Christine Jorgensen (1926–1989)

By: Lauren Hilton

Christine Jorgensen was a transgender woman and activist in the United States who lived during the twentieth century. She was one of the first US citizens to publicly disclose her gender transition from male to female through gender-affirming surgery and hormone replacement therapy. By 1949, when Jorgensen began her transition, few individuals had undergone gender transition. Various popular media outlets reported on Jorgensen’s gender transition and surgery, which allowed Jorgensen to educate the American public on topics such as gender identity and sexual orientation. Jorgensen authored an autobiography in 1967, which detailed the journey of her life from early childhood to the end of her forties. Although many transgender people continue to fight for acceptance and equality in the US as of 2024, Jorgensen’s advocacy and activism increased transgender awareness for the general public at a time when existing and living openly as a transgender person received little recognition and support.

  1. Gender Identity: Background
  2. Early Life
  3. Army Years and an Influential Book
  4. Gender Transition
  5. Public Life

Gender Identity: Background

Gender identity is an individual’s personal conception of their gender. Most people’s gender identity aligns with the one their family assigned them at birth. However, people can also be transgender, meaning their gender identity does not align with the gender they were assigned at birth. That can lead to a feeling of gender dysphoria, or a persistent feeling of discomfort in one’s body as a result of one’s gender identity not aligning with one’s assigned sex. Some transgender individuals may seek to relieve the feelings of gender dysphoria through gender transition, which can align their physical bodies with their gender identity. Transition often occurs through social and medical methods. Social transition can involve using different names and pronouns that better align with one’s gender identity. Hormone replacement therapy and gender-affirming surgery are medical interventions that some transgender people undergo as well. Hormone replacement therapy is the administration of chemical substances called hormones into the body that alter an individual’s physical appearance to align more with their gender identity, and gender-affirming surgeries are surgical procedures that allow individuals to physically transition more closely to their gender identity. An individual’s sexuality does not depend on their gender identity, as sexual orientation describes the physical, romantic, or emotional attraction to another person, and one’s gender does not determine one’s sexuality. During Jorgensen’s lifetime, terms like gender dysphoria and gender identity were not used systematically. Throughout her autobiography, Jorgensen refers to her gender dysphoria as gender confusion.

Early Life

Jorgensen was born in New York City, New York, in 1926 to Florence Davis Hensen Jorgensen and George Jorgensen and assigned male at birth. During her childhood, Jorgensen’s father worked as a contractor and carpenter, and her mother stayed at home to look after her and her sister. In her early years, Jorgensen and her family resided in the Belmont neighborhood of the Bronx in New York City. According to her autobiography, the family lived an average middle-class lifestyle, attending public school, summer camps, and family vacations.

According to Jorgensen’s autobiography, she expressed feelings of discomfort in her body throughout her childhood. She was uninterested in activities designated for boys and experienced frustration towards her sister for being able to openly express her femininity. During her time at Christopher Columbus High School in New York City, she experienced thoughts of confusion as she developed a romantic interest in one of her male friends, and she began to reflect on topics such as homosexuality and sex deviation. According to a biography of Jorgensen by Richard Docter, a professor in psychology who researches gender, Jorgensen presented herself to her family as heterosexual, but internally struggled with her attraction to men. Homosexuality, which is an individual’s sexual attraction to members of the same sex, was not widely accepted at the time, and, according to Docter’s biography, Jorgensen’s family’s homophobic attitudes deemed homosexuality immoral and inconsistent with their religious beliefs.

In the early twentieth century, most people in the US were intolerant towards individuals who identified or were perceived as homosexual. At the time, homophobia, or intolerance for people who are homosexual, was a common ideology throughout the US. The US had established anti-sodomy laws, or laws punishing certain sexual acts, making homosexual behavior a criminal offense and preventing homosexual people from being able to express their sexuality without discrimination or harassment from the public or police. The concept of being transgender was not yet a socially common concept, and the majority of the public viewed transgender people as homosexuals. Various masquerade laws, which made the act of dressing as the opposite sex illegal, also existed. Those laws stated that it was illegal for transgender people to exist as their gender identity publicly. Homophobia within the law and public eye allowed for legal discrimination. For example, the US military prohibited gay individuals from serving in the armed forces until 2011, and if the government discovered an individual was gay, that individual would be dishonorably discharged. Therefore, Jorgensen began to understand and accept her sexuality and gender identity during a time when it was not only socially unacceptable but actively dangerous.

Army Years and an Influential Book

After graduating from high school in 1945, Jorgensen entered the US Army at age nineteen after two prior rejections for being of petite stature. During her time in the army from 1945 to 1946, Jorgensen worked at Fort Dix in Trenton, New Jersey, as a clerical worker managing paperwork of dispatched soldiers after World War II ended. She was honorably discharged from the Army in 1946. Following her Army service, she spent a few months in Hollywood in Los Angeles, California, exploring various career endeavors, including photography. According to Jorgensen’s autobiography, she returned home to the Bronx that same year feeling disappointed and dissatisfied with her attempts to establish a professional career. In 1947, she enrolled in Mohawk Valley Community College in Utica, New York, to further her education. In 1948, she transferred to the Progressive School of Photography in New Haven, Connecticut, to pursue an education in photography.

In 1948, Jorgensen read the book The Male Hormone; A New Gleam of Hope for Prolonging Man’s Prime of Life, hereafter The Male Hormone, by Paul De Kruif. Kruif was a writer and researcher who studied microbiology in the US during the twentieth century. His book discusses the discovery of the hormone testosterone, which stimulates the development of male sex organs, and its role in sexual development and longevity. According to Docter’s biography, Jorgensen used the book to explain her homosexual attractions and female gender identity. As a result of the 1948 book, Jorgensen notes in her autobiography that she connected her identity struggles and sexual frustrations to her hormones. Jorgensen also writes in her autobiography that The Male Hormone influenced her to medically undergo procedures to manipulate hormones in her body to physically reflect her gender identity.

Gender Transition

In 1949, Jorgensen started her medical transition through the administration of hormone medications. That year, she met Joseph Angelo, a family care physician in New Jersey. According to Docter’s biography, Jorgensen frequently met with Angelo to discuss her struggles with gender identity and dysphoria. Angelo prescribed her a high dosage, daily estradiol medication, which is a synthetic form of estrogen commonly used to treat symptoms associated with the decline in female hormones due to age. As of 2024, researchers and physicians refer to this treatment as hormone replacement therapy or gender-affirming therapy. Hormone replacement therapy allows individuals to take hormones that induce physical changes in their bodies to align with their sense of gender identity. In his biography of Jorgensen’s life, Docter explains that Jorgensen felt a calming effect and increased levels of well-being and energy upon starting the hormone therapy. According to her autobiography, Jorgensen’s feelings of depression began to fade, and her productivity increased.

In 1951, Jorgensen received surgery to alter her anatomy. Because the hormone therapy prescribed by Angelo only changed her anatomy in minor ways, Jorgensen began to research surgeons who could perform a penectomy, which is an operation that involves the removal of the penis, in the 1950s. In 1950, she traveled to Copenhagen, Denmark, and contacted surgeons in Denmark experienced in gender transition treatments. At that time, Jorgensen met Christian Hamburger, a Danish physician who specialized in hormone replacement therapy. Hamburger became the primary director of Jorgensen’s medical care and recommended her to increase her dosage of estradiol. According to Docter’s autobiography, Jorgensen noticed feminine-like features across her body due to the hormone therapy, including smooth facial skin and a feminine figure. In 1951, Hamburger obtained permission from the Danish Minister of Justice to perform surgery to remove her testicles and penis for non-emergency purposes. She received an orchiectomy, surgical removal of the testicles, in 1951 at Gentofte Hospital in Copenhagen and a penectomy, or surgical removal of the penis, in 1952 at the Copenhagen University Hospital, also in Copenhagen. According to Jorgensen’s autobiography, by the end of her recovery in 1952, she felt accepted, confident, and livelier following the surgery. Also during that time, Jorgensen began to pursue her career in photography.

In 1953, Jorgensen returned to the US after a 1952 front-page headline of the New York Daily News labeled her as the first recipient of sex reassignment surgery, or a sex change. The article title was “Ex-GI Becomes Blonde Beauty.” The article publicized Jorgensen’s story, which received both public criticism and curiosity. According to her autobiography, Jorgensen did not know how the American media came to learn of her transition, but she speculated that a family member leaked her personal letters, which contained information regarding the gender reassignment procedures. The article received mixed feedback. According to Docter’s biography, one psychiatrist in New York argued that the newspaper fabricated the story. Other physicians discussed future applications of this technology, now that biological males could transition to female following the removal of external sex organs and administration of female hormones. Questions arose among the US public and researchers regarding Jorgensen’s marriage rights and gender on her birth certificate. In her autobiography, Jorgensen writes that she and her family received hundreds of letters from individuals struggling with their gender identity who felt inspired by her story in New York Daily News.

Despite the mixed opinions regarding her story, the media continued to publish stories about Jorgensen’s transition. In 1952, the Chicago Daily Tribune interviewed Jorgensen and her family and published the article “Parents Praise Bravery,” comparing her gender transition to a soldier’s accomplishments as a heroic feat. During the 1950s, sexuality was a complex topic. For example, Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy linked homosexuality to communism and argued that homosexual individuals were a threat to national security. According to Susan Stryker in the book Transgender History, Jorgensen’s history of military service influenced the American public to reevaluate traditional social gender roles and service of homosexuals in the military. While Jorgensen was able to sell her story to the press, she faced backlash from many media outlets. For example, Time magazine published multiple articles accusing her of exploiting her story for money. Quick magazine also published an article in 1952 titled “Lost Sex,” which cited a physician who claimed that Jorgensen’s lack of internal female genitals was the reason why she was not a real woman, and that she suffered from mental illness. Jorgensen profited from those stories, earning up to $20,000 for an interview and the publication of her story. In 1953, the Associated Press wire, a popular news outlet in the US, reported Jorgensen as the individual who had the most news articles published about her that year. In the same year, she was voted “Woman of the Year” by the Scandinavian Societies of Greater New York, which devoted their existence to educating the community on Nordic culture and honoring influential Scandinavian figures.

Public Life

Jorgensen used the publicity and attention to pursue a career as singer and performer. In 1953, she released a documentary travel film called Denmark. The film included limited discussion of her gender affirmation surgery in Copenhagen and, instead, highlighted her skills as a filmmaker and narrator. Audiences criticized her film for that lack of personal experiences related to her gender affirmation surgery. That year, she transitioned from film to nightclub performances. In the early 1950s, televisions were not yet common, so nightclubs remained the largest entertainment source in the US. For the next few years, Jorgensen’s career as a musical performer and actor grew as she played in dozens of cities, grossing over $70,000. In 1954, Jorgensen received plastic surgery, which created a vaginal canal and external genitalia from the skin on her upper thighs. Angelo and Harry Benjamin, a physician who researched transgender studies and considered the father of transsexualism, performed a procedure called a vaginoplasty, which is the construction of a vaginal canal. According to Docter’s biography, there is limited knowledge on the specifics of this procedure.

In 1959, Jorgensen was rejected for a marriage license, due to her gender transition. That year, Jorgensen had accepted statistician Howard J. Knox’s marriage proposal. Jorgensen and Knox went to a New York City Hall in New York City to apply for a marriage license, where the government rejected them. According to Docter’s biography, Jorgensen’s birth certificate did not change from male to female following her gender affirmation surgery. The state viewed the marriage as a homosexual union, and therefore, denied the couple. The US legalized same-sex marriage in all fifty states in 2015. According to Jorgensen’s autobiography, she did not believe the birth certificate was a legal sex-determining document. At that time, changing the legal sex on a birth certificate was highly controversial. Some states, like California, allowed for the modification of sex on birth certificates for transexuals, however, other states refused any modifications. Jorgensen and Knox accepted the rejection, never legally married, and ended the relationship.

From the 1960s through the 1980s, Jorgensen pursued her career in performance, while continuing to advocate for transsexuals and gender affirmation surgery. In 1967, Jorgensen published her autobiography, Christine Jorgensen, which reflected on the impact her transition had on her own personal development. She writes that the media heavily focused on her physical transition, but the emotional and mental journey impacted her identity far greater than the changes in her outward appearance. That same year Jorgensen moved to Los Angeles. In 1970, Hollywood director Irving Rapper produced a feature film based on Jorgensen’s life called The Christine Jorgensen Story. She sought additional vaginal surgery twice in 1970 and 1980. Jorgensen spent the rest of the 1970s and 1980s touring the country, performing songs in nightclubs, and presenting speeches at universities until her diagnosis of bladder and lung cancer in 1987.

Throughout her life, Jorgensen advocated for gender acceptance and identity, allowing many individuals worldwide to express and accept their own gender identities. She defied social norms by publicly establishing her gender identity at a time when doing so was uncommon. Jorgensen’s story captured media attention, facilitating discussions on gender identity and transition. Jorgensen became an early spokesperson for transgender rights and advocacy, and she contributed to the rise of a sexual revolution in the US, one that challenged traditional codes of behavior related to sexuality. In 2012, The Legacy Walk, which is a public display in Chicago, Illinois, that celebrates LGTBQ+ history and people, inducted Jorgensen as a member with a Bronze Memorial. In 2014, the Rainbow Honor Walk, which is a walk of fame dedicated to LGBTQ+ individuals who have made significant contributions to their communities and fields, honored Jorgensen. In 2019, Jorgensen’s name was added to the National LGBTQ Wall of Honor in New York City.

Jorgensen died of bladder and lung cancer on 3 May 1989.


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How to cite

Hilton, Lauren, "Christine Jorgensen (1926–1989)". Embryo Project Encyclopedia ( ). ISSN: 1940-5030 Pending


Arizona State University. School of Life Sciences. Center for Biology and Society. Embryo Project Encyclopedia.


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