LGBTQ+ History: Christine Jorgensen’s Life of Fame and Femininity

This post was written by Eori Tokunaga, an intern in the Library of Congress’s Informal Learning Office, Young Readers Center-Program Lab.

Families are made up of people of all different identities. Inside the Library’s collections are stories of thousands of people throughout history, many of whom sought to change the norms of the society in their time. Christine Jorgensen is a reminder of how these stories are present in our history, going far back before the establishment of Pride Month.

Christine Jorgensen was born on May 30, 1926 under the name George William Jorgensen Jr. She grew up in a Danish American community in the Bronx with her parents, Florence Johnson and George Jorgensen, and older sister Dorothy. Christine described herself as a “frail, tow-headed, introverted child” who “refused to play rough and tumble games.” Once she entered high school, many of her friends and family noticed that her dress and mannerisms were more feminine than those of her male peers. After her enlistment and eventual discharge from the U.S. Army in December 1946, Jorgensen used the GI Bill to enroll in the Progressive School of Photography in Connecticut.

Image of a newspaper article, headline reading "Boy-Turned-Girl Rejects Fabulous Show Offers".

“Boy-Turned Girl Rejects Fabulous Show Offers.” Evening star.  (Washington, D.C.), 07 Dec. 1952. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers.  While the origin of the word transgender appears roughly around the mid-1900s, it wasn’t until years later when the term was used as it is today. You may see different terminology used in historic documents.

During her time in college, she read about endocrinologist Dr. Christian Hamburger in Denmark, a pioneer in hormone replacement therapy. In May of 1950, after saving up money while working as a secretary, Jorgensen traveled to the Statens Serum Institut to meet Dr. Hamburger, who performed multiple medical procedures that helped Christine’s body reflect her identity. She would eventually choose the name Christine to honor him.

Christine had intended to maintain her privacy, but in December of 1952, newspapers and advertisements appeared all across New York City exposing her, desperate to see a “real life transsexual” woman. Christine had been using she/her/hers pronouns for a few months. After insisting that her only talent was in photography, Christine and her agent arranged a screening of her travel documentary that she shot while in Denmark. But Christine found out after the show that most people only came to gaze at her, rather than to appreciate her photographic craft.

Newspaper article, featuring a picture of a woman under the headline "Christine Denies Intent to Profit on Publicity from Operation- GI Changed to Girl Impresses Reporters at News Conference"

“Christine Denies Intent to Profit On Publicity from Operation: GI Changed to Girl Impresses Reporters at News Conference.” Evening star. [volume] (Washington, D.C.), 12 Dec. 1952. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers.

As stated by one of Christine’s friends, Rod Peninger, Christine simply wanted to live the life of a woman in obscurity. Nonetheless, as the media continued to publish stories about her, she took it in stride, gig after gig, show after show. She eventually published her story in her own book in 1967, “Christine Jorgensen: A Personal Autobiography.” In it, she shares that although the struggle to establish her identity was painful, she “found the oldest gift of heaven–to be herself.” She kept a small Christmas tree on her bed stand as a reminder to celebrate each day as if it was a holiday, which she did until the last day of her life, May 3, 1987.

As a queer and transgender Asian-American woman, it was incredibly enlightening to have the chance to piece together the story of a transgender woman from the 1950s using the Library’s digital collections. Christine represents just one face of LGBTQIA+ history in America, and there are plenty more to be told. What identities are part of your family? Can you find the stories of people with similar identities to your family in the collections?

Additional Resources

  1. Check out the Library’s larger collection of resources for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Queer Pride Month here.
  2. The Women’s, Gender, and LGBTQ+ Studies librarian, Meg Metcalf, further explores how activists, including transgender and gender-nonconforming people, created LGBTQ+ Pride through “The History of Pride.”
  3. Watch YA author Mike Curato talk about his graphic novel, “Flamer,” based on his own life experiences falling for a boy.
  4. Learn more about LGBTQIA+ resource guides and external websites here.

Bibliography

Goetz, “History of the Word: Transgender,” Point Foundation (blog), February 27, 2017, https://pointfoundation.org/history-word-transgender/

Christine Jorgensen: The Change of A Lifetime. Anonymous New York, NY: A&E Television Networks, 2002. https://search.alexanderstreet.com/view/work/bibliographic_entity%7Cvideo_work%7C1796588. (Timestamp: 20:00-20:25; 23:00-23:33)

Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network. “LGBTQ History Timeline Reference.” GLSEN. Accessed April 26, 2022. https://www.glsen.org/sites/default/files/LGBTQ-History-Timeline-References.pdf

Jorgensen, Christine. Christine Jorgensen: A Personal Autobiography. New York: Paul S. Eriksson, Inc., 1967.

Stryker, Susan. Transgender History. Berkeley: Seal Press, 2008.

Whittle, Stephen. “A Brief History of Transgender Issues.” Last modified June 2, 2010. https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2010/jun/02/brief-history-transgender-issues

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