Sunday, January 22, 2012

Christine Jorgensen

The Awesome Woman of the Day is Christine Jorgensen (1926 - 1989), the first person whose male-to-female sex reassignment surgery became, in 1952, a mainstream news item. She grew up as George William Jorgensen, Jr., in a blue-collar family in Bronx, New York, living as an uncomfortable child inside a boy's body that, according to some sources, never fully developed into male adulthood.

After Jorgensen did a tour of duty in the Army, she studied and worked in the fields of photography and dentistry. With access to doctors and information when working as a dental assistant, she began taking a form of estrogen. She then made her surgery arrangements through her medical connections and traveled to Denmark where, under the direction of Dr. Christian Hamburger,  the removal of her male genitals was done. (Several years later she had a vaginoplasty when the procedure became available in the U.S.) She chose the name Christine in honor of Dr. Hamburger.

Jorgensen's return the the United States after her first surgery was a major media event in 1953. She stepped off the airplane into an excited sea of cameras and news reporters. Given the tightly defined gender roles of that time, and the prevalence of violent homophobia in our culture, her decision to "go public" -- very public -- was immensely courageous. A common joke going around was that, "She went abroad, and came back a broad." She conducted herself in that press event with incredible grace:

Apparently, Jorgensen's carpenter-contractor father from the Bronx was quite supportive of her and did not withdraw his paternal love -- after her surgery he built a house for her in Long Island. There she met Howard T. Knox, a typist, and in 1959 the two announced their engagement to be married. Sadly, because Jorgensen's birth certificate still said she was male the marriage license was not granted.

Jorgensen used her publicity for more than personal fame, making appearances on talk shows and speaking on college campuses throughout the 1970s and 80s about her experience. In 1970, she sent a telegram to Spiro T. Agnew asking him to apologize for calling one of his adversaries "the Christine Jorgensen of the Republican party." (No apology was forthcoming.) In addition to assuming the role of a public figure on the speaking circuit, Jorgensen worked for years as a stage actress and nightclub entertainer. (A recording of her performance at The Frog Pond restaurant in Hollywood is available in the iTunes Music Store.)

Christine Jorgensen embraced a course of action that was so radical for her time, and by thrusting her story into the public arena she opened a pathway for other queer and gender-queer individuals, and for straight women whose societal role in the 1950s had been reverted from Rosie the Riveter to the demurring housewife whose place in the scheme of things was as much a prison form many women as sexual mis-assignment was for Jorgensen (and countless others). And perhaps even straight men saw their gender role become more malleable from that point forward -- with the realm of acceptable possibilities for a man's character broadening from the iconic square-jawed image of a dominance and controlled emotions in 1950 into today's stay-at-home dads and Burning Men.

Of course gender and gender roles have never been set in concrete, but it was Christine Jorgensen who had the courage to help us reexamine our belief that they are, and to step out into new territory that allows us to become who we are rather than force ourselves miserably into a mold.