Although Christine Jorgensen (1926-1989) was not the first transgender woman to undergo gender-affirming surgery, she is the first to have been widely known to do so.
Amid Jorgensen's public transition, she openly shared her given name with members of the press. Media reports noted that George William Jorgensen Jr. grew up in the Bronx with traits that would today be recognized as signature components of gender dysphoria. She was an introverted boy who felt at odds with the other children her age. In 1945, Jorgensen was drafted into the military.
After her service, she started exploring the possibility of gender-affirming surgery. She began taking the female hormone ethinyl estradiol on her own. She researched the subject with the help of Dr. Joseph Angelo, a husband of one of Jorgensen's classmates at the Manhattan Medical and Dental Assistant School.
At the time, Sweden was the only country where doctors were performing gender-affirming procedures. During a trip to Copenhagen to see relatives, however, Jorgensen met a Dr. Christian Hamburger, a Danish endocrinologist and specialist in rehabilitative hormonal therapy. Jorgensen stayed in Denmark and began more advanced hormone therapy, as well as the first of a series of operations.
A few years later in the United States, Jorgensen underwent a vaginoplasty under the direction of Dr. Angelo and Dr. Harry Benjamin, who was integral in advancing the cause of transgender rights wordwide.
Her sense of humor held her in good stead most of the time, but she stood adamant when she was offended.
New York radio host Barry Gray asked her if 1950s jokes such as "Christine Jorgensen went abroad, and came back a broad" bothered her. She laughed and said they did not bother her at all. However, another encounter demonstrated that Jorgensen could be offended by some queries: Jorgensen appeared on an episode of The Dick Cavett Show, in which the host offended her by asking about the status of her romantic life with her wife, and she walked off the show. Because she was the only scheduled guest, Cavett spent the rest of that show talking about how he had not meant to offend her.
For years, Jorgensen was the go-to media reference for anything concerning trans people or gender-affirming surgeries. Although she was thwarted by legal technicalities several times when trying to legally marry a man — a problem that continues for transgender people today — at the end of her life, she said she never regretted her transition.
Jorgensen was the most storied person on the Associated Press wire in 1953 — more so than the new president, Dwight D. Eisenhower, or Marilyn Monroe. The world did not fear transgender people then, so much as hold them in awe, and she was the perfect introduction for many.
Jorgensen imitated many of her favorite stars in her nightclub act: Marlene Dietrich, Talullah Bankhead, and perhaps less expectedly, Doris Day. They all became fans and friends along with many of the old guard entertainment folk of the day.
The pages below are from Kim Christy's pioneering transvestite and transgender magazine, Female Mimics International. Language and attitude about trans women were certainly different in the middle of the last century, so keep that context in mind while enjoying these pages.
An unsourced early photo of Jorgensen