Christine Jorgensen: 60 years of sex change ops

By Chloe Hadjimatheou
BBC World Service


News of a pioneering sex change operation, one of the first involving both surgery and hormone therapy, was announced in 1952 - exactly 60 years ago this weekend.

"Ex-GI becomes blonde beauty!" screamed one headline as newspapers in the United States broke the news.

George Jorgensen, a quiet New Yorker, shocked a nation by returning from a trip to Denmark transformed into the glamorous Christine.

As the slender, blonde 27-year-old woman wrapped in a fur coat stepped out of the plane on to the tarmac in New York, her long eyelashes, high cheekbones and full red lips betrayed little of the shy man she had once been.

Jorgensen grew up in the Bronx, a happy child in a large close-knit family.

As a teenager he became convinced he was trapped in the wrong body.

"In photographs from the time Jorgensen looks like a very gay man, which would have been a problem," says Teit Ritzau, a Danish doctor and documentary maker who got to know Christine Jorgensen when he made a film about her in the 1980s.

"The young Jorgensen never identified himself with homosexuality but rather as a woman who happened to be in a man's body," he says.

In her autobiography Jorgensen says that, while she was still living as George, despite being attracted to men she felt physically sick when a man propositioned her.

But in the late 1940s, during a short stint in the US military, Jorgensen came across an article about a Danish doctor, Christian Hamburger, who was experimenting with gender therapy by testing hormones on animals. She began to hope Hamburger would provide the solution to her problem.

Jorgensen's parents were both Danish-born so with family connections making it an easy trip to justify, in 1950 she headed to Copenhagen without telling anyone about her real intentions.

"I was a bit nervous because there were too many people at that period who insisted I was crazy," Jorgensen recalled in an interview years after her transformation.

Media caption,
Jorgensen explains her difficulty finding a man in a BBC interview in 1970

"But Dr Hamburger didn't feel there was anything particularly strange about it."

Hamburger was the first physician to diagnose Jorgensen as transsexual.

The first step towards becoming a woman was a long course of female hormones. Hamburger encouraged Jorgensen, for the first time, to take on a female identity and begin dressing as a woman in public.

As the hormones began to take effect, Hamburger noted the changes in his patient .

"The first sign was an increase in size of the mammary glands and then hair began to grow where the patient had a bald patch on the temple," he later said. "Finally the whole body changed from a male to a female shape."

Jorgensen was also assessed by a psychologist, Dr Georg Sturup, who accepted the strength of her conviction that she wanted to proceed with sex reassignment surgery.

As a result, Sturup successfully petitioned the Danish government to change the law to allow castration for the purposes of the operation.

Finally, after more than a year of hormone therapy, Jorgensen went under the knife for the first of a series of operations that would attempt to change her genital organs from male to female.

Exactly what was done during these operations is unclear, but it is likely that Hamburger and his team followed the lead set by a group of surgeons several decades earlier.

The first attempt at a modern sex change operation most likely took place in Berlin in the 1930s on a patient known as Lili Elbe.

The surgery failed and Elbe died as a result of the last of her operations, but the medical notes from the experiment served as a starting point for the Danish team.

Today sexual reassignment surgery involves making an incision in the scrotum and pulling nerve endings from the penis inside the body to design a vagina but this form of penile-inversion surgery was not invented until several years after Jorgensen's operation.

"Apparently the surgery was successful enough for Jorgensen to feel satisfied," says documentary maker Teit Ritzau.

"There seemed to be no complications and no side-effects from the treatment, which is quite amazing when you think about how primitive things were at the time."

Christine Jorgensen refused to be drawn on the details of her new anatomy, or how closely it resembled that of a naturally born woman, but in interviews she did touch on the subject in general terms.

"Everyone is both sexes in varying degrees. I am more of a woman than a man… Of course I can never have children but this does not mean that I cannot have natural sexual intercourse - I am very much in the position right now of a woman who has a hysterectomy," she said in 1958.

After the procedure, Christine wrote to her parents back in New York: "Nature made a mistake which I have had corrected, and now I am your daughter."

Her family seemed to be very supportive of her decision and she later said her mother had always known her son had been different.

Image caption,
She had a career in Hollywood - here she is with Roger Moore in 1960

On her return to the US, Jorgensen was greeted with curiosity, fascination and respect by both the media and the public. There was relatively little hostility.

Hollywood embraced her. Theatre and film contracts began to roll in, she was invited to all the most glamorous parties and even crowned Woman of the Year by the Scandinavian Society in New York.

"I guess they all want to take a peek," Jorgensen once said.

Throughout the 1960s and 70s she made a comfortable living, touring the country singing and doing impressions in her own show.

She was less successful in her personal life. Her first serious relationship broke down soon after their engagement. The next went as far as the register office, only for Jorgensen to be refused a marriage licence when she pulled out a man's birth certificate.

"I haven't found the right fella yet," she told ever-curious reporters.

Ritzau believes that, overall, she was a very contented person, despite her apparent loneliness.

"There had been ups and downs and I think she had a little problem with alcohol, but in the end she was very straightforward, and she told me that the best company she had was herself," he recalls.

Jorgensen died of cancer at the age of 62, in 1989.

Just a few years before her death, she travelled back to Denmark for a reunion with the doctors who had helped her through her transformation. Speaking to the media, she acknowledged the milestone her case represented.

"We didn't start the sexual revolution but I think we gave it a good kick in the pants!"

Christine Jorgensen is the subject of today's edition of Witness on BBC World Service. You can listen to the programme, download a podcast, and browse the Witness archive here.

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