Jorgensen was born George William Jorgensen, Jr., the second child of George William Jorgensen Sr., a carpenter and contractor, and his wife, the former Florence Davis Hansen. Jorgensen grew up in the Bronx area and was self-described as having been a "frail, blond, introverted little boy who ran from fistfights and rough-and-tumble games".
Jorgensen graduated from Christopher Columbus High School in 1945 and shortly thereafter was drafted into the Army.
After being discharged from the Army, she attended Mohawk College in Utica, New York, the Progressive School of Photography in New Haven, Connecticut, and the Manhattan Medical and Dental Assistant School in New York City, New York. She also briefly worked for Pathé News.
Returning to New York after military service and increasingly concerned over (as one obituary called it) her "lack of male physical development", Jorgensen heard about sex reassignment surgery, and 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. Jorgensen intended to go to Sweden, where at the time the only doctors in the world performing this surgery were located. During a stopover in Copenhagen to visit relatives, however, she met Dr. Christian Hamburger, a Danish endocrinologist and specialist in rehabilitative hormonal therapy. Jorgensen stayed in Denmark, and under Dr. Hamburger's direction, was allowed to begin hormone replacement therapy. She then got special permission from the Danish Minister of Justice to undergo a series of operations. Jorgensen's testicles were removed first and a year later, still in Denmark, she had a penectomy. Jorgensen then returned to the U.S and eventually obtained a vaginoplasty when the procedure became available there. The vaginoplasty was under the direction of Dr. Angelo, with Harry Benjamin as a medical advisor.
Jorgensen chose the name Christine in honor of Dr. Hamburger. She became a spokesperson for transsexual and transgender people.
A media sensation developed on December 1, 1952 when the New York Daily News carried a front-page story (under the headline "Ex-GI Becomes Blonde Beauty") announcing that Jorgensen had become the recipient of the first "sex change". This claim is not true as the type of surgery had previously been performed by pioneering German doctors in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Danish artist Lili Elbe and "Dorchen", both patients of Magnus Hirschfeld at the Institut für Sexualwissenschaft (Institute for Sexual Research) in Berlin, were known recipients of such operations in 1930-31. What was different in Jorgensen's case was the added prescription of hormone therapy.
When Jorgensen returned to New York on February 13th 1953, she became an instant celebrity. There has been speculation that Jorgensen leaked her story to the press. The publicity created a platform for Jorgensen, who used her publicity to advocate for transgender people. 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 that 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". Jorgensen walked off the show's set and because she was the only scheduled guest, Cavett spent the rest of that show talking about how he had not meant to offend her.
After her vaginoplasty, Jorgensen planned to marry John Traub, a labor-union statistician, but the engagement was called off. In 1959, she announced her engagement to Howard J. Knox, a typist, in Massapequa, New York, where her father had built her a house after her reassignment surgery. The couple was unable, however, to obtain a marriage license because Jorgensen's birth certificate listed her as male. In a report about the broken engagement, The New York Times noted that Knox had lost his job in Washington, D.C., when his engagement to Jorgensen became known.
During the 1970s and 1980s, Jorgensen toured university campuses and other venues to speak about her experiences. She was known for her directness and polished wit. She once demanded an apology from Spiro T. Agnew, the U.S. vice president, when he called another politician "the Christine Jorgensen of the Republican Party".
Jorgensen also worked as an actress and nightclub entertainer, and she recorded several songs. In summer stock, she played Madame Rosepettle in the play Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mamma's Hung You in the Closet and I'm Feelin' So Sad. In her nightclub act, she sang several songs, including "I Enjoy Being a Girl", and at the end made a quick change into a Wonder Woman costume: as she later recalled in her act Warner Communications, owners of the Wonder Woman character's copyright, demanded that she stop using the character, which she did, substituting a new character of her own invention, "Superwoman", who was marked by the inclusion of a large letter S on her cape. Jorgensen continued her act, performing at Freddy's Supper Club on the upper east side of Manhattan until at least 1982, when she performed twice in the Hollywood area—once at the Backlot Theatre, adjacent to the discothèque Studio One, and later at The Frog Pond restaurant. This was recorded and has been made available as an album on iTunes. In 1984, Jorgensen returned to Copenhagen to perform her show and was featured in Teit Ritzau's Danish transsexual documentary film Paradiset ikke til salg (Paradise Not for Sale).
Jorgensen said in 1989, the year of her death, that she had given the sexual revolution "a good swift kick in the pants". She died of bladder and lung cancer four weeks short of her 63rd birthday.
Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, during his earlier career as a calypso singer under the name 'The Charmer', recorded a song about Jorgensen, "Is She Is Or Is She Ain't". (The title is a play on the 1940s song, "Is You Is or Is You Ain't My Baby".)
In Christine Jorgensen Reveals, a stage performance at the 2005 Edinburgh Festival Fringe, Jorgensen is portrayed by Bradford Louryk. To great critical acclaim, Louryk dressed as Jorgensen and performed to a recorded interview with her during the 1950s while video of Rob Grace as the comically inept interviewer, Mr. Nipsey Russell, played on a nearby black-and-white television set. The show went on to win Best Aspect of Production at the 2006 Dublin Gay Theatre Festival, and it ran Off-Broadway at New World Stages in January 2006. The LP was reissued on CD by Repeat The Beat Records in 2005.
Transgender historian and critical theorist Susan Stryker directed and produced an experimental documentary film about Jorgensen, titled Christine in the Cutting Room. In 2010, she also presented a lecture at Yale University titled "Christine in the Cutting Room: Christine Jorgensen's Transsexual Celebrity and Cinematic Embodiment". Both works examine embodiment vis-à-vis cinema.
Jorgensen is a character in Nick and Jake, a novel by Tad Richards and Jonathan Richards, published in 2012 by Arcade Publishing.
Christine Jorgensen: A Personal Autobiography by Christine Jorgensen
Paperback: 340 pages
Publisher: Cleis Press; 1st edition (October 12, 2000)
Amazon: Christine Jorgensen: A Personal Autobiography
Amazon Kindle: Christine Jorgensen: A Personal Autobiography
In 1951 George Jorgensen, an American man of 26, left for Denmark and returned a year later as the first world-renowned transsexual, Christine Jorgensen. In her own personable style, Jorgensen offers a firsthand account of her ground-breaking life. "Nature made a mistake," she wrote, "which I have corrected."
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