By Elizabeth Bowley.
The Danish Girl, starring Eddie Redmayne, tells the story of Lili Elbe, one of the first people to undergo gender reassignment surgery. The film is a fictionalised account of Gerda and Einar Wegener’s relationship and Einar’s transition into Lili. In the last few years, issues facing transgender people have been coming to light more and more, creating a greater public awareness and acknowledgement for the transgender community.
What is so fascinating about Lili’s story is that she was dealing with these issues in the very different time and environment of the early 1900s. In fact, several doctors simply diagnosed Lili with insanity or schizophrenia. The courage shown by Lili and other transgender pioneers was simply remarkable. Therefore, we look at the stories of both Peter Alexander and Christine Jorgensen, two early transgender people who feature in the British Pathé archive.
Originally born Mavis Higgins, Peter realised from an early age that he was more interested in male activities and chose to make the transition into a man. The below film shows Peter Alexander in 1937 after his transformation.
Another extremely prominent transgender pioneer is Christine Jorgensen. Christine played a fundamental part in generating transgender awareness as she was one of the first people to become widely known for having gender reassignment surgery. In fact, she once said, “We didn’t start the sexual revolution but I think we gave it a good kick in the pants.”
Again, from an early age Christine was convinced that she was a woman stuck inside a man’s body. Instead of being interested in girls, she found she was more envious of them. Christine was drafted into the army in 1945 and it was after she left that she decided to become a woman (although it should also be mentioned that in between Christine worked for Pathé News!). She travelled to Denmark in 1950 in order to begin her transformation. The transition would involve hormone therapy and several operations. In 1952, while she was still recovering in Copenhagen, her story was making big news back in the US. Upon her return there in 1953, Christine was met with a swarm of reporters, one of which was her former employer, Pathé. Watch the film below.
Christine was treated with fascination, curiosity, respect and varying degrees of hostility. She quickly became comfortable with her new-found fame, later developing a nightclub act where she sang songs such as “I Enjoy Being a Girl.” However, unlike Lili, she was not recognised as a female by the government and therefore she was unable to apply for a marriage licence after getting engaged. Nevertheless, she was embraced by Hollywood and received many film and theatre contracts. She was invited to all the glamorous parties and even given the title of “Woman of the Year” by the New York Scandinavian Society in 1953.
What was so pivotal about Christine Jorgensen’s case was the fact that it brought into question the whole notion of gender as a binary concept, encouraging many scientific studies and experiments and bringing to light the new term of “psychological sex”.
Of course, Lili Elbe’s transformation did not have the same outcome. She was able to live as a woman for a number of years with her wife Gerda, and she did manage to have her sex and name legally changed. However, the surgery that she underwent was much more primitive and experimental in the 1930s. She died from complications arising from her last operation, when they attempted to transplant a uterus in the hope that Lili would be able to have children. It is a captivating story. And although The Danish Girl is a fictionised account of Lili Elbe’s life, it is great to see these issues given prominence on the Big Screen. Well worth a watch!
See all our films relating to transgender pioneers here.