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Black Telephones, White Refrigerators: Rethinking Christine Jorgensen (1998)

Black Telephones, White Refrigerators: Rethinking Christine Jorgensen (1998)

©1998, 2014 by Dallas Denny

Source: Denny, D. (1998). Black telephones, white refrigerators: Rethinking Christine Jorgensen. In D. Denny (Ed.), Current concepts in transgender identity, pp. 35-44. New York: Garland Publishing.





Chapter 3

Black Telephones, White Refrigerators: Rethinking Christine Jorgensen

By Dallas Denny


The opening shot of Lee Grant’s film, “What Sex Am I?” features a black-and-white newsreel from 1953. A slim, blonde woman, stylish in a mink coat and matching pillbox hat, disembarks from an airplane to face hordes of reporters, jostling for position, trying to get a quote or a photograph. She looks frail and feminine, the very opposite of the male uniformed Scandinavian Airlines pilots at the bottom of the ramp. At the press conference which follows, facing a phalanx of microphones, she protests in a slightly throaty voice, “I think it’s too much.”

Christine Jorgensen_001

It really was too much. This woman had traveled to Europe in pursuit of physical congruity and personal happiness. She found that happiness, but she staggered the world by bringing into question long-held and oft-cherished notions about the immutability of sex and gender.

What was extraordinary was that this woman, whose name was Christine Jorgensen, had, as one punster put it, gone abroad and had come back a broad. Once, she had been a man named George Jorgensen. She was returning to the United States after an extended stay in Denmark, where she had received feminizing hormonal treatments and surgery, and where she had forever given up George’s ostensible manhood for a new name and role as Christine. [1]

George Jorgensen, Jr. was born in Manhattan on Memorial Day, 1926, to a family of Scandinavian ancestry. He was a quiet, shy boy with a feminine manner, and grew up to be a painfully self-conscious young man who, at the age of nineteen, found himself in the U.S. Army in October, 1945. He was honorably discharged sixteen months later, after a bout of pneumonia.

While in the service, Jorgensen had compared himself to the other men in his unit. Where they were strong and hearty and ruggedly masculine, he weighed 98 pounds and was feminine in appearance and demeanor. He wondered whether he might be homosexual (he had found himself emotionally attracted to several of his close male friends, but was unattracted to women); eventually, he decided that his emotions were more those of a woman than of a gay man.

I couldn’t condemn them, but I also knew that I certainly couldn’t become like them. It was a thing deeply alien to my religious attitudes and the highly magnified and immature moralistic views that I entertained at the time.”

—Jorgensen, 1967, p. 33

Jorgensen had a lifelong interest in photography. He set out for Hollywood in 1947, hoping to land a job in the moving picture industry. After an unsuccessful year, he returned home and used his GI-bill benefits to attend MohawkCollege and then the Progressive School of Photography in New Haven, Connecticut. He continued to be haunted by his feeling of being different, and began to wonder whether his femininity was caused by an endocrine condition.

It was in his reading about experiments in which female chicks were masculinized and roosters were revitalized by administration of the newly synthesized sex hormones that Jorgensen first conceived of the notion that perhaps his “imbalance” could be corrected. But he was not interested in becoming more like “normal” males. When he found himself in front of an endocrinologist, he asked if perhaps it was his genitals, rather than his feminine appearance, which was the mistake. The doctor responded by referring him to a psychiatrist, who proposed that Jorgensen begin psychoanalysis to rid himself of his “feminine inclinations.”

George Jorgensen was looking for a miracle, but none were to be found. So he made one himself: first, by submerging himself in textbooks and scientific papers; and then by going to a drugstore where he persuaded a pharmacist to give him a prescription for ethinyl estradiol (an estrogen); and finally by saving his pennies for a journey to Denmark, where doctors were experimenting with sex hormones.

Shortly after his arrival in Copenhagen, Jorgensen persuaded the endocrinologist Christian Hamburger to use him as a human guinea pig for a program of feminization that included hormones, electrolysis, resocialization, and, eventually, genital surgery.

The effect of sex hormones is gradual, but powerful, as anyone who has gone through puberty can attest. Jorgensen’s appearance began to change, at first subtly. Eventually the physical change became profound.

Jorgensen began to dress as a woman, going out in public to socialize and work on her favorite project, a color travel film. She took the name Christine, the feminine version of Christian, in honor of the man who had granted her access to the treatments which she had so desperately desired.

When the time to return to the United States grew near, Jorgensen wrote her parents to inform them of her circumstances. The family was understandably shocked and confused, but to their credit, sent a telegram telling her that they loved her more than ever.

In November, 1952, as Jorgensen lay in a hospital bed, recovering from her second operation (penectomy), and contemplating her impending return to the U.S., someone—never identified by name in her autobiography—leaked the fact of her medical treatments to the press. The story broke on the first of December, in headline ’round the world: “Ex-GI Becomes Blonde Beauty;” “Bronx GI Become a Woman;” “Dear Mom and Dad, Son Wrote, I Have Now Become Your Daughter.”

If Jorgensen’s life had suddenly turned upside-down, the earth had certainly wobbled a bit on its axis. Sex, which had been considered to be constant and enduring, was suddenly capable of being changed. As I write this, forty-three years after the Jorgensen headlines and more than six years after her death, many of us, transsexual and nontranssexual alike, are still struggling with the Pandora’s box opened by this one human being who chose to call herself Christine.

Christine Jorgensen Headlines

It was not until Jorgensen’s return to the United States that the world got to see just what she looked like. And the difference between the shy young man with protruding ears who had left for Denmark in 1950 and the confident woman in mink in 1953 was astounding. Thin and stylish, and reasonably pretty, there was nothing about her other than the headlines and a few old photos to suggest that she had not always been a woman. In a world in which refrigerators were white, telephones were black, boys were boys and girls were girls, and there were few shades of gray in between, her physical appearance confirmed that she had indeed been “changed.” The reporters had been impressed that a team of surgeons could bring about such a transformation, and wrote their stories as if that had been so. Having been already blessed by the scientists with such marvels as hydromatic transmissions and atom bombs, the average American believed that all of life’s little problems, including George Jorgensen’s, could be fixed by a simple application of technology. Certainly, this woman had, as the press suggested, been created out of whole cloth by the doctors.

Cut to a modern 1950’s all-electric kitchen. White appliances have the same rounded curves as the family Buick, which is visible through the curtained window. Mom is at the stove, wearing a checked apron and a big smile. Dad, with pipe and paper, sits at the table. Sis, her hair in pigtails, wearing penny loafers, and Junior, with butch cut and freckles, are helping themselves from a selection which contains the Five Basic ’50s Food Groups (cholesterol, fat, refined sugar, red meat, and iodized salt). Spot, his head tilted to one side, watches Dad with fascination as he (Dad, not Spot) says, “Say, now, look at this. Seems those darn scientists have turned a man into a woman.”

“That’s nice dear,” Mom replies.

Junior hides his interest by making a disgusting noise.

“Gee, Dad,” says Sis, “That’s great!”

“It was bound to happen,” pronounces Dad. “If they can split the atom, it stands to reason they can do something reasonably simple like this.”

“Do you think it hurt?” asks Sis.

Of course, even as Americans were simultaneously fascinated and repelled by the thought of Jorgensen’s surgery, it was not the unseen surgery site that made her seem a woman to them, but her physical presentation; she was for all practical purposes indistinguishable from other women her age. She looked like a woman, moved like a woman, sounded like a woman, and no doubt smelled like a woman. Surely it was those darn scientists, who, by putting things in and taking things out and shaking things all about, had turned the jug-eared George into the Scandinavian princess Christine, had transformed a man into a woman.


But of course, that was not true.

Jorgensen was not the first transsexual person, nor even the first to be sexually reassigned. [2] Hers was simply the first case to capture the attention and imagination of the world. To the world, she was a symbol and a celebrity, and she paid a high price for her notoriety.

In terms of the medical treatments she had received, Jorgensen’s sex reassignment (a term not yet coined) had consisted of hormonal therapy and two surgical procedures: castration (removal of the testicles) and penectomy (removal of the penis). Her medical team was unwilling to go any further. Later, she would quietly have yet a third procedure, vaginoplasty, in which a vaginal cavity was created in the Barbie-Doll-like groin Dahl-Iversen, her Danish surgeon, had given her. But if her operations were what constituted her “sex change” in the popular imagination, it was the feminization caused by female hormones and electrolysis which shouted “woman” to the millions who were, courtesy of the media, onlookers. Her surgery sites were invisible, but that smooth face, those blonde curls, those slim hands were right out there in the wind for everyone to see. If Christine Jorgensen was something less than a woman, it was not because of her appearance or demeanor, but only because of the particulars of a past which been laid open by journalists as deftly as Dahl-Iversen had once laid her male parts open with a scalpel. Christine was a new sort of person, a woman who had not always been a woman, a human being who had not been content with her biology and had by damn done something about it.

So let’s get this straight: Christine Jorgensen had not been “made into a woman” by her surgeons. She had no vagina: she had simply had her male organs removed and undergone a course of female hormones and electrolysis. Many men have these operations or take female hormones for medical reasons, like prostrate or penile cancer, or lack facial hair, yet they do not consider themselves women, nor are they considered women by others. But Jorgensen, even if many Americans could not bring themselves to regard her as a woman, was obviously something and someone very different from a man, and someone very like a woman—and for almost everyone, the difference was somehow viscerally rooted (no pun intended) in what had been done “down there.”

But it was not physicians who had actually accomplished Jorgensen’s sex reassignment. No lancet, no hormone tablet can make a woman of a man, or a man from a woman. [3] It was Jorgensen herself who was the driving force in her own sex reassignment. Certainly the medical procedures helped by giving her a body which matched her voice and deportment, but the doctors had not suddenly said, “Hey! I have an idea. Let’s see if we can turn a man into a woman!” and gone in search of a willing victim. No, the entire thing was Christine’s idea. As she has documented in her autobiography, she learned of the experimental work being done in Denmark with hormones and surgery, and went there to check into it. She had set an impossible-sounding goal for herself-—becoming a woman—and when she identified a possible way to realize that goal, she took advantage of it—and it worked!

It was the sheer force of her will which set the process in motion, persuading reluctant physicians to undertake such a novel set of treatments. Although she did not wield the lancet, Christine Jorgensen did her own sex change, moving into the female role with confidence and aplomb.

Although the sensibilities of the 1950’s now seem distant and more than a bit quaint, Jorgensen’s sex reassignment was in fact a prime example of the intersection of the human condition and modern technology. Pills synthesized in laboratories or made from the urine of pregnant farm animals (as are some brands of female hormones), plastic surgery techniques which were originally developed to correct deformities and repair disfigurements, doctors from Denmark—these were merely the tools Jorgensen used to orchestrate the metamorphosis she sought. She managed to conceive of the possibility of changing her sex, figure out that she would need medical help in order to do so, and recruit physicians to give her that help. She was the project manager of a bold social experiment which lasted until 1989, when she died of pancreatic cancer. And it was a successful experiment. Her last public act was to assure the world that she had no regrets about what she had done.

Christine Jorgensen was not only a medical pioneer, but a social pioneer and a role model for a people who had up until then been invisible in our society. She showed the way to tens of thousands of others like herself. With no socialization or training in womanhood, she put on her high heels and went out into the world to slay dragons. She lived with dignity and died with dignity, a spokeswoman for transsexualism, a pioneer, a woman.

I realize that many people still consider Christine Jorgensen an anomaly, a curiosity, a freak, neither fish nor fowl, but I have a better word for her: woman. She was a woman, pure and simple. A transsexual woman. And what a woman! What determination she showed! What resolve, to go against convention, to journey into unknown territory as certainly as had Dr. Livingston a century before her. What nerve it must have taken to face rooms full of shouting, jostling journalists while wearing clothing which would have gotten George into a lot of trouble. What courage, to hold her head high in the face of criticism about who she was and what she had done, to ignore with good grace the tasteless jokes that were made about her, the social snubs, the derogatory headlines, the names she was called to her face and in print [4]. Few of us would have had such fortitude—certainly least of all, her more vocal critics. She was a woman of fierce resolve, and wondrous determination—and yet, to many Americans, she was, and is, not so much a pioneer as a joke, a subject for ridicule. And what does that tell us about ourselves?

Because she was a pioneer, Christine Jorgensen was a favorite target of the media. From the time of her return to the United States, and even after her death, she had no privacy. She was, to the American public, the first person in the world who had had a sex change, and to the news media which had made her such, she was a defenseless, if not entirely reluctant, target. Every milestone in her life was chronicled by reporters, often in articles riddled with puns and double-entendres. Every mention of transsexualism would send reporters to her house to ask her opinion. Any hope she might have had of leaving a private life was shattered.

Christine Jorgensen_004

This lack of privacy contributed to the fact that she never married, for any husband of even lover of hers was fair game also. Her attempt to get a marriage license caused such a media furor that the and her fiancee mutually decided to let the matter of marriage drop. Only a man with the same quiet good grace and determination could have stood up to the pressure—and such men are not easy to find. And so, Jorgensen remained single, living a life for which she was on the one hand vilified by preachers and politicians and stand-up comedians, and on the other hand honored and admired and acclaimed. Hers could not have been an easy life. Certainly, it was a lonely one, and a wearing one—which may account for rumors that she became an alcoholic in her later years. And if she did drink to much, who could blame her?

The press’ treatment of Jorgensen began a longstanding tradition of treating transsexual persons as something less than human. But Christine’s relationship to the press was a curious one. The news media made her into a celebrity, something to which she was not completely averse. In her autobiography, she writes at length about the travel film she had made and her desire to show it. Eventually, she did. She also found herself appearing in night clubs in four continents and acting in the occasional play.

Although Jorgensen eventually became an accomplished performer, it was her status as an instant celebrity which resulted in job offers; indeed, they began rolling in on the very day her story first broke. Many people had a voyeuristic desire to see this miracle woman of modern science, and promoters were not blind to it. Her stage career was a moderate success, eventually dying out more because her performances were of less than stellar quality than because interest in her transsexualism waned.

In her autobiography, Jorgensen maintains that she eventually discovered the identity of the person who tipped off the press. The thought has crossed my mind that perhaps she blew the whistle on herself. Perhaps, while she was pondering how to go about obtaining a change of sex, formulating her fantastic plan, she considered what she might do afterwards. Certainly, she was proud of her travel film and wished for its promotion and success. Certainly, she had learned the bitter lesson in her earlier journey to Hollywood that doors in the entertainment world would not automatically open. Certainly, it must have occurred to her that her most unique quality was not her photographic skills, but her gender status. Certainly, she later took advantage of that status to build a career in show business. Surely she must have known what a hot property she could become with one phone call. And apparently, she made that phone call. Bullough & Bullough, who knew Jorgensen, report in their chapter in this book that she leaked the news to the press.

We’ll probably never know exactly what role Jorgensen had a role in her own “outing,” but one thing is for sure: an awkward, maladjusted man named George became a woman who was poised and confident in the face of harassment and an incredible media feeding frenzy.

Christine Jorgensen’s 1953 return to the United States was a major cultural landmark, as profoundly impacting in its own way as the launching of Sputnik or the erection of the Berlin wall. It changed the way the world thought about sex and gender; about men and women; about maleness and femaleness. For the first time, binary notions of gender were challenged. [5]

Today, more than forty years post-Jorgensen, there is discourse on gender on a variety of fronts. This is reflected in a seemingly endless coverage of gender bending in news, movies, literature, and television; in endless message-passing on the Internet, in examination and re-examination of what gender is and what it means; and in this book. The world has changed, and continues to change, as gender roles are challenged and deconstructed by academicians, historians, anthropologists, sociologists, by gay and lesbian academicians, and by transgendered scholars.

That’s quite an accomplishment for one ex-GI from the Bronx.




[1] Jorgensen’s story was simplified and sensationalized by the press, but is told in her own words in her autobiography, Christine Jorgensen: A Personal Autobiography, which was published in hardback in 1967 by Paul S. Ericksson, Inc. and in paperback the next year by Bantam. Many of the details of her life, as related in this chapter, were taken from her book. While out of print, it can occasionally be found at second-hand bookstores, and should be available through interlibrary loan.

[2] Jorgensen had both predecessors and contemporaries. Roberta Cowell was a contemporary. She caught the attention of the British press, just as Jorgensen had the American press. Cowell’s past as a race car driver and RAF fighter pilot made for a good story. Like Jorgensen, she made an attractive woman. Her autobiography, Roberta Cowell’s Story, is out of print.

Jorgensen’s predecessors lived in a time when hormonal therapy and surgical manipulations of the genitalia were not possible. Many nonetheless lived and died as members of the other gender, undiscovered until their deaths. A recent examination of official records by Dekker and van de Pol (1989) revealed the existence of hundreds of Dutch females who lived as men during the Middle Ages.

As Bullough (1994) has noted, it was the synthesis of human sex hormones in the 1940’s rather than the availability of genital surgery which made sex reassignment possible. But attempts were made to turn women into men and men into women by surgical means. In a 1931 paper in the German medical journal Zeitschrift Sexualwissenschaft, Abraham reported on two genital alterations. But for a more accessible (though still out of print account) see Neils Hoyer’s hauntingly written Man into Woman, which documents the social and surgical conversion of the Danish painter Einar Wegener (Andreas Sparrer) into Lili Elbe.

[3] I’ve noted elsewhere that if you were to go and find Clint Eastwood and convince a doctor to do “the operation,” he would not wake up a woman. He would wake up a very pissed Clint Eastwood. Womanhood and manhood are not achieved in the operating room, but in the ways in which men and women live their lives.

[4] Occasionally, Jorgensen would defend herself. Spiro Agnew once called Senator Charles E. Goddell “The Christine Jorgensen of the Republican Party.” Jorgensen sent him a telegram, asking him to apologize. Knowing Agnew’s character (or, rather, lack thereof), he almost certainly did not.

[5]  If she changed the world for nontranssexual people, Jorgensen had an even more profound effect on people who were like her. Her story galvanized many transsexual men and women into seeking the same sort of medical treatment. In 1953, Christine Hamburger published a paper in which he described receiving 465 letters from men and women, desperately begging for a “sex change.” Neither he, nor anyone else, was prepared to oblige them.

Many more didn’t write, but carried the image of Christine Jorgensen around in their minds and hearts for years or decades before coming to terms with their own transsexualism. I have in my files a number of accounts from transsexual persons, describing their reaction when they heard the news in November, 1952. Some were too ashamed to even buy the newspaper with the headlines. Others bought it, read it with trembling hands, and threw it away for fear that they would be discovered with it and their own transsexualism would become immediately transparent. One person, then a man and now a woman, describes how, when she heard the news, she had to hold onto a lamppost; her world was shaken that much.

Like Christine, I crossed the Atlantic in search of congruity. Unlike her, I did not change my social role while overseas. I was already functioning as a woman. But we both faced the same knife. Fortunately, only one of us had to face the reporters.




Abraham, F. (1931). Genitalumwandlung an zwei maennlichen transvestiten (Genital alteration in two male transvestites). Zeitschrift Sexualwissenschaft, 18, 223-226.

Anonymous. (1952, 1 December). Ex-GI becomes blonde beauty. New York Daily News, 1.

Anonymous. (1952, 2 December). Dear Mum and Dad, son wrote, I’ve now become your daughter. The Daily Mirror.

Anonymous. (year unknown, 10 October). Miss Jorgensen asks Agnew for apology. (Possibly New York Times).

Bullough, V. (1994). Preface. In D. Denny (Ed.), Gender dysphoria: A guide to research. New York: Garland.

Bullough, B., & Bullough, V. (1996). Transsexualism: Historical Perspectives, 1952 to Present. In D. Denny (Ed.), Current concepts in transgender identity: Towards a new synthesis. New York: Garland Publications.

Cowell, R. (1954). Roberta Cowell’s story. London: William Heinemann, Ltd. Reprinted (1955), New York: Lion Library.

Dekker, R.J., & van de Pol, L.C. (1989). The tradition of female transvestism in early modern Europe. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Hamburger, C. (1953). The desire for change of sex as shown by personal letters from 465 men and women. Acta Endocrinologica, 14, 361-375.

Hamburger, C., Sturup, G.K., & Dahl-Iversen, E. (1953a). Transvestism: Hormonal, psychiatric, and surgical treatment. Journal of the American Medical Association, 12(6), 391-396.

Hoyer, N. (1933). Man into woman: An authentic record of a change of sex. The true story of the miraculous transformation of the Danish painter, Einar Wegener (Andreas Sparrer). New York: E.P. Dutton & Co. Reprinted in 1953 in New York by Popular Library.

Jorgensen, C. (1967). Christine Jorgensen: A personal autobiography. New York: Paul S. Ericksson, Inc. Reprinted in 1968 by Bantam Books.

What sex am I? (1985). Film, Lee Grant, Dir. Home Box Office.