Remembering Christine Jorgensen, America’s First Trans Celebrity

Christine Jorgensen in 1953.
Christine Jorgensen in 1953. / (Jorgensen) Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images; (Background) DrPixel/Moment/Getty Images

Christine Jorgensen had been living in Copenhagen for about two years when, on June 8, 1952, she penned a letter to her family back in The Bronx explaining the real reason for her absence. She hadn’t, as they believed, simply let a garden-variety tourist’s sojourn run long, financed by intermittent work as a photographer. Jorgensen had gone to Europe to receive gender affirmation surgery—and soon she’d be ready to return stateside to live the rest of her life openly as a woman.

“I have changed, changed very much, as my photos will show, but I want you to know that I am an extremely happy person and that the real me, not the physical me, has not changed. I am still the same old ‘Brud,’” she wrote. “But Nature made a mistake, which I have had corrected, and I am now your daughter.”

Jorgensen planned to come home and lead a quiet existence focused on filmmaking and photography. But when the story of her transformation leaked to the press, she ended up in front of the camera, instead—and became one of the most influential trans icons of the 20th century.

Early Days

Jorgensen was born in New York City on May 30, 1926, and assigned male at birth. Her parents were both Danish American: George worked as a carpenter and contractor, while Florence stayed home to raise Jorgensen and her older sister, Dolly. The kids grew up with their extended relatives nearby—Jorgensen herself was especially close with her father’s mother—and benefited from “a closely knit, affectionate family of the sort that gives a child a warm feeling of belonging,” as she wrote in her 1967 autobiography.

Where she didn’t find a sense of belonging was within a gender binary whose terms and conditions seemed as arbitrary as they were inflexible. “Dolly had long blonde hair and wore dresses, both of which I admired but which were not allowed to me, and I was upset and puzzled by this,” she wrote. Boys her age made fun of her effeminacy, asking, for example, if she “was really a girl dressed in boy’s clothes.” The abuse was not specific to children: One teacher summoned her mother just to rebuke her—in front of the entire class—for letting Jorgensen bring a swatch of needlepoint to school.

Christine Jorgensen in 1954
Christine Jorgensen in 1954. / Maurice Seymour, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

As Jorgensen got older, the prospect of a career in photography—of finding purpose through work—temporarily helped distract her from the confusion and shame she felt about her personal identity. She enrolled at the New York Institute of Photography during her last year of high school and soon got a job cutting and cataloging newsreel for RKO-Pathé News in Manhattan. Shortly after World War II ended, she enlisted in the army, partly to make her parents proud and also, she explained, to fulfill her “great desire to belong, to be needed.” She spent about 14 months doing the clerical work necessary to discharge thousands of soldiers a day before herself being honorably discharged in December 1946.

Two years later, while attending the Progressive School of Photography on the G.I. Bill, Jorgensen searched for a scientific explanation for her long-held suspicion that she actually might be a woman. She read up on endocrinology’s impact on sex and gender in books like The Male Hormone by Paul de Kruif, and enrolled at the Manhattan Medical and Dental Assistant’s School to further her research. She began to think that what she called her “emotional and sexual disorder” was the result of a hormone imbalance; she started self-administering estradiol—a form of estrogen—pills to see if she could correct it.

Jorgensen confided in a fellow student, Genevieve Angelo, who arranged for her to be seen by her husband, Dr. Joseph Angelo. Though “Dr. Joe” kept up Jorgensen’s hormone regimen, the type of experimental gender affirmation surgery she’d read about simply wasn’t being done in the U.S. So, in spring 1950, after several months of saving the money she earned as a clerical assistant, 23-year-old Jorgensen booked passage to Europe.

“It was a one-way ticket to a new life,” she wrote.

Christine in Copenhagen

Jorgensen alighted in Copenhagen, Denmark, and consulted with Dr. Christian Hamburger, a leading endocrinologist who agreed to administer free courses of hormone replacement therapy as long as she submitted to near-constant urinalysis. Between October 1950 and November 1952, Jorgensen also underwent three operations: first, a quick procedure to have her ears pinned back, followed by an orchiectomy and a penectomy.

Christine Jorgensen sometime after her transition
Christine Jorgensen sometime after her transition. / Keystone/GettyImages

Along with the medical components of her transition came the sociocultural ones. She donned women’s clothes for the first time—a skirt and jacket set that she’d sewn herself—and went with a friend to a beauty salon. “As I remember, I came out looking somewhat like an unclipped poodle, with the tightest [perm] in history,” she wrote. Her chosen name—Christine, in honor of Hamburger—necessitated a visit to the American Embassy for a new passport.

“I stayed within the small circle of my friends and seemed to fall into the female role gradually, and in a natural way. Those people who had not known me before accepted me in the same way that I accepted myself, and it was a period of adjustment without tension or fear,” Jorgensen recalled.

Though Jorgensen’s family did initially feel some shock and worry upon learning of her transition in June 1952, their telegrammed response conveyed only loving acceptance: “Letter and pictures received. We love you more than ever. Mom and Dad.” The support continued over the next several months as they got used to the news; her mother and sister even sent over several shopping sprees’ worth of “dresses, suits, shoes, gloves, and handbags.”

Jorgensen spent her final summer in Denmark exploring the country, capturing color footage for a travel documentary. She hoped to return to New York in time for Christmas with her family, but in early December 1952, the New York Daily News published an article entitled “Ex-G.I. Becomes Blonde Beauty: Operations Transform Bronx Youth,” which set off a media frenzy and essentially prevented its subject from ever again keeping a low profile. 

It’s still unclear who took Jorgensen’s story to the press. What we do know is her reaction to the breach; she described feeling “shock,” “towering rage,” and “bitter resentment.” Her parents traveled to Denmark to spend Christmas with her there, away from the American media’s relentless hounding. When Jorgensen did fly back to New York City in February 1953, some 300 reporters greeted her at the airport.

Christine Takes the Stage

Jorgensen wasn’t the world’s first recipient of gender affirmation surgery: That distinction is typically given to Dora Richter, who underwent a similar series of procedures in Berlin starting in 1922. But to much of the population, even the notion of being transgender—or, in the parlance of the time, transsexual—was still completely new, and letters flooded in from people who saw themselves in Jorgensen’s highly publicized story.

The realization that sharing the details of her transition could help people understand their own gender identities prompted Jorgensen to agree to an exclusive interview series for The American Weekly—not to mention that it paid $20,000, which “promised some financial security” for both Jorgensen and her parents.

These two aims—raising awareness and earning a living—drove her to start accepting some of the many invitations for her to appear at events and even perform at clubs. She hired a manager, Charlie Yates, and, at his encouragement, launched a successful touring nightclub act. Apart from a brief hiatus in 1954 when Jorgensen received a vaginoplasty in New Jersey, she spent most of the decade establishing herself as a top-notch entertainer. 

What Jorgensen lacked in raw talent as a singer and dancer she more than made up for with hard work, natural charisma, and a winking wit. She was known to sing “I Enjoy Being a Girl,” and other numbers centered on normalizing her gender identity, including an original song called “It’s a Change” that ends with this stanza:

“When the First Lady is a he—and the President is me
It’s a switch—it’s a twist—it’s a change.
Still these things would shock most people
But I really don’t know why,
For the world is full of changes—who knows this more than I!”

Later Days

In April 1959, Jorgensen got engaged to a statistician—whose name was reported in the press as Howard J. Knox, though he’s John Traub in Jorgensen’s autobiography—but New York City Hall denied them a marriage license on the grounds that Knox had failed to supply the paperwork proving that he’d divorced his previous wife. It was evident to everyone that the real issue was Jorgensen’s birth certificate, which still listed her as male. By that point, Knox’s employer had already fired him over his relationship with Jorgensen, and the nonstop media coverage of their relationship was making it difficult for the two to imagine a happy future together. Instead of fighting City Hall on the birth certificate matter, they decided to call off the engagement.

Jorgensen’s life story continued to captivate the public for decades after she became famous. In 1970, Irving Rapper directed a biopic called The Christine Jorgensen Story based on her autobiography; she was involved in the making of the film, though she didn’t appear in it. And she stayed booked and busy giving lectures and performing at clubs into the 1980s, after the Sexual Revolution had come and gone. “We may not have started it,” she said of the movement, “but we gave it a good swift kick in the pants.”

She was diagnosed with bladder and lung cancer in 1987, and passed away on May 3, 1989, at age 62. In 2019, she became one of 50 inaugural LGBTQ+ icons featured on the National LGBTQ Wall of Honor at New York City’s Stonewall Inn—the site of the Stonewall Riots of 1969.

Christine Jorgensen in London in 1970
Jorgensen in London in 1970. / Evening Standard/GettyImages

Her inclusion in the memorial is a testament to everything she stood for: her determination to make society change for her—rather than the other way around—her lifelong commitment to trans visibility, and, ultimately, the clear and joyous pride she felt about her own identity.

As she told one reporter in 1979, “You might add to my epitaph, ‘She tried,’ and then you could follow it up with ‘almost everything.’”