The Real Danish Girls: Meet the Trans Pioneers Before Laverne Cox & Caitlyn Jenner

Focus Features’ “The Danish Girl,” opening Nov. 27 in a limited run, stars Eddie Redmayne as Lili Elbe, a real-life pioneer in sex-reassignment surgeries that took place in 1930-31. Alicia Vikander plays Gerda Wegener, Elbe’s supportive wife.

In 2015, transgender people are in the news daily, but Elbe’s story was virtually unknown at the time. Reports of sex-reassignment were so rare that the world was shocked more than 20 years later to hear of Christine Jorgensen. She had been George Jorgensen from the Bronx but became a woman thanks to surgery — in Denmark, interestingly enough.

The New York Daily News on Dec. 1, 1952 ran a story headlined “Ex-G.I. Becomes Blonde Bombshell.” And people around the world began to realize that gender was not an absolute either/or fact. Jorgensen was the subject of stories in newspapers and the relatively new medium of television. So she did what any enterprising celebrity would do: She capitalized on her fame.

On May 11, 1953, Variety reviewed Jorgensen’s tentative showbiz debut at the Orpheum theater in downtown L.A., which comprised her 20-minute travelog preceded by her two-minute intro. The film was shot in Denmark, with references to Hans Christian Andersen and other Danish delights. Reviewer Mike Kaplan noted, “Photography is frequently bad and the color sometimes incredible. It will be the general audience’s first introduction to people with orange complexions.”

The following month, the Sahara in Vegas booked Jorgensen but then tried to cancel the contract, saying “she” was a “he” and had booked the engagement with “misrepresentation.” But the American Guild of Variety Artists came to Jorgensen’s defense and the Sahara grudgingly booked her for two weeks in September at $25,000. Jorgensen continued to perform in nightclubs and in the Dec. 2, 1953, issue of Variety, McStay reviewed her act at the Casino in Toronto.

He was impressed by the SRO business, the stage-door autograph seekers and especially by the fact that there were no hecklers in the audience. He said she joked about herself and “Miss Jorgensen exhibits dignity throughout her act, and wins on personality.” Her appearance was part of a 65-minute stage presentation that also included song and dance duets with Myles Bell, and an opening act of acrobats Al & Connie Fanton.

The 1970 movie “The Christine Jorgensen Story” was directed by Irving Rapper, who’d helmed several Bette Davis movies, including “Now, Voyager.” The film’s PR tagline was “The first man to become a woman!” Evidently the marketing mavens hadn’t heard of Lili Elbe and others of her era.

Andy Warhol introduced such performers as Holly Woodlawn and Candy Darling in his films, but the next real headline-maker was Dr. Renee Richards. In 1975, the male-to-female doctor sued the U.S. Open tennis tournament when she was denied participation; two years later, the Supreme Court ruled in her favor, a big step forward for trans rights. (In 1986, Vanessa Redgrave gave a spectacular performance in the telefilm, “Second Serve,” about Richards.)

Some people think gender fluidity was born in the 20th century, but in actuality, many different cultures have embraced the idea for a lot longer than that. The 2009 documentary “Two Spirits,” from Russell Martin and Lydia Nibley, describes the hate-crime murder of 16-year-old Navajo Fred Martinez. Martinez was a nádleehí, a male assigned at birth person with a feminine nature. The docu makes the point that Martinez was revered within the tribe for that, but was scorned and murdered in town for those same qualities.

Jorgensen died of cancer at age 63 in 1989 and didn’t live long enough to see the increasing profile for transgender individuals. But Jorgensen lives on in two albums, available on iTunes, singing songs like “I Enjoy Being a Girl.” And “The Danish Girl” will bring renewed interest in Elbe and Wegener, for their paintings and their ground-breaking lives.

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