JORGENSEN, Christine (b. 30 May 1926; d. 3 May 1989), celebrity, entertainer, memoirist.
The first internationally known transsexual personality of the twentieth century, Christine (née George) Jorgensen was not only a pioneer in the field of sex reassignment surgery, but she provided an unprecedented example for the thousands of gender dysphoric individuals who followed in her footsteps.
George Jorgensen was born 30 May 1926 to working-class parents of Danish descent in the Throggs Neck section of the Bronx in New York City. In an interview with Time magazine reporters in February 1953, Jorgensen described her early years of confusion and solitude as the "no man's land of sex." After graduating from high school, Jorgensen entered the army in August 1945 and served as a clerk at Fort Dix, New Jersey, for fourteen months. With money earned from the G. I. Bill, Jorgensen studied at photography school in New Haven, Connecticut, with the intent of becoming a professional photographer.
In 1948, Jorgensen read The Male Hormone, the best selling book by science journalist Paul de Kruif, and wondered if his own gender confusion might be the result of a deficit of testosterone, or a surfeit of estrogen, in his body. Jorgensen had heard about endocrinologists who could chemically correct hormonal imbalances. Following the advice of his physician and supportive friends, Jorgensen sailed to Copenhagen, Denmark, in 1950 to undergo experimental estrogen therapy and six operations. George rechristened himself with the name "Christine" in tribute to Dr. Christian Hamburger, the Danish physician who supervised Jorgensen's treatments.
In late November 1952, while recovering from surgery, the story of Jorgensen's transformation was leaked to the New York Daily News, which ran the headline "Ex-GI Becomes Blonde Beauty." Because there were no widely known precedents for Jorgensen's transformation, she was understood alternately as an ex-soldier, a glamorous femme fatale, and an upwardly mobile success story. The medical community generally responded favorably to Jorgensen's story, but the media catapulted Jorgensen's celebrity status to epic proportions and made her "the most talked about girl in the world." In early 1953, the twenty-seven-year-old Jorgensen published an autobiographical sketch in Hearst's American Weekly for the reputed sum of thirty thousand dollars. The sketch was reprinted in newspapers around the world and translated into approximately eighty languages.
In April 1953, Jorgensen suffered a minor setback when the media announced that she was not a "real woman" but instead only a "castrated male." Apparently, surgeons did not have the capacity to surgically construct a vagina for Jorgensen until 1954. In the early 1950s, Jorgensen was held to the standard, propagated by many influential psychologists, that anyone who experienced confusion about their sexual identity and their gender role was a "sex pervert," a common phrase used to
describe those who engaged in transvestism or abnormal sexual activities. Yet despite this negative publicity—or perhaps because of it—Jorgensen continued to be a popular celebrity. In 1953, Jorgensen accepted an offer to perform in Las Vegas for a salary of twelve thousand dollars per week. Her early act consisted of talking about her transformation, changing in and out of designer gowns while standing behind a screen, and narrating a photographic slide show of her two years spent in Copenhagen. She told an interviewer in 1957:
When I first started in the business I told a few jokes, very nice jokes, but I didn't get any response from the audience. And I remember one evening [Jimmy Durante] looked at me and he said, "You know, Christine, you could tell the funniest joke ever written on stage in the first fifteen minutes of your act and you won't get a laugh. They're too busy looking at you." And this I understand and accept. (Christine Jorgensen Reveals)
Later managers commissioned professional comedians to write jokes for Jorgensen and even encouraged her to do burlesque parodies of Madame Butterfly and the Ballet Russe, but she had only marginal success with this material. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, she toured the United States, South America, the Philippines, Cuba, and Western Europe.
Jorgensen regarded herself as a role model for individuals who we might now identify as transgender. She encouraged people to seek out medical professionals who might help them reconcile their physical bodies with their gender identities. In addition, Jorgensen challenged the widely held belief that homosexuality was a social problem and in the late 1950s declared that "it is society's way of thinking toward homosexuality which is the problem" (Christine Jorgensen Reveals). Jorgensen also made headlines when in March 1959 she and her then-fiancé, Howard Knox, applied for a marriage license in Manhattan. The New York City Board of Licenses refused to grant the couple their wish because Knox did not have the appropriate papers to prove he had been divorced from his first wife. While they waited for the papers to be delivered from Knox's hometown of Chicago, Jorgensen and Knox decided to call the wedding off, preferring instead to remain just good friends.
In 1967, the book Christine Jorgensen: A Personal Autobiography was published to great acclaim. The book foreshadowed the transsexual autobiography as a new literary genre. But in the late 1960s, the momentum of the women's and sexual liberation movements, as well as the widespread study of gender dysphoria in professional clinical contexts, made Jorgensen's femme version of a 1950s glamorous starlet seem reactionary to some. In her later years, Jorgensen showed a more liberated attitude that was in keeping with the spirit of the sexual revolution of the era. In a 1975 interview in People, for example, she announced that she was able to have orgasms, though "whether it's like that of a man or a woman I can't say." Yet Jorgensen spent most of her remaining years as a selfdescribed "old maid" in her house in Laguna Beach, California, emerging occasionally for public appearances in such programs as Good Morning America and The Tom Snyder Show, and some cabaret performances in the Los Angeles area during the early 1980s. She died of bladder cancer on 3 May 1989, three weeks short of her sixty-third birthday.
Jorgensen, Christine. Christine Jorgensen Reveals. Audio recording. New York: J Records, 1957.
Jorgensen, Christine. Christine Jorgensen: A Personal Autobiography. New York: Paul S. Ericksson, 1967.
Serlin, David Harley. "Christine Jorgensen and the Cold War Closet." Radical History Review 62 (Spring 1995): 136–165.
see alsocomedy and humor; erickson educational foundation; icons; transsexuals, transvestites, transgender people, and cross-dressers.