Though she lived long before me, I can honestly say Lili Elbe changed my life.
Elbe, who died in 1931, was a successful Danish artist with a bisexual wife, and has the distinction of being one of the first transgender people to undergo a surgical gender transition. I discovered Lili during the spring of my own awakening, nose down in a collection of transgender biographies and memoirs that led me to reexamine my own life and, not long after, come out as a man. Over six decades after Lili became a woman in the eyes of her peers, I made the transition from female to male.
Lili’s story held particular meaning for me and my wife. At birth, Lili Elbe was assigned male and given the name Einar Wegner. Married at 22, Einar and a 19-year-old Gerda Gottlieb, were both artists. Nearly a hundred years later, my wife and I married at 22 and were both writers. We fled to San Francisco, they moved to Paris. I started wearing men’s jeans and buzzed my hair into a high and tight military style flattop to signal my shift, while Einar began modeling for Gerda in women’s clothing.
Einar’s dressing en femme began as a bit of a lark. Gerda’s model hadn’t arrived and she persuaded Einar to put on a dress. By then Gerda was already emerging as one of the leading illustrators of the Art Deco movement for fashion magazines like Vogue. Gerda gained a following for her sensuous artwork, which often featured a woman with short bob, full lips, small breasts, and beguiling brown eyes. (Ironically, some historians say that the small-breasted female body type that was popular and idealized in the 1920s was inspired by images of Lili that Gerda created.)
In 1913, the couple publically announced that the mystery model was Einar in women’s clothing. Einar’s crossdressing seemed to awaken something in both of them. Gerda stopped using other models, Einar began identifying as a woman, as Lili, and the couple together began creating sexually explicit illustrations featuring two women together.
I was 37 and had been with Diane for 15 years when I came out and we began transitioning from a lesbian couple to husband and wife. That decision has created some unique challenges. When I suddenly became a man did it mean we’d become, gasp, straight? Neither Diane nor I identified that way. Diane still identified as a lesbian, albeit one who happened to have a trans man as her co-pilot. But we soon discovered that other people were all too happy to bestow other identities upon us.
The roaring '20s came to an abrupt close in October 1929 when the American stock market crashed, launching the Great Depression. It also marked the end of Einar. Already middle-aged, Lili was no longer willing to live a dual life. With Gerda’s support Lili underwent one of the world’s very first medical transitions — which involved a series of experimental surgeries.
Transitioning can put a huge strain on a couple. And that’s before you take into account how hormones change a person. Lili wrote of having incredibly soft skin. Going the opposite direction, I experienced a thickening of skin; I gained what Diane calls “man hands.” Worse, testosterone has wrecked havoc on my emotional availability and communication skills.
Some of the changes seemed thrust upon us by society or hormonal changes, which may have been why Diane took particular delight in establishing what kind of man I could be, from the type of clothes I should wear to whether I held the door for strangers. Gerda also played a part in establishing Lili’s personality. She spoke about “creating” and forming Lili after “enticing” her out of Einar.
We all create ourselves. Whether transgender people do so more or less is debatable but many of us are certainly drawn to this notion that we can change from how others see us into how we see ourselves.
Lili may have lived a hundred years ago but she was, in this respect, very modern. A creation of her own (and Gerda’s) imagination, Lili emerged in portraits created for fashion magazines. In many ways, Lili had a public persona before she had a private one and the public self gave birth to the private self. Under Gerda’s tutelage, Lili transformed from a two-dimensional representation into a real three-dimensional flesh and blood woman.
I’m not trying to suggest that there was an artifice to Lili, at least no more so than there is an artifice to any of us, especially in our modern world of personal brands and augmented and edited “reality.” Musing about the post-transition life Lili was creating, she wrote words that still resonate with those of us on this gender transition journey.
“Frequently the question plagues me: Have I had only a past, or have I had no past at all? Or have I only a future without a past?”
It’s a question I ponder as well. Was I female in my past or have I always been male? My mother feels guilty when she thinks with nostalgia about the little girl I once was. I played women’s basketball in college, but because my school has since changed my name and gender, I’ve been added retroactively to the men’s team. I’m still pictured with the women’s team but my name is now on the list of men’s basketball alums.
After the surgery Lili was pronounced legally female. After 19 years together, the king of Denmark declared Lili and Gerda’s marriage null and void, because marriage, after all, was something only possible between a man and a woman.
When I transitioned Diane and I suddenly gained the right to legally wed long before the Supreme Court ruled on same-sex marriage. It was a strange experience to suddenly have rights we’d been denied for so long. We’d been married before, we’d even had a legally obtained marriage license bearing our two female names. But that was before the state of California declared our marriage — and the marriage of dozens of other same sex couples who’d wed that Valentine’s weekend — illegal. Like Lili and Gerda, our marriage had been voided.
Transitioning can be very tough on a relationship and it takes a lot of adaptability to persevere through all the changes, and the societal pressures they engender. While Diane and I gained status as a perceived straight couple, I’ve heard that going the other way — from having heterosexual privilege to suddenly being seen as queer—can be very stressful. Still, Gerda and Lili stayed together long after Lili began living as a woman.
But that was before Lili underwent the medical transformation that involved hormone treatments. And switching hormones has a habit of changing us far more than we expect. I know trans guys and trans women alike who had always been attracted to women — until they transitioned and suddenly developed an interest in men. Maybe that’s why Lili began expressing a sense that being with a man was essential to her becoming a “real” woman.
That question of authenticity still hovers over trans people today. Am I a real man? What makes someone real? The pressure to feel real — to ourselves and to others — has pushed some trans people to extremes like illegal operations to be seen as more fully female or male
In words that seem prophetic, Lili wrote in a journal, “I cannot imagine what existence would be like if Lili were to one day vanish forever, or if she should no longer be young and beautiful. Then she would no longer have any justification for living at all.”
It’s easy to wonder what might have been, but the real miracle is that Lili and Gerda’s story has survived at all, much less that it has made it to the big screen. It’s a testament to the power of their love story that it escaped the World War II efforts of a brutally efficient regime to literally erase people like them, like me, from the earth, and from history.
That’s why I’ll be going to see The Danish Girl in theaters.