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Christine Jorgensen (May 30, 1926 – May 3, 1989) was an American trans woman who was the first person to become widely known in the United States for having sex reassignment surgery. Jorgensen grew up in the Bronx, New York City. Shortly after graduating from high school in 1945, she was drafted into the U.S. Army for World War II. After her service she attended several schools, worked, and around this time heard about sex reassignment surgery. She traveled to Europe and in Copenhagen, Denmark, obtained special permission to undergo a series of operations starting in 1951.
She returned to the United States in the early 1950s and her transition was the subject of a New York Daily News front-page story. She became an instant celebrity, using the platform to advocate for transgender people and became known for her directness and polished wit. She also worked as an actress and nightclub entertainer and recorded several songs.
Returning to New York after military service and increasingly concerned over (as one obituary later called it) a "lack of male physical development", Jorgensen heard about sex reassignment surgery. She began taking estrogen in the form of ethinylestradiol and researching the surgery with the help of Dr. Joseph Angelo, the husband of a classmate at the Manhattan Medical and Dental Assistant School. Jorgensen intended to go to Sweden, where the only doctors in the world who then performed the surgery were located. During a stopover in Copenhagen to visit relatives, she met Dr. Christian Hamburger, a Danish endocrinologist and specialist in rehabilitative hormonal therapy. Jorgensen stayed in Denmark and underwent hormone replacement therapy under Dr. Hamburger's direction. She chose the name Christine in honor of Dr. Hamburger.
She obtained special permission from the Danish Minister of Justice to undergo a series of operations in that country. On September 24, 1951, surgeons at Gentofte Hospital in Copenhagen performed an orchiectomy on Jorgensen. In a letter to friends on October 8, 1951, she referred to how the surgery affected her:
As you can see by the enclosed photos, taken just before the operation, I have changed a great deal. But it is the other changes that are so much more important. Remember the shy, miserable person who left America? Well, that person is no more and, as you can see, I'm in marvelous spirits.
In November 1952, doctors at Copenhagen University Hospital performed a penectomy. In Jorgensen's words, "My second operation, as the previous one, was not such a major work of surgery as it may imply."
She then returned to the United States and eventually obtained a vaginoplasty when the procedure became available there. The vaginoplasty was performed under the direction of Dr. Angelo, with Harry Benjamin as a medical adviser. Later, in the preface of Jorgensen's autobiography, Harry Benjamin gave her credit for the advancement of his studies. He wrote, "Indeed Christine, without you, probably none of this would have happened; the grant, my publications, lectures, etc."
After her vaginoplasty, Jorgensen planned to marry labor union statistician John Traub, but the engagement was called off. In 1959 she announced her engagement to typist Howard J. Knox in Massapequa Park, New York, where her father had built her a house in Massapequa, NY after her reassignment surgery. However, the couple was unable 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.
In 1967, Jorgensen moved to California after her parents passed away. She left behind the ranch home built by her father in Massapequa and settled at the Chateau Marmont in Los Angeles, California for a period of time. It was also during this same year that Jorgensen published her autobiography Christine Jorgensen: A Personal Autobiography, which chronicled her life experiences as a trans woman and included her own personal perspectives on major events in her life.
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 Vice President Spiro T. Agnew when he called another politician "the Christine Jorgensen of the Republican Party" (Agnew refused her request).
Jorgensen also worked as an actress and nightclub entertainer and 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. She later recalled that Warner Communications, owners of the Wonder Woman character's copyright, demanded that she stop using the character; she did so and instead used 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 performance 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 er ikke til salg (Paradise Is Not for Sale). Jorgensen was the first and only known trans woman to perform at Oscar's Delmonico Restaurant in downtown New York, for which owners Oscar and Mario Tucci received criticism.
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. Her ashes were scattered off Dana Point, California.
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