George Jorgensen Becomes Christine Jorgensen Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The New York Daily News reported that Christine Jorgensen had changed her gender from that of a man to a woman at a medical clinic in Denmark. The story initiated a media frenzy, fueling Jorgensen’s career as a public personality and spokeswoman for the developing transsexual and transgender movements.

Summary of Event

On December 1, 1952, Christine Jorgensen became an overnight media sensation. Americans were fascinated by her story. After living twenty-six years as George William Jorgensen, Jr., she dramatically changed her physical appearance through a combination of surgery and hormones. Public interest was sustained because Jorgensen displayed considerable panache with reporters, and photographers highlighted her attractive face and voluptuous feminine figure. Jorgensen passed as a woman with tremendous success, showing considerable flair for fashionable attire, and she had a command of humorous sound bites for reporters. [kw]Jorgensen Becomes Christine Jorgensen, George (Dec. 1, 1952) Denmark Jorgensen, Christine Hamburger, Christian Transsexualism Jorgensen, Christine Hamburger, Christian Transsexualism Denmark [g]Europe;Dec. 1, 1952: George Jorgensen Becomes Christine Jorgensen[00950] [g]Denmark;Dec. 1, 1952: George Jorgensen Becomes Christine Jorgensen[00950] [g]United States;Dec. 1, 1952: George Jorgensen Becomes Christine Jorgensen[00950] [c]Medicine and health care;Dec. 1, 1952: George Jorgensen Becomes Christine Jorgensen[00950] [c]Publishing and journalism;Dec. 1, 1952: George Jorgensen Becomes Christine Jorgensen[00950] [c]Social issues and reform;Dec. 1, 1952: George Jorgensen Becomes Christine Jorgensen[00950] [c]Women’s issues;Dec. 1, 1952: George Jorgensen Becomes Christine Jorgensen[00950]

Christine Jorgensen.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

The New York Daily News New York Daily News, a popular American newspaper with a high circulation and dating from 1919, published the news that Jorgensen had reassigned her gender through surgery in Copenhagen, Denmark, and was on her way back to the United States. That such a prestigious publication released the account likely increased the likelihood that the story would be further developed by other journalists across the United States. Also favorable for Jorgensen (and the media) was that the United States at this time was heavily embroiled in the Korean Korean War War, and Americans were content to focus on “lighter” news.

Jorgensen’s gender reassignment became a huge media event. In no time, weekly periodicals such as Time magazine Time magazine also featured the story. The first paragraph in the Time article of December 15, 1952, explored Jorgensen’s experience in the military and discussed her bodily changes from the hormonal treatments and the number of surgeries she had endured.

The public learned about Jorgensen’s long-standing desire to change her gender, a desire that led her to Europe. Readers discovered that she had begun life as George, the son of Danish American parents (George and Florence Jorgensen), and that she had one older sister. These mundane facts were easier for the public to digest than was the news that George always had been unhappy as a boy. He believed that he had been born into a wrongly sexed, or gendered, body (a condition now termed “gender dysphoria”) and was meant to be a girl. Jorgensen’s feelings persisted even while he served in the U.S. Army for a brief period during the mid-1940’s, which, as many agree, would have severely challenged and rejected his femininity.

Jorgensen’s military service, especially, piqued widespread interest. The headline for the New York Daily News article was “Ex-GI Becomes Blonde Beauty: Operations Transform Bronx Youth.” Published photographs also highlighted the extreme disjunction between George’s career choice prior to his gender reassignment and between Christine’s appearance after surgery and hormone treatments. Additionally, the U.S. Congress had just instituted the Uniform Code of Military Justice in 1950, which created official policy for the U.S. military regarding homosexual service members. Jorgensen, however, did not identify as homosexual nor was he considered gay by the military; rather, he identified as wrongly gendered. To most Americans during the 1950’s, though, gays and male-to-female transgender persons (and transsexuals and cross-dressers) most often were considered one and the same.

Although the media presented brief details about Jorgensen’s childhood and early career as an adult, it focused on what it believed was most scintillating and sensational: her reassigned gender. The media first reported on Jorgensen’s decision to change her gender in 1950, when she traveled to Denmark and met endocrinologist Christian Hamburger, who was practicing medicine at the Statens Serum Institut in Copenhagen. Jorgensen became his patient within a few months of arriving in Denmark.

Reporters eventually discovered that Jorgensen had her first surgical procedure for genital reconstruction in September, 1951, after many months of tests, hormone treatments, and medical consultations. After this initial surgery, she continued to live in Copenhagen, developing an increasingly feminine appearance and lifestyle. Then, in November, 1952, Jorgensen underwent a penectomy, the surgery that led to the revelatory New York Daily News article of December 1.

The support Jorgensen received from her family contrasted dramatically with the chaotic media reception that greeted her when her flight landed in the United States on December 1. While the sudden media attention must have alarmed her initially, Jorgensen soon rose to the occasion. She was an attractive woman, which appealed to the media, and she used their attention to assist her move into a career in entertainment. She began to perform in nightclubs across the country and was even banned from some venues, which probably helped her in the long run.

More media attention came when Jorgensen was engaged to Knox, Howard J. Howard J. Knox. Jorgensen and Knox attempted to get a Marriage;Christine Jorgensen[Jorgensen] marriage license but were denied in April, 1959. Under civil law, Jorgensen was considered a man (despite having undergone a vaginoplasty in 1954). Her birth certificate said she was born male, so she could not marry a man.

Impact

Beginning during the 1960’s, the media began to pay less attention to Jorgensen, for several reasons. Gender reassignment and different gender expressions became more normalized and accepted (or tolerated) in the context of a growing gay and lesbian rights movement, gender activism, and changing social attitudes. Indeed, social stigma against gender reassignment had been waning when Jorgensen died in 1989 at the age of sixty-two. Her death was barely noted by the press and by, perhaps surprisingly, transgender communities. Later histories have given her more prominence in their records of transgender and transsexual experience.

The New York Daily News article eventually had a positive impact on how transgender people came to be received. Jorgensen, a media-appointed spokesperson for transgenderism, represented her constituency with flair, which likely helped to diminish negative public reaction to the topic of gender reassignment.

Certainly, many other individuals had transformative genital surgeries before Jorgensen, but through a combination of circumstances, Jorgensen sustained people’s interest in a way that earlier individuals had not. She seems to have enjoyed her status as an icon for change. She was charismatic and confident in her interactions with the media, and she met many famous people as her career in entertainment progressed. While her influence on the public lessened during the later years of her life, she once again moved into the limelight with the growth of transgender and gender studies in academia and with increased interest in the early histories of the transgender and transsexual movements. Denmark Jorgensen, Christine Hamburger, Christian Transsexualism

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Boylan, Jennifer Finney. She’s Not There: A Life in Two Genders. New York: Broadway Books, 2003. A well-written and thoughtful presentation of Boylan’s gender reassignment from man to woman. Includes observations from students and academic peers.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Califia, Patrick. Sex Changes: Transgender Politics. San Francisco, Calif.: Cleis Press, 1997. The politics and challenges of changing genders in the United States.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Currah, Paisley, Richard M. Juang, and Shannon Price Minter, eds. Transgender Rights. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006. A broad history of the transgender movement, concentrating on events in the United States and presented within a human rights context.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jorgensen, Christine. Christine Jorgensen: A Personal Autobiography. San Francisco, Calif.: Cleis Press, 2000. Jorgensen’s own account, originally published in 1967, of what motivated her to change her gender. Strong emphasis on her daily life rather than broader changes in society. Includes photographs.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McCloskey, Deirdre N. Crossing: A Memoir. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999. McCloskey became a woman during her time as a professor at an American university. She writes about this transformation.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Morris, Jan. Conundrum. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1974. A classic account of gender reassignment, written by a wonderfully articulate travel author who wrote many books about distant places, both as a man and as a woman.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Stryker, Susan, and Stephen Whittle, eds. The Transgender Studies Reader. New York: Routledge, 2006. A broad survey that includes extensive references. Helps place the transgender movement in its historic context.

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