be a habit.“
Before Chelsea Manning found freedom, before talented Laverne Cox had a career, before the late, great Alexis Arquette, before Chaz, even before Bruce Jenner broke the big news to Diane Sawyer and the rest of the world that Caityln had arrived on the scene, there was a little boy from the Bronx who became a lovely lady.
It was 1952 and Science was still a popular subject, unlike our own times. Engineers were able to build rocket ships, researchers could cure diseases, and medical doctors were able to turn a seemingly regular guy into a glamorous woman. This was an era before there was a T, before there was even an L,G, or B, much less a Q. In fact, Transgender wasn’t even a term yet.
Recently discharged Army Private George Jorgensen made headlines around the world when he returned to the USA from Denmark as a blond woman named Christine Jorgensen. Jorgensen shocked the world and freaked out most Americans. People were afraid and angry. They still are.
While serving in the Army, Jorgensen, who said that she had felt trapped in the wrong body since childhood, read an article about a doctor in Denmark who was experimenting with sex change and hormone therapy.
Brave Jorgensen was just 24 years old when she made the journey to Copenhagen to meet with Dr. Christian Hamburger who diagnosed the young GI as “transsexual”. Hamburger prescribed female hormones and encouraged Jorgensen to dress in women’s clothing. Hamburger and a noted psychologist had to petition the Danish government for permission to perform the illegal act of castration for surgical purposes.
Hamburger successfully changed Jorgensen’s special stuff from male to female. Jorgensen chose Christine as her new female name in honor of her doctor.
Her transition made headlines when she returned to the USA. Curious crowds and eager journalists showed up at New York City’s Idlewild Airport to cover her return from Denmark. The December 1st, 1952 headline on the cover of the NY Daily News read: Ex-GI Becomes Blond Beauty.
“At first I was very self-conscious and very awkward, but once the notoriety hit, it did not take me long to adjust.“
Jorgensen was resourceful and like any true blue American she was able to take that media attention and turn it into nightclub engagements. With a straight face, she sang I Enjoy Being A Girl and Bewitched, Bothered And Bewildered as part of her act. My city of Portland’s own Mary’s Club, the oldest strip club in the USA (Portland still has more strip clubs than churches) engaged Jorgensen with a gig as a go-go girl. Often the butt of television comedians’ jokes, she still always kept a sly sense of humor about herself.
Jorgensen didn’t hide away. She became the first, but certainly not the last, transgender American to grab all that publicity about her transition and run with it, so to speak. All network news broadcasts, every major magazine and newspaper, and every popular radio show covered her transition. Books were written about her. She smartly wrote her own: Christine Jorgensen: A Personal Autobiography (1967), a bestseller in 12 languages, adapted into a film in 1970. The memoir begins with this succinct first line:
“Nature made a mistake which I have corrected.”
She got a record deal and released Christine Jorgensen Reveals, a spoken-word album where she was interviewed by comedian Nipsey Russell. She even cut a few singles. Jorgensen made $12,000 a week performing her stage act in Hollywood. Other people who were considered “cross-gender” always existed, but no one had the guts to go public, become famous and make money until Jorgensen.
“I decided if they wanted to see me, they would have to pay for it.“
The U.S. government didn’t know how to handle a change in gender. She sought a marriage license in 1959 but it was denied because her birth certificate classified her as male. She had worked as a chauffeur, but her permit was revoked. She had difficulty finding a place to pee.
Jorgensen claimed that public reaction to her surgery was one of the first steps in the new sexual revolution of the 1960s. She said that she never regretted her decision. The public acceptance of Jorgensen as a woman showed that gender and the body were not always connected, and that gender was something that a person could create. This changed the world in no small way.
Jorgensen lived a quiet private life after her celebrity had run its course. She resided at the famed The Chateau Marmont in Hollywood, occasionally taking speaking gigs. Lovely to look at, smartly dressed, with a smoky, sexy speaking voice, she would have been perfect for today’s television reality programming. I am sure that here at World of Wonder Productions, we would have had a place for her in our smart line-up. Maybe a cooking show. In fact, at the end of her life she said that her only real regret was not having appeared on Murder, She Wrote (an achievement that I did manage).
She never married and lived alone. Jorgensen took her final curtain call in 1989, gone from that damn cancer. She was just 62 years old. I like to imagine her still alive, living as the queen of the movement that she gave voice to.
“Does it take bravery and courage for a person with polio to want to walk? 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.“