“Fifty Year After”: Symposium Explores the Legacy of Christine Jorgensen

Th e re is a rich history of people who have deliberately constructed their bodies and challenged the
b i n a ry sex-gender system. On November 22, CLAGS presented a symposium in which scholars, trans
activists, service providers, and artists revisited the life of one of the most famous of them — Christine
Jorgenson — and considered her impact on our understanding of gender identities five decades after her
“sex change” made headlines. Guest speakers — among them C. Jacob Hale, Hugh McGowan, Joanne
Meyerowitz, Mariette Pathy-Allen, Ben Singer, Dean Spade, Chris Straayer, Susan Stry k e r, and Dinh Tu Tran –
– traced Jorgensen’s life and the sensationalized media coverage of her transition and also commented on
current medical, social, legal, and political issues that the trans community struggles with. The symposium
was followed by Imani Henry’s performance piece, B4T (before testosterone).
The author of the recent book, How Sex Changed: A History of Transsexuality in America, M e y e r o w i t z
described Jorgensen as a “pivotal figure” in rethinking sex in the “unlikely period” of the 1950s. Born and
raised in the Bronx as “George” and drafted into the army during World War II, Jorgensen found a book on
hormones in the late ’40s that seemed to explain Jorgensen’s sense of feeling out of place in a male body.
Jorgensen regarded the book as “salvation in my hands.” After reading a New York Ti m e s a r t i c l e
on the endocrinologist, Dr. Harold Grayson, Jorgensen sought treatment, traveling to Denmark
beginning in 1950, where surgery was completed two years later. On December 1, 1952
Christine Jorgensen made her debut to readers of the New York Daily News.
As Meyerowitz recounted, the front page headline invoked rigid gender stereotypes: “Ex-
GI becomes Blonde Beauty,” it read, juxtaposing the quintessential post-war ideal of
masculinity against the quintessential representation of glamorous, white femininity. (As
conference organizer Salvador Vidal-Ortiz reminded us in his opening remarks, white
dominance determined America’s ideal of femininity and Jorgensen’s whiteness gave her access
that trans people of color did not have.) Though such surgeries had been done in Germany in
the 19-teens and ’20s, said Meyerowitz, Jorgensen’s was the first to inspire sensation, inaugurating
a public debate and then a scientific one over sex “and what we now call gender. ”
Though Jorgensen could not control the way journalists reported on her, she did, argued
Hale, a professor of philosophy at California State, “use the resources available to carve out
cultural spaces.” Stry k e r, a writer and director of the GLBT Historical Society, elaborated:
Jorgensen had worked as a professional photographer and filmmaker and well understood that “visual
practices were as important as medical and psychological discourses” in representing trans experience.
Cinema scholar Straayer and photographer Pathy-Allen turned to visual practices in the second panel.
Straayer contrasted clips from the films “The Christine Jorgensen Story” and “Myra Breckenridge” and
Pathy-Allen presented a slide-show of her works depicting bonds between trans people. A favorite of mine
showed one person dressed in a tutu standing next to another in a man’s suit holding luggage and
examining a map. It is a good image for the next part of the conference, which examined gender road
maps created by transgender individuals and the conflicts they confront when legal and medical institutions
do not recognize the routes their bodies want.
McGowan, who was part of the team that developed the Callen-Lorde Community Health Center’s
guidelines for providing hormones to transgender people, raised questions about authority: who gets to
decide who gets hormones and when? Spade, a lawyer and founder of the Sylvia Rivera Legal Resourc e
Program at the Urban Justice Center, offered a critique of the medical model, rejecting, for example, the
idea of transgender experience as a psychiatric illness. “Gender is a coercive system,” Spade said, and called
for “gender and bodily self-determination for all people.” Spade described the cohesive narrative that
“patients” are required to produce in order to qualify for hormones, and suggested that they might more
productively be supplied without pathologizing the user, much like birth control. The medical model is
translated into the legal realm, Spade added — and Tran, a lawyer and peer counselor, explained how, for
example, the tangled web of laws about name-changes that frequently thwart trans people. In his slide
presentation, scholar and activist Ben Singer extended the critique of the medical model, demonstrating
how images in medical textbooks dehumanize trans people and erase their complexity. “People exist who
do not fit your models,” Singer said he tells doctors. “They desire to live in the world not so much without
gender as without the traumatic regulatory effects of the sex-gender system.”
Jorgensen, as Meyerowitz said, was one of the first to open debate on such issues. But she is not on
the radar of the younger LGBTQ generation; she was definitely not on mine. She is worth taking the time to
learn about — and Christine Jorgensen: A Personal Autobiography has recently been reissued. In 1952 she was
a scandal; in 2002 she might still be.

Omar Portillo is majoring in Sociology and Women’s Studies at Hunter College with a concentration in LGBTQ
Studies through the CUNY BA program.