On February 12th, 1953, Christine Jorgensen boarded an airplane in Copenhagen, Denmark, bound for New York City — home. Reflecting on the trans-Atlantic journey (in more ways than one) in her autobiography, Jorgensen wrote that “those hours were some of the most precious I would ever know, for from then on, dictated by a curious world, my life would never belong to me alone.” The next day, hundreds of eager reporters would descend on her homecoming and forcibly begin her career as the world’s most famous trans woman.
Christine Jorgensen: A Personal Autobiography was published in 1967, more than fourteen years after Jorgensen was outed in the international press. Despite her best efforts at the time to be forthcoming with the details of her story, sensationalized and falsified reports dogged her for years, and eventually she resolved to tell her life story in her own words — not just to dispel salacious rumors, she wrote, but to “help lead to a better understanding of the boys and girls who grow up knowing they will not fit into the pattern of life that is expected of them…and the intrepid ones who, like myself, must take drastic steps to remedy what they find intolerable.” Although her candor and easygoing personality did lead to greater overall awareness of transgender identities, however, the bigotries and indignities Jorgensen suffered are still all too common for trans people around the world. Ironically, her willingness to share so much of herself could be part of the reason why.
Born in the Bronx in May 1926, Jorgensen lived the first twenty-four years of her life as a shy, “underdeveloped” boy who intended to pursue a quiet career in photography but found herself unable to outrun her distress with her assigned gender. In 1950, Jorgensen boarded a ship to Denmark, telling her family she was merely on a sightseeing trip, when in reality she intended to pursue sex reassignment surgeries — procedures then regarded as unethical by many American doctors. While convalescing in the hospital from her second surgery, reporters back home (thirsty for a new story after the latest sex scandal had played out) bullied her parents into giving up a copy of the letter of explanation she had sent home. When Jorgensen returned to New York the following year, the mystery and awe surrounding her transformation had already made her an international celebrity.
Although Jorgensen at first resisted the pressure to parlay her fame into success in the entertainment world, she quickly realized that her old ambitions were no longer possible, given the public’s never-ending scrutiny. “I was unaware of it then,” she wrote, “but in my long painful search for a normal life, I had created a paradox; a life that was to be, for me, abnormal and unconventional.” Attempts to promote her passion project, a travel film about Denmark, fell flat; the public just wanted her — more precisely, her body. Jorgensen acquiesced, and in August 1953 began a nightclub act that would establish her as a true star over the following three decades, propelling her to lauded stage performances as well throughout the 1960s.
Of course, with such notoriety came controversy, lies, and an endless parade of crude and cruel jokes at Jorgensen’s expense. When not inventing incidents out of whole cloth, like a report falsely claiming a club’s show girls refused to share a dressing room with Jorgensen, reporters and columnists often misgendered her outright or concocted terrible jokes riffing on her birth name (“Isn’t she just George-jus?” punned a writer at the time of her return to New York). But the media was far from the only entity guilty of invading Jorgensen’s privacy; during one tour, Jorgensen recalled a strange woman who approached her from behind and, wordlessly, yanked on her hair, apparently expecting it to be a wig. A police officer in the Washington D.C. Morals Squad once threatened her with arrest if she “dared to use a [women’s] public restroom,” she was denied a marriage license because her birth certificate listed her as male, and was banned several times from entertaining troops in U.S. Armed Forces clubs, on the grounds that her act was inappropriate or immoral.
“[M]ine is a basically mild and accepting nature,” wrote Jorgensen in A Personal Autobiography, and it was this trait that allowed her to withstand years of such treatment. Jorgensen hoped that by acquiescing to such intense, lifelong scrutiny and telling her story candidly in every medium possible (including a speaking tour that replaced her nightclub act later in life), she could make sure future generations of trans people were treated with more respect. Yet the rhetoric that cis people used against Jorgensen in the 50s and 60s is strikingly similar to that employed in disparagement of trans women today: media reports still consistently deadname and misgender trans people, often victims of violence, and the rights of trans people to perform or to use bathroom facilities are still in question around the country. “Christine Jorgensen…has adjusted to the world better than the world has adjusted to her,” judged one critic in her review of A Personal Autobiography, an assessment that still sadly applies today.
It would be too simple, however, to assert that Jorgensen’s hypervisibility was insufficient to shift society’s perceptions of transness. To the contrary, despite her continued insistence that her story was “a mold that could fit me alone and no other,” Jorgensen became the poster child for American narratives of trans identity, inadvertently homogenizing the infinite diversity of gender identity and hastening the construction of transness as an illness or disorder afflicting otherwise “normal” people. This effect can already be seen in famous gender pathologist Dr. Harry Benjamin’s introduction to A Personal Autobiography. “This was a little girl, not a boy (in spite of the anatomy) who grew up in this remarkably sound and normal family,” Benjamin wrote. Because she was “normal,” it stood to reason she was also straight: “Since the psychological status of a transsexual male is that of a female, it is natural that [her] sex attraction centers on a male.” Already the box was closing in on trans people, raising expectations that we conform to one hetero WASP’s personal vision of gender and sexuality.
In fact, the stressors that Jorgensen’s visibility placed on trans people at large were already apparent a year after her first surgeries. Faced with a deluge of mail from others around the world seeking gender-affirming surgeries, Denmark enacted a law restricting the procedure only to Danish citizens, much to the consternation of trans people like Charlotte MacLeod. Having planned a series of surgeries much like Jorgensen’s before her story broke, MacLeod arrived in Denmark in 1954 only to be rebuffed by the authorities; bereft of options, she told the Portland Oregonian, “I managed to have the first operation done unofficially. It happened on a kitchen table at midnight…[it] almost killed me.”
Laying the blame for these unintended consequences solely at Jorgensen’s feet is an overstep, of course. But they are the ultimate tragedy that underlies her story, and trans visibility as a concept even today. Despite her simple attempts to “solve a particular and highly personal problem” and tell “as truthful and straightforward a statement as I know how to make,” again and again for the edification of the cisgender public, Christine Jorgensen’s unwanted celebrity paved the way for decades of reductive white- and heteronormative ideas about who trans people fundamentally are. “I found the oldest gift of heaven — to be myself,” wrote Jorgensen, in the closing lines of A Personal Autobiography. Someday, that gift may finally belong to us all.