Inside the life of the world's first transgender celebrity (2024)

The tarmac was illuminated by flashes as the tall blonde actress delicately stepped from the plane at New York’s International Airport.

Photographers jostled for a good position, clambering over each other for the perfect shot. Newsreel cameras whirred while journalists yelled out questions.

‘I thought for a moment that I had entered Dante’s inferno,’ Christine Jorgensen later recalled. ‘I learned later it was the largest assemblage of press representatives in the history of the airport.’

It was a simple letter sent from Christine to her parents, Florence and George, that had ignited the media circus. ‘Nature made a mistake, which I have had corrected, and I am now your daughter’, the 26-year-old had explained. Christine had become the first known person from the United States to have sex reassignment surgery – and now the whole world knew.

Born on May 30, 1926, Christine enjoyed a pleasant family upbringing in the Belmont neighborhood of the Bronx. There was no broken home, no absent father, no early trauma – all theories favoured by psychoanalysts at the time who wanted to know ‘why’ people felt uncertain in their gender or sexuality.

Christine was drafted into the US Army in 1945. Her work was mostly administrative until a deployment to Camp Polk, Louisiana for rigorous training. But after a nasty bout of bronchitis and pneumonia, she was medically discharged on December 5, 1946. In the years that followed, Christine tried, and failed, to forge a career in Hollywood, worked a ‘dull’ grocery store job and explored photography.

All the while, feeling trapped in the wrong body.

Christine later wrote: ‘Many times, I’ve been accused of living a masquerade as a female, but if I have not already made it clear I will state again that, in my view, the real masquerade would have been to continue in my former state. That, to me, would have been living the lie.

‘I didn’t want to continue in my present state if there was even the remotest possibility of finding further help, no matter where in the world I would have to go to find it.’

It was in 1948, that Christine discovered an article about hormone experiments. After further research, she found out doctors in Europe could – potentially – help her transform into a woman.

By April 1950, she had saved up enough for a one-way-ticket to a new life.

In Denmark, renowned scientist Dr Christian Hamburger agreed to help Christine, then 26, transition for free through the use of hormone injections, plastic surgery and psychiatric support.

In a lengthy letter to her parents in 1952, Christine wrote: ‘I have changed very much, but I want you to know that I am an extremely happy person. I do so want you to like me very much and not be hurt because I did not tell you sooner.’

But Christine needn’thave worried, as her parents – albeit concerned – simply replied: ‘Letter and pictures received. We love you more than ever. Mom and dad.’

Christine and her family never intended the world to know about her transition after she returned to the USA. But, according to Christine’s autobiography, her mother was left shaken by a ‘threatening’ journalist on her doorstep who had heard about her daughter’s trip to Denmark. Florence had shared her letter from Christine in good faith, in an attempt to make the article more truthful.

On December 1, 1952, the headline in the New York Daily News screamed ‘GI BECOMES A WOMAN, DEAR MUM AND DAD SON WROTE, I HAVE NOW BECOME YOUR DAUGHTER.’

The response was instantaneous, with extracts from Christine’s letter and photos spreading across other newspapers. The Korean War was raging, George VI had died and Queen Elizabeth II had taken to the throne, but the journalists – and readers – craved more of Christine.

In her autobiography, she would reflect: ‘Almost invariably when my name was mentioned, it carried the added phrase, “an ex-GI.” There seemed to be something fascinating about the fact that I’d been in the army, and I wonder now if that paradox wasn’t a large contributing factor in the mountains of publicity that followed.

‘Apparently, I was going to have to get used to the idea of being stared at and inspected. People were going to be interested and inquisitive, I decided, and I would just have to accept it as logical, if I was going to function in the world at all.’

Amid the bombastic coverage, there were opportunities sent via letter and telegram. Christine was offered radio appearances, club invites and theatre performances. Soon enough, her Hollywood dream came true.

On February 15, 1953 – upon returning from a film premier in Denmark – she was met with an army of reporters and photographers at New York’s International Airport. The Danish royal family were on the same flight, but the press only had eyes for Christine.

‘Where did you get the fur coat?’ ‘Will you marry?’ ‘Do you think Europeans understand sex problems better than Americans?’ were among the questions hurled at Christine. She had become an instant celebrity, known for her directness and polished wit, but also for taking control of her own story and her work to advocate for transgender people.

Throughout her career – starring in films and in nightclubs in Europe and America – the actress gave lectures at colleges and universities about her experience. In 1952, she was crowned Woman of the Year by the Scandinavian Society in New York as she continued to act, sing and perform across the world.

Her 1967 autobiography Christine Jorgensen: A Personal Autobiography sold almost 450,000 copies. Three years later, the book was adapted into a drama film: The Christine Jorgensen Story starring John Hansen in the lead role.

In the preface to her book, the actress explained that she hoped to reach ‘boys and girls who grow up knowing they will not fit into the pattern of life that is expected of them; men and women who struggle to adjust to sex roles unsuited to them; and the intrepid ones who, like myself, must take drastic steps to remedy what they find intolerable.’

Christine added: ‘The answer to the problem must not lie in sleeping pills and suicides that look like accidents, or in jail sentences, but rather in life and the freedom to live it.’

By the early 1980s, the celebrity had retired from public life and settled in Laguna Beach, California. She never married, despite several high-profile relationships. In 1959, she had planned to wed typist Howard J. Knox but, because Christina’s birth certificate listed her as male, this couldn’t be.

Christine died of bladder and lung cancer on May 3, 1989, at age 62.

Her story helped a generation of young trans people accept themselves, and led to further grants and research in the medical world. But the actress always maintained an aura of humility.

A few years before her death, Christine travelled back to Denmark to meet with Dr Hamburger, the man who had made her transition a reality. There, she told a journalist: ‘We didn’t start the sexual revolution but I think we gave it a good kick in the pants!’

'Nature made a mistake, which I have had corrected'

Click below to enlarge the first page of a letter written by Christine Jorgensen in Denmark to her parents in the Bronx, New York, in 1952.

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Inside the life of the world's first transgender celebrity (2024)
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