May 3rd in (Feminist) History

jorgensen_christine_1954_10_26_andrea_doria_smToday in 1989 saw the death of Christine Jorgensen, a trans woman who was the first widely-known person in the U.S. to undergo sex reassignment surgery. (She was not the first to get it, but the first person in the U.S. who was widely known for it.) Born George William Jorgensen Jr., she was drafted into the U.S. army where she served before returning to attend school. Around this time, she learned of sex reassignment surgery, began taking hormones, and traveled to Sweden, where the only Doctors performing the surgeries at that time could be found.  In a letter to friends following her first surgery, she wrote: “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.”

Following several surgeries she returned to the U.S., where the country learned of her story following a story in the New York Daily News headlined: “Ex-GI Becomes Blonde Bombshell”. She was proclaimed as the first recipient of a sex change, which wasn’t entirely true, however she was the first to have both the surgical change, and use female hormones. In entering the public eye, Christine became a spokesperson for transgender and transexual people. Her story was important and significant as the first to raise discussions over the changing definition of sexuality, as well as the connections between sex and science. She also challenged the idea of the gender binary, and the idea of “psychological sex” (the difference between a person’s biological and internal sexuality). She sparked the questions of traditional gender norms, influenced other transgender people to try to change their names and the sex on their birth certificates, and saw herself as a founding member of the “sexual revolution”.

At one point, she attempted to marry but couldn’t, because her birth certificate still listed her as “male”. (Her former fiance actually lost his job in D.C. when his engagement to her was made public, ugh.) Christine however went on to become an actress and a nightclub performer, and recorded several songs. Here she is in a little clip (no sound) of Cherie de Paris which was a revue that ran in the Latin Quarter, a nightclub on Broadway, and here she is singing Marlene Dietrich’s “Falling in Love Again” and then being interviewed by Tom Sneider in 1982.

In 1989, the year she died (of cancer), she was quoted as saying she had given the sexual revolution “good swift kick in the pants.”

Also on this day:

  • In 1933, Nellie Tayloe Ross was appointed the director of the U.S. Mint, making her the first woman ever to hold the position.
  • In 1937, Margaret Mitchell wins the Pulitzer Prize for Gone with the Wind.
  • In 1825, Laura Matilda Towne was born. She went on to become an American abolitionist, physician, and educator. In 1862, she relocated to the Sea Islands of South Carolina to provide medical care and education to newly freed slaves, and went on to also found the Penn school.
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