Wow. It's not easy for transgendered people to live the life and change to the body that matches their mind even now. Reading Christine Jorgensen's autobiography (Christine Jorgensen: A Personal Autobiography) makes it clear how much more so it was fifty years ago.
George Jorgensen was born in 1926 in Manhattan and had a quite normal upbringing, but was somewhat unusual from the earliest years -- the incident in which the teacher puts him down in front of his class and his mother for keeping a piece of needlepoint in his desk is the most evident example, but George had enough other characteristics that were considered "feminine" that his older sister Dolly wrote a college thesis on him. (On the other hand, a girl would probably not have been encouraged as much in photography by his parents, who took out a loan to pay for his tuition at the Photography Institute. It's interesting to speculate how Christine's later life would have been different if she'd been female from birth.)
The young adult years are the most fascinating time to read about George's inner life. Modern readers may wonder if he would have considered himself a homosexual man if he'd been born in a more accepting time -- he admits to having been in love with a man on at least two occasions before his transition, but still reacts with revulsion to being propositioned by a homosexual man. However, during his time doing clerical work in the U.S. Army, just after World War II, he noted that "During the months in service, I had seen a few practicing homosexuals, those whom the other men had called 'queer.' 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 ... furthermore, I had seen enough to know that homosexuality brought with it a social segregation and ostracism that I couldn't add to my own deep feeling of not belonging." And later, "I always wanted the things girls wanted, because somehow I felt they just naturally belonged to me."
The first few doctors George consulted with in the U.S. seemed to think he needed psychiatric help, but his own library research revealed works such as Paul de Kruif's The Male Hormone and other information on the hormonal differences between men and women. Having used the G.I. Bill to start at the Manhattan Medical and Dental Assistant's School, he was able to get hold of estradiol tablets (a form of estrogen) and dose himself with this female hormone to find that "the great feeling of listlessness and fatigue, which often seemed to be with me even after a full night's sleep, had disappeared. I was refreshed and alive...At that point, I believed I had stumbled on the first step toward a solution that would allow me to live the life my heart and mind had told me I was intended to live."
Advice from some more open-minded medical men led George to Denmark, where he had relatives, with the hopes of going to Stockholm, Sweden, where some cases of sex-reassignment surgery were rumored to have been done. As it turned out, Copenhagen, Denmark, also had similar research going on. George became the subject of many tests -- comparing how he felt with and without his estrogen dosage, among others. Dr. Christian Hamburger, in charge of George's situation, "impressed upon me that no irreversible step, such as surgical removal of the male glands, could even be considered until all of the experts involved had thoroughly examined every possible avenue of knowledge." (Perhaps it is the era in which Jorgensen wrote the book, or a wish to gloss over male/female differences, but specifically male or female body parts are almost never named in this book -- just male or female "glands," and other terms that play down the physical differences most people think of as the most obvious determining factor in gender.)
Finally, the first of three operations took place, this one to remove the testicles. (Later, a second operation would be a penectomy, which required greater care because of the necessity to keep the urethra functioning to remove urine; the third operation was the plastic surgery to create a vulva and vagina.) It was after the first operation that George started dressing in female clothes, applied to the U.S. government for a passport with the new gender and the name of Christine Jorgensen, and first wrote to his family in the U.S. about his transition. His family were surprised, naturally, given that this was the first they'd heard of the existance of any sex-change operation, much less their child's desire to have one; but eventually they were accepting. "They still don't understand this, Chris," [Aunt] Augusta said, "but you are their child, and if this will bring you happiness, they're all for it." Would that all parents were so accepting.
During the recovery period from the second operation in December 1952 is when the news broke in America; exactly who among his parents' friends talked to the media was unknown to Christine until much later. But Christine began receiving calls in a Denmark hospital room, asking how she felt, "how tall I was, what my waist, hip, and bust measurements were and whether I slept in pajamas or a nightgown...or what?" The tendencies of the media, then as now, were for the titillating, and Jorgensen notes that "it seems to me now a shocking commentary on the press of our time that I pushed the hydrogen-bomb tests on Eniwetok right off the front pages." Since Christine was in Denmark, the Jorgensen family in America were badgered by the press even more than they normally would have been. Christine's absence, and then her agreement to an exclusive story for one magazine, encouraged the press to print the flimsiest rumors. While the decision to have a series of interviews with one journalist, who was also given information by Christine's doctors, probably did lead to a more accurate, less sensational series in the one publication (American Weekly), its short-term results were that a lot of junk appeared in other venues.
Jorgensen's account of her new fame, the reaction to her return to the U.S., and her realization that being a photographer and filmmaker would probably not work as a career when what people wanted from her was more exposure to her as a woman (and this being the 1950s, that meant making public appearances, eventually as a singer and dancer) occupy the rest of the book, written 15 years after her Denmark operations. Some people believed Jorgensen was a cross-dresser whose operations were fakes; others were far more accepting (and both Christine and her doctors received hundreds of letters from people wanting to go through sex-change operations themselves). Clubs who originally booked her nightclub act changed their mind and refused to have her appear on ground of "immorality" (despite the fact that apparently her act was far cleaner than many nightclub performers'). The City Council of Boston banned her from performing at clubs in the city, and she was blacklisted from entering New York's Stork Club as a patron. And when she was briefly engaged to a man, New York's Marriage License Bureau refused to grant her a license to marry a man, despite an American passport and New York driver's license identifying her as a woman.
The reprint of the book contains some photographs and information in the preface from after the original publication date, but Christine's own story is the most fascinating part. It is a book that would probably be more comprehensible to a person who does not understand the transgendered than someone's more recent experience would be, because it is so grounded in the mainstream culture of the past, familiar to people of conservative social views. But it also provides the history and background for a lot of current transgender/transsexual and even other "genderqueer" culture because Jorgenson's case forced the U.S. to confront the possibilities.