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Revisiting Long Islander Christine Jorgensen's shocking 1950s sex change

Christine Jorgensen in 1953, after sex reassignment surgery

Christine Jorgensen in 1953, after sex reassignment surgery changed her from George Jorgensen Jr. She was an object of fascination and ridicule until she moved from Massapequa to California in 1967. She died at 62 in 1989. Credit: Newsday/Harvey Weber

Editor's Note: This story originally ran in Newsday on May 26, 1998.

"When I have a brand new hairdo

With my eyelashes all in curl,

I float as the clouds on air do,

I enjoy being a girl."

-- "I Enjoy Being a Girl," by Oscar Hammerstein

When he was a boy toying with dolls, George Jorgensen Jr. just wanted to be a girl, that's all. By the time he was man enough for the Army, all 93 pounds of him, he felt like a woman girdled in the wrong body. So the son of a carpenter from the Bronx sailed off to Denmark, where in 1952 surgeons pruned George into Christine.

The coming out of Christine Jorgensen was the most shocking surgery of the century. 

"Nature made a mistake, which I have had corrected," ex-GI George wrote to her parents back in New York. "I am now your daughter."

The world's first publicized sex-change operation scandalized America in the uptight '50s, during the postwar Baby Boom when sex was still in the closet - or at least in the bedroom with the lights off.

"You Americans are so childish about sex," a Danish doctor told Jorgensen in her Copenhagen hospital room. "Operate on the brain, perform a lobotomy, create a whole new personality - but operate on a testicle and everybody explodes."

"EX-GI BECOMES BLONDE BOMBSHELL," screamed the headline in the New York Daily News, which on Dec. 1, 1952, broke the story that had been leaked by a family friend after the second of Jorgensen's three operations.

Against a grim backdrop of the Cold War, news of the 26-year-old New Yorker's private, two-year journey from man to woman was juicy stuff. The press, feeding a panting public, called her the convertible blonde, mocked her as a misfit in mink, the turnabout gal, the tops in swaps.

Christine Jorgensen was banned in Boston, of course, but Truman Capote took her to lunch. "She has the best body of any girl I ever met," said a Texas soldier who dated her. A New Orleans promoter offered her $500 a week to star in a two-woman strip show. The enlisted men at an armistice camp in Korea voted her Miss Neutral Zone of 1953.

When Jorgensen came to live on Long Island 45 years ago, in the pre-feminist days when Americans loved Lucy and liked Ike, she was treated like a sideshow freak. Newsday wondered: Would she join the Massapequa VFW post - or its ladies auxiliary? Would she file her taxes as a man or a woman? One reporter thought he had her figured out: "Christine probably will not seek work modeling bras."

The year that Jorgensen set up housekeeping in Massapequa with her parents and a pet Great Dane named Mark Anthony, Dr. Alfred Kinsey's "Sexual Behavior in the Human Female" concluded that women had far less sex drive than men. "The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet" was a hit on television, and sex outside of marriage was a crime in some states.

In those days, issues of sexuality - much less transsexuality - were taboo. Jorgensen's feminizing hormone treatments and genital operations were considered bizarre by most people. But Jorgensen said she had been miserable living a lie as a man, and by becoming a woman she was just trying to survive.

As the shy son of Danish immigrant parents, George Jorgensen had survived on subterfuge. He had a normal, happy childhood, but from boyhood to manhood he secretly guarded his sexual confusion. He was thin and frail, and had no hair on his chest, arms or legs. "Outwardly, I was a boy, but I felt myself to be a woman," Jorgensen would say later. "I was a miserable misfit." He considered suicide.

Jorgensen was drafted into the Army two months after the end of World War II, and served 14 months as a clerk. His trip toward transsexual surgery began with years of independent research. Under the GI Bill, he studied photography and read everything he could find on the subject of sexual hormones and glandular imbalances. Through a friend who was a doctor, Jorgensen discovered that sex-change surgery was being done in Scandinavia.

In 1950, Jorgensen sailed away as George, and flew back two years later as Christine, neatly wrapped in mink. "I'm happy to be home - what American woman wouldn't be?" she said, teetering on high heels.

The seeds of the sexual revolution bloomed in the '60s, but they were planted in the '50s. Christine Jorgensen was one of the planters, breaking down at least one of America's sexual barriers.

"I am proud, looking back, that I was on that street corner when the movement started," Jorgensen said. "It was a sexual revolution that was going to start with or without me. We may not have started it, but we gave it a good swift kick in the pants."

Dr. Charles Ihlenfeld, a Greenport psychiatrist who has treated transsexuals for almost 30 years, estimates now that about 25,000 people in the United States are transsexual, of whom 6,000 to 11,000 have undergone sex-change operations.

"Christine Jorgensen was a pioneer," Ihlenfeld said. "I know of many transsexuals for whom she was the first person who sounded the way they had felt all their lives. She was the one who gave some legitimacy to their own feelings."

May is the month of Christine Jorgensen's birth and death. Born in 1926, she would have been 72 on May 30. She died of cancer on May 3, 1989. She was an unwilling celebrity when the scandal broke, but she came to accept all the attention and parlayed it into a nightclub act, a book, a 1970 movie based on her life, a talkshow and lecture appearances.

"I decided if they wanted to see me," said the former Army clerk, "they would have to pay for it."

Wearing a billowy blue evening gown trimmed with silver netting, Christine Jorgensen made her stage debut 45 years ago this month at the Orpheum Theater in Los Angeles, narrating a 20-minute travelogue she had filmed in Denmark. She bombed. "I laid one of the largest eggs in show-business history," she would write later in her autobiography.

Working with a sidekick comedian, Jorgensen spiced up her act and wound up playing to packed houses, singing - with a straight face - what became her theme song, "I Enjoy Being a Girl":

"I'm strictly a female female

And my future I hope will be

In the home of a brave and free male

Who'll enjoy being a guy having a girl like me."

Jorgensen chose not to marry, but she was engaged twice. "Christine Has a Ring - And Can Cook, Too," said a Newsday headline on April 2, 1959, when she got engaged in Massapequa to Howard J. Knox, 33, a union clerk. She called him "Howie," and he was easy to feed: "He likes simple things like roast beef and chicken, and I'm particularly good at roast chicken." The State of New York wouldn't give them a marriage license because Jorgensen's birth certificate said she was a man.

"Christine Jorgensen looks like a real purty gal," a Newsday reporter wrote when Jorgensen came back from Denmark and took a driving test in Mineola. "Her license had expired, and so, said one wag, had the sex of the owner."

Newsday reported all the impertinent details of "Massapequa's leading ex-male citizen." She could have normal sexual relations but could never have children. Her voice was "low, well modulated and - yes, sexy." Her makeup "was no heavier than half the stenographers in town are wearing." She wore size 9AA shoes. She joined Our Redeemer Lutheran Church in Seaford. She donated $10 to the Massapequa volunteer fire department. She appeared at the Tinkers Pond Theater in Syosset in the stage play "Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mamma's Hung You in the Closet and I'm Feelin' So Sad."

A photo of Jorgensen, white-gloved, gilded with lilies and smiling under a cartwheel straw hat, took up the entire front page of Newsday on Easter weekend in 1953. The caption mentioned nothing about her sex-change operation.

When Jorgensen's father began building her a six-room, $25,000 ranch-style house at 115 Pennsylvania Ave. in Massapequa in May, 1953, the curious locals brought picnic lunches and stayed to snoop all day. WHEN Jorgensen had written to her parents from her hospital bed in Copenhagen in 1952 and told them they had a new daughter, they cabled her right back: "We love you more than ever." Not everybody felt the same way, of course, but when Jorgensen's parents died, and she sold the house in 1967 and moved to California, at least the neighbors weren't snooping around much anymore.

"I'm old woodwork there, dear," Jorgensen told a Newsday reporter before she left Massapequa. "I go out without makeup and with a turban over my curlers."

By then, Christine Jorgensen had come a long way since her coming out. She had meant for her trip from man to woman to be a private thing, but she spent the rest of her life in the spotlight.

"It seems to me a shocking commentary on the press of our time that I pushed the hydrogen-bomb tests on Eniwetok right off the front pages," Jorgensen wrote in her autobiography. "A tragic war was still raging in Korea, George VI died and Britain had a new queen, sophisticated guided missiles were going off in New Mexico, Jonas Salk was working on a vaccine for infantile paralysis - and Christine Jorgensen was on page one."

In 1982, when news spread that a male Nassau County police officer had had a sex-change operation and was planning to return to the force as a woman, there was as much support as there was opposition. "Tell her to keep her chins up - all of them," Jorgensen said. "We've come a long way, baby."

Transsexuals don't make headlines anymore, and Ihlenfeld said most of his patients like it that way. "They want their past to drift away, and they want their new identity to be the way they are known," the Greenport psychiatrist said. "For Christine Jorgensen, there was no hiding. She accepted that and lived her life with a great deal of courage."

Jorgensen made a lot of money from her celebrity, of course, and in her later years, she lived in a lavish, 3,000-square-foot hillside home in Laguna Niguel, south of Los Angeles. She had gone from being an object of ridicule to a respected advocate of sexual tolerance.

In one of her last public appearances on Long Island, Jorgensen spoke to students at the State University at Stony Brook in 1981. "Put your heartbreaks away - that's nature's way of keeping us sane," said the woman who had been treated like a freak.

Jorgensen's friends said she was a party girl, chain-smoking cigarettes and sipping Scotch - they never called her before noon. Many of her California friends were gay, she told Newsday in 1979: "They're great dates. There's good conversation. They have great taste - and you never have to play cat-and-mouse."

After the Danish pruning and all the hormones and the reconstruction, the former George Jorgensen Jr. tried to grow old gracefully - up to a point. She had a facelift in her 50s. "If you can improve on nature," said the woman born as a man, "why shouldn't you?"

Jorgensen made a splash all the way to the end. She died of bladder and lung cancer, 27 days before her 63rd birthday. She was cremated, and her ashes were scattered in the Pacific Ocean. She left enough money for a bash for 250 of her friends at her favorite cabaret.

"It's party time!" squealed an old pal in a party dress - a blue sequined number with a plunging back that she said she had chosen because it was as outrageous as Christine herself.

Christine Jorgensen enjoyed being a girl, all right. "I just want to be known as a lady," she said a couple of months before she died. "That's what this whole thing is about, you know."

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