By Tessa Groszman
In 1919, Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld founded the historic Institut für Sexualwissenschaft (Institute for Sexual Science) in Berlin, for the research of LGBTQ+ issues and the advancement of LGBTQ+ rights. In the 1950s, American Christine Jorgensen astonished the masses through a visible representation of queerness with her gender-affirming surgery. A mere glance at these two figures refutes the narrative of progress: this early-twentieth-century institute undertook a queer-positive understanding of gender and sexuality, while media outlets from the latter part of the century greeted this transgender celebrity as if that institute had never existed. More specifically, a comparison between Hirschfeld’s academic work and the press’ depiction of Jorgensen suggests that queer people were no more tolerated in the fifties than they were in the twenties. A critical analysis of Jorgensen’s notoriety that focuses on her portrayal in North American newspaper articles but excludes Hirschfeld’s research would overlook the important anti-teleological nature of queer history. This paper demonstrates how the erasure of queer texts contributes to this anti-teleology: the existence of this physician’s work decades prior to Christine Jorgensen’s fame evidences how trans rights do not develop in a linear manner. It contrasts reports from The Montreal Gazette, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal to Hirschfeld’s Die Homosexualität des Mannes und des Weibes (The Homosexuality of Men and Women) and Sittengeschichte des Weltkrieges (The Sexual History of the World War) in order to underline the incorrect assumption that the histories of marginalized groups are in constant progress.
The notion that a trans woman’s career would be heavily publicized had, to a certain extent, been illustrated by Dr. Hirschfeld’s trans-positive nonfiction during the first decade of the century. Linear conceptions of the passage of time can cause one to assume that over forty years later, Christine Jorgensen’s actions would have been significantly less scrutinized, but the entire Western world greeted every element about her with curiosity. As a result, invasive mainstream media dismissed not only her desires, but also her humanity—hence her decision to simply “make the most out of being an object of ridicule” (Stewart 34) in the entertainment industry. Regardless of Jorgensen’s positive attitude, Hirschfeld had identified this intrusive form of attention as the “eye-catching urge” to watch “Geschlechts-Übergänge” (sexual transitions) (281). A 1952 article in The Gazette describes how Jorgensen was “forced to lock her hospital room door to escape the silly curious people” following her series of procedures (Duus 15). “I’m afraid people will come to my film to see me rather than my picture,” she said, regarding a movie she shot, just as her “before” and “after” photos were being displayed on tabloid front pages across the world (Boies 21). Hirschfeld points to the various World War One battalion parties at which “thoroughly feminine” German soldiers were stared at, yet praised, for showing up in blonde wigs and elaborate costumes (140). The fact that an individual with a comparable non-normative identity was as captivating in the fifties as they had been during the First World War demonstrates the extent to which the Third Reich prevented the dissemination of Hirschfeld’s work and the resulting stagnancy of LGBTQ+ rights over time. Had the books of this early-twentieth-century doctor been translated to English and available in North America, perhaps a Gazette headline from the eighties would not have read “Sex-Change Lady Prefers the Quiet Life” (Stewart 34), as she would have been living it already.
On top of sustained staring, the discrimination that Christine Jorgensen would face in the second half of the century would also parallel the patient testimonies found in Dr. Hirschfeld’s publications. Queer historical myths would dominate her adulthood: a 1952 Gazette article was titled, “Son of Bronx Carpenter Scared to Face World as Woman After Two Years of Treatments” (Duus 15). The date of Hirschfeld’s research and the common belief in historical progress can cause one to suppose that by the fifties, mainstream society would have comprehended that trans people tended to live in greater fear before their surgeries and treatments rather than after them. In a 1981 Gazette report on her queer temporality, the Hollywood star is actually referred to as “George-Christine” (Stewart 34). Magnus Hirschfeld’s Sittengeschichte des Weltkrieges reveals that “those transvestites accepted for military service very frequently fell prey to severe hysterical disturbances… practically all of them had to be discharged from the army” (138). Christine Jorgensen, a military veteran herself, “had to be discharged” as well—from the New York City Marriage Bureau. In 1959, a brief article in The Times casually announced that “City Clerk Herman Katz had denied the 32-year old entertainer a [marriage] license on the ground of inadequate proof of being a female” (“Bars Marriage Permit”). The fact that Jorgensen had been met with the same queerphobic rhetoric that these servicemen had encountered demonstrates the extent to which experiences of oppression have continued over time. Moreover, had the books of this early-twentieth-century doctor been accessible, perhaps the country’s vice-president would not have felt compelled to publicly denounce her romantic relationship (“Agnew Won’t Apologize for Jorgensen Remark”).
Besides the dominant culture’s transphobic assumptions about queer people that stereotyped Christine Jorgensen as someone who was living in shame, Gay New York’s myth of internalization (4) is best exemplified by the masses’ simple inability to recognize her as an individual who was content with her gender. “Twenty Years Later Jorgensen Still Happy with Change,” reads a 1974 Gazette article title, utterly ignoring the number of times Jorgensen had courageously expressed her pre-surgical state of depression. In addition to being in full disbelief about her long-term happiness, the media’s nonsensical inquiries regarding her “regrets” inundated her fame (Boies 21), despite Dr. Hirschfeld having validated that it is “the suppression and not expression [of non-normative sexual and gender identities] that calls forth nervous disorders that in the long run lead to serious pathological conditions” (285). By the early twentieth century, this sexologist had demonstrated that queer experiences—including the surgical alteration of certain characteristics—were healthy necessities for countless people. Nonetheless, 1980s newspaper captions read “Headline Maker of 1952 Leads a Full, Happy Life” (Quigg 40), highlighting a problematic fixation on her supposedly surprising mental state. A queer memoir found in Hirschfeld’s book on the Great War begins with, “I enlisted because life was a burden to me, and I wished to find death” (139). Another tells the story of a young soldier who had brought with him to the battlefield a female wardrobe, “in order to be a human being for at least a moment” (139). Nevertheless, the post–World War Two press’ portrayal of a trans person—who had permanently become “a human being”—was one of self-hatred. Even her New York Times obituary questions her level of “regret” (McQuiston D22). North American media’s association of the Jorgensen name to a myth that had been discredited a half-century earlier demonstrates the non-teleological nature of queer history.
In general, the second half of the twentieth century would lack journalistic cultural artifacts that acknowledged how transgender people were not mentally ill. The idea that Christine Jorgensen was living with a “perplexing disorder” (Simpson 1) reflected the beliefs of reporters and editors across the continent. A 1977 Wall Street Journal front-page story suggests a concern for the rising number of “cures [sex reassignment surgeries]” being performed for “these troubled [trans] patients,” and addresses the numerous doctors who viewed these operations as “harmful” (Simpson 1). Dr. Hirschfeld’s scientific studies in Die Homosexualität des Mannes und des Weibes contain concluding statements such as, “in the case of pronounced transvestites, there is no presence of any inherited diseases,” and “[queer people] show no noteworthy pathological or degenerative conditions” (284). In other words, sixty years prior to the publication of that front-page article, the discourse in many of Berlin’s districts was that people with non-normative gender and sexual identities were physically and psychologically healthy. The Journal’s report additionally states that “many of the patients who receive the operation may regret it because they are not truly transsexual” (Simpson 1). Although an entire section of Hirschfeld’s 1914 book is dedicated to how “not all transvestites are sexual inverts” (281), the article in The Journal ends with, “This deeply rooted identity conflict of transsexualism is simply another form of homosexuality” (Simpson 1). Hirschfeld alluded to this very misconception by discussing its prevalence in scientific journals, and its widespread nature “in medical and in unprofessional circles” (281). This section’s queer memoirs include phrases like, “although I have been socializing a lot in homosexual circles for years, the mere thought of same-sex disgusts me,” and “the idea of complementing my ideal situation with a person of the same-sex has never entered my mind” (Hirschfeld 282). Essentially, decades after the Institut für Sexualwissenschaft had nearly rid a great portion of Berlin of its surface-level homophobia (Ross), the American press was continually underlining that queer communities consisted of sick people. This disconnect demonstrates the extent to which right-wing politics prevented the dissemination of Hirschfeld’s work and the non-teleology of LGBTQ+ rights over time.
Interestingly enough, the erasure of Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld’s comprehensive descriptions of gender and sexuality may have facilitated Christine Jorgensen’s rise to fame as a stage actress, a nightclub entertainer, a singer, and a lecturer. If LGBTQ+ cultural history proceeded in a teleological fashion, Jorgensen may not have achieved stardom, because the years succeeding Hirschfeld’s publications would have likely yielded a society with a consistently decreasing fascination for the presence of gender non-conforming people in pop culture. The Nazis that had raided his institute in order to burn his books, as well as the conservative forces that subsequently concealed what had remained of them, thus contributed to the sensationalism of her queerness.
This paper’s comparison of Hirschfeld’s academic work to American and Canadian newspaper reports on Jorgensen’s life elucidates how the history of queer cultures does not embody the capitalist narrative of a constant march towards progress. Throughout the second half of the century, discriminatory pieces in The Montreal Gazette, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal toyed with author George Chauncey’s myth of internalization (4) to conform to a pre-Hirschfeld-like era that denied this woman her pride. It is notable, however, that although the press declared it to have been her “pioneering surgery” that made her “the first man to walk the moon” (Boies 21), it was none other than Christine Jorgensen’s exemplary sense of optimism in a transphobic world that turned her infamy to her advantage.
“Agnew Won’t Apologize for Jorgensen Remark.” The New York Times, 13 October 1970, p. 38.
“Bars Marriage Permit.” The New York Times, 4 April 1959, p. 20.
Boies, Elaine. “Twenty Years Later Jorgensen Still Happy with Change.” The Montreal Gazette, 2 March 1974, p. 21.
Chauncey, George. Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Makings of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940. Basic Books, 1994.
Duus, Ole F. “Son of Bronx Carpenter Scared to Face World as Woman After Two Years of Treatments.” The Montreal Gazette, 2 December 1952, p. 15.
Hirschfeld, Magnus. The Homosexuality of Men and Women. Translated by Michael A. Lombardi-Nash, Prometheus Books, 2000.
Hirschfeld, Magnus. The Sexual History of the World War. Falstaff Press, 1946.
McQuiston, John T. “Christine Jorgensen of Sex-Change Fame Dies at 62.” The New York Times, 4 May 1989, p. D22.
Quigg, H.D. “Headline Maker of 1952 Leads a Full, Happy Life.” The Montreal Gazette, 1 October 1975, p. 40.
Ross, Alex. “Berlin Story.” The New Yorker, 19 January 2015, www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/01/26/berlin-story. Accessed 27 November 2020.
Simpson, Janice C. “Sex-Change Clinics Provide New Identities for Troubled Patients: Surgery, Hormone Therapy Are Principal Treatments for Perplexing Disorder.” The Wall Street Journal, 4 January 1977, p. 1.
Stewart, Susan. “Sex-Change Lady Prefers the Quiet Life.” The Montreal Gazette, 21 July 1981, p. 34.