“There is No Question About This and There Never Has Been for Eight Years”: The Public Reception of Christine Jorgensen
“There is No Question About This and There Never Has Been for Eight Years”: The Public Reception of Christine Jorgensen
Peitho Volume 22 Issue 4 Summer 2020
Author(s): N. Claire Jackson
N. Claire Jackson is a Ph.D. Candidate in Rhetoric and Composition at the University of Louisville. Her research typically focuses on writing program administration, writing teacher development, online writing instruction, and translingualism. She also completed a secondary area exam in transgender literature and is now beginning to dabble in trans rhetorics.
Abstract: In the 1950s, Christine Jorgensen became the first American to become widely known for medically transitioning, and she remained famous throughout her life. While previous scholarship has treated Jorgensen’s fame as a general acceptance of her trans womanhood, I contend that her attempts to define and present herself as a woman were continually dismissed by mainstream news outlets throughout her life. Through an analysis of three news articles about Jorgensen, I examine the cissexist rhetorical moves reporters frequently make in order to question the authenticity of her womanhood and consider the rhetorical strategies she used to respond to such questioning and assert her gender identity.Tags: Christine Jorgensen, cissexism, Digital Transgender Archive, identity, news reports, trans history, trans women, transgender rhetoric
On December 1st, 1952, the story of Christine Jorgensen—the first American to become widely known for undergoing medical transition—hit multiple news outlets, reporting that she had a series of surgeries in Denmark, had chosen the name Christine, and would soon be returning home to the US. While Jorgensen was not the only transgender figure to receive media coverage during this time period, the attention she received was unprecedented and remained unique, even as other trans people received mainstream news coverage in the following months (Skidmore). She published an autobiography in 1968 (Jorgensen), which was followed by a fictionalized biographic film about her life in 1970 (Kent et al.), both of which also received a lot of media attention. She remained famous until her death in 1989.
Jorgensen has already received considerable attention in trans studies (e.g. Ames; Meyerowitz; Rawson and Williams; Skidmore; Snorton), but because of her unprecedented mainstream popularity, she still provides an opportunity to examine how transgender subjects were attempting to construct narratives of themselves in the middle of the twentieth century and how those narratives were received by the larger public. I find the historical news articles about Jorgensen especially useful for such a consideration, as her mainstream popularity pushes back against contemporary narratives that transgender people are a new “fad.” Because of the sheer amount of media attention Christine Jorgensen received throughout her life, she remains an important figure for considering how ideas about transgender people have circulated.
Despite the media’s fascination with Jorgensen, she was not the first trans person to receive media coverage in the US. In fact, Joanne Meyerowitz explains that the 1930s and ‘40s saw a surprising number of stories about “sex changes;” however, “Such stories often appeared on the margins of the mainstream press, in sensational magazines, tabloid newspapers, or publications like Sexology that presented the science of sex to a popular audience” (“Sex Change and the Popular Press,” 164). Jorgensen’s extensive coverage in the mainstream press is important, then, because while some scholars have argued that the medical discourse of sexology helped to give a name to a preexisting identity and allowed trans people to identify new medical possibilities for constructing their own lives and bodies (Meyerowitz; Prosser), Emily Skidmore notes that “it was through the mass circulation press—not medical literature—that most Americans learned about transsexuality” (272). Therefore, because she received an unprecedented amount of publicity, particularly in the US, Jorgensen became the first exposure to such possibilities for a wider American audience. In fact, her autobiography refers to the sheer amount of mail she received from people, and states that “[b]ecause of her celebrity, letters addressed simply to ‘Christine Jorgensen. United States of America’ reached their destination” (Meyerowitz, “Sex Change and the Popular Press,” 175).
Meyerowitz argues that “While occasional reports portrayed [Jorgensen] as an oddity or a joke, in general the press continued to treat her as a woman and a star” (“Sex Change and the Popular Press,” 174). Skidmore reaches a similar conclusion, suggesting that “Jorgensen was able to present herself as a respectable woman and continued to be represented positively in newspapers around the country” (278), a privilege Skidmore argues was denied the trans women of color she studies (see also Snorton). The news articles I consider in this essay, however, suggest the public reception of Jorgensen is not as simple as either of these scholars contend. While the news often does present Jorgensen’s own accounting of her life and her experiences, the commentary from the reporters often undermines or casts doubt on those experiences.
To demonstrate the ways in which Jorgensen attempts to construct a narrative of her gendered experiences and the news media’s responses to those attempts, I will examine three news articles about Jorgensen from the Digital Transgender Archive. I chose these three articles after reading every news clipping in the archive’s Jorgensen collection. After setting aside any that did not mention her transition (these were rare), I analyzed the remaining articles for recurring themes around the discussion of her gender identity. In this analysis, I noticed that reporters were relying on similar rhetorical moves to question the authenticity of Jorgensen’s womanhood throughout her life. The three articles I have chosen for this essay provide what I see as some of the clearest examples of the cissexist rhetoric used in the coverage on Jorgensen. By putting these particular news articles in conversation with some of the existing scholarship on Jorgensen, I hope to provide insight into how her attempts at self-narrative were constrained by the popular circulation of her story.
“A New Girl, Blonde, Attractive, and 26:” Jorgensen’s Transition as Rebirth
The December 1, 1952 article “Ex-GI Becomes Blonde Beauty: Operations Transform Bronx Youth,” which appeared on the front page of the New York Daily News, is often cited as being the first article to announce Jorgensen’s transition. The article included “before” and “after” pictures of Jorgensen and the letter she wrote to her parents the previous June. Meyerowitz suggests that it was not initially clear that this story would become the breaking news it did, but that many other journalists “jumped” at the story and “created Jorgensen’s instant celebrity and then reported on its progress, announcing, for example, the offers she received from ‘night clubs for appearances’ and the ‘bids for a lecture tour, jobs as a fashion model and photographic and magazine articles’” (How Sex Changed, 63). Despite Meyerowitz’s focus on this particular article, however, the New York Daily News was not the only publication to report on Jorgensen’s transition as early as December 1st. On this same day, the Boston American ran a briefer article, titled “N.Y. Couple Joyous Son Now Daughter.” While less conspicuous (it was not on the front page), and thus probably playing a smaller role in Jorgensen’s quick rise to fame, I am interested in this article because I have not seen it discussed before, despite its release on the same day as the oft-cited New York Daily News article.
Moreover, I find this Boston American article a more interesting response to Jorgensen’s transition because of its framing as a birth announcement, as the article opens by stating “A New York carpenter and his wife said today they were delighted at the news they had become parents of a new girl, blonde, attractive, 26.” By framing Jorgensen’s transition as a birth in this way, the article suggests a “break” between her former and current selves. That is, rather than focusing on her transition from “’ex-GI,’ the quintessential postwar masculine representation, to ‘blonde beauty,’ the hallmark of 1950s white feminine glamour” (How Sex Changed, 62) as Meyerowitz suggests the Daily News headline does, the opening of this Boston American article instead focuses on the joy her parents felt at learning they had a daughter. Throughout this article, Jorgensen is framed as a man whose body was “reborn” through surgical intervention, such as when the second paragraph of the article announces the “new daughter—Christine.”
However, despite framing her as being “reborn” as a woman, the article also frequently casts doubt on her womanhood. It begins with a picture of Jorgensen, post-transition, with the caption, “Ex-GI George Jorgensen As Pretty Woman: Six Operations Change Him To Beautiful Female” (Boston American). While still referencing her “ex-GI” past in the photo caption, and thus invoking her “masculine” past, by only including a post-transition photo, this article visually centers Jorgensen’s femininity in ways the New York Daily News’ before and after photos do not. Nevertheless, because the caption references “George Jorgensen as pretty woman” (emphasis mine) rather than by her correct name, the article suggests she is simply a man playing a role as a woman. The article also immediately follows the statement that the parents welcomed a new daughter with the phrase, “who until recently had been George Jr., a former soldier” (Boston American), again emphasizing her former name and masculine ex-GI role immediately after acknowledging her womanhood.
While the article does switch to the use of “Christine” after this, it rarely uses pronouns, and when it does it uses “he” or “him.” Moreover, most of the article quotes from Jorgensen’s parents and Jorgensen is simply referred to as their “son,” despite a few references to her as their daughter in the first two paragraphs. Perhaps the most egregious example of this is when the article states that “The Jorgensens said their son had all of his past Army records officially changed to Christine” (Boston American), thus refusing to continue to acknowledge her as their daughter, even while noting aspects of her legal transition. While Meyerowitz suggests that many early articles on Jorgensen “searched her past for clues to her condition” (How Sex Changed, 63) by referencing how effeminate she was as a child, this article seems to do the opposite, as her father is quoted as saying, “as a young man, his son was ‘all masculine’” (Boston American). Julia Serano notes the way depictions of trans women often frame their femininity as “fake” or constructed, thereby underscoring a perceived essential difference between people assigned male at birth and those assigned female at birth (41-42). This emphasis on Jorgensen’s supposed masculinity, then, works similarly, especially among the frequent references to her as a “son,” as it suggests a “natural” masculinity that has been cast aside for a newfound femininity, thus casting doubt on Jorgensen’s status as a woman.
Despite the framing around her parents’ opinions about her transition throughout most of the article, the reporter does turn to Jorgensen’s own account of her own identity near the end. In a quote from the coming out letter she sent to her parents, Jorgensen says, “Nature made a mistake which I have had corrected and I am your daughter” (Boston American). Despite the break between her previous life and her new one the reporter keeps trying to draw through references to a surgical “transformation,” Jorgensen’s statement here works to draw a continuity between her pre-transition and post-transition self through her simple statement that she is her parents’ daughter (not that she has become their daughter, as the reporters frequently state) and that she has simply sought treatment for a pre-existing condition.
To emphasize these points, her letter then turns to a medical explanation of her “condition” which “has now been cleared” because of her surgery, as she explains how hormones work to her parents, states she had a hormonal imbalance “along with millions of other people,” and that gender confirmation surgery has corrected this imbalance. Meyerowitz notes that Jorgensen frequently frames her trans identity as a result of a hormonal balance (How Sex Changed), but importantly, Jorgensen does not present herself as what Jay Prosser calls “medicine’s passive effect” (7), a depiction he claims is common in trans narratives that “emphasize the transsexual’s construction by the medical establishment” (7). Rather, by emphasizing that she has corrected this mistake in her letter, Jorgensen draws on that medical discourse in order present her gender identity as natural, and something that she has authored herself, albeit with the help of medical technology.
The tension around her gender identity remains, however, because the reporter often editorializes in a way that undermines Jorgensen’s agency to craft her own narrative, as shown above by the continued references to her with masculine pronouns. Moreover, the reporter suggests that, despite Jorgensen’s own insistence, she was transformed by the surgeries. For example, before her explanation, the article states she was “transformed through a series of six surgical operations” (Boston American), emphasizing her medical construction, as Prosser would argue, by suggesting she was a passive recipient of a surgical procedure. While turning to Jorgensen’s own account of her identity near the end of the article in some ways validates her own experiences and explanations, the reporter again draws attention to the surgeon by concluding this account by noting that her “long letter” refers to her surgeon as “a great man and a brilliant scientist” (Boston American). Thus, the reporter again undermines Jorgensen’s own account by ending the article with another reference to the surgeon’s achievements. The reference to her surgeon as a “great man” is especially interesting, as it represents another trend in this article of deferring to men and masculinity, much like the reporter was more interested in Jorgensen’s father’s account of her childhood rather than Jorgensen’s own. Moreover, the fact that her account of her transition follows her father’s assertion that she was “all masculine” and the repeated references to her as “their son” destabilizes her own narrative as the reporter grapples with normative understandings about sex and gender and the ways Jorgensen’s attempts to author her own self-narrative outside of these cultural scripts unsettles those understandings.
“There is Nothing to Refuse:” Questions about Legal Gender and Gender Identity
About seven years after the news about her transition broke, Jorgensen attempted to get married. Despite the passage of these seven years, the media continued to report on Jorgensen in similar ways as when she first hit the news, as reports remained preoccupied with her transition and identifying the “truth” of her gender identity. I find the articles about her attempted marriage especially interesting because of the prominent role marriage plays in cisheteronormativity. Were the public media to wholly view Jorgensen as a woman, her marriage to a man would be of no more interest than that of any other minor celebrity. However, it is clear that the media’s interest in her attempted marriage clearly derived from larger questions about the “truth” of her womanhood, for in the Omaha World-Herald’s article “License Next for Christine,” Jorgensen is referred to as a “boy turned girl” in both the subtitle and the first sentence of the article. The Boston Record American, while slightly more respectful, also begins the article “Christine’s Fiancé Acts to Unsnarl Bridal Plans” by describing her as “Christine Jorgensen, who was ex-GI George Jorgensen, Jr., until a sex change operation in Denmark in 1952.” I have chosen these two articles about her marriage to analyze, then, because the anxiety about gender and sexuality that reoccurs throughout reporting on Jorgensen becomes much more explicit through these questions of marriage and what that means for a woman like Jorgensen.
While both articles note that the delay in Jorgensen’s ability to obtain a marriage license is due to her fiancé’s lack of proper documentation of his divorce, and not actually about Jorgensen’s gender identity, they also raise questions about Jorgensen’s legal status as a woman and how that may affect the marriage. The Omaha World-Herald, for instance, states that once her fiancé receives the proper documentation, “City Clerk Herman Katz said a blood test certificate in which a physician certifies Miss Jorgensen is a woman should be sufficient.” Similarly, the Boston Record American, after providing a detailed description of her feminine outfit, states that “One reporter wanted to know if she was apprehensive that she might be refused a marriage license because of the sex change surgery.” Therefore, despite Meyerowitz’s claim that Jorgensen’s authenticity as a woman relied on her appearance “in parts because her sexual organs were neither visible nor mentionable” (How Sex Changed, 63), this article questions the validity of her womanhood despite the fact that she was “dressed in a beige wool coat and a beige knitted dress, [and] was every inch the beaming bride-to-be” (Associated Press). Jorgensen’s response to this question of whether or not the marriage license will be denied because of her transition, quoted in the article, was that “There is nothing to refuse…There is no question about this and there never has been for eight years.” After noting that this timeline of “eight years” refers back to the date of her surgery, the reporter then notes that “She said the U.S. State Dept. had altered her passport shortly after her sex was altered to read ‘female instead of male,’” underscoring Jorgensen’s legal status as a woman.
While Jorgensen’s brief response is direct and suggests there is no question about her status as a woman, it’s interesting that she ties the date that her identity has been settled to her surgery. By doing so, Jorgensen uses that surgery to stabilize her identity as a woman by suggesting the medical interventions are what made her a woman, despite her suggestions earlier that she had always been a woman and simply used surgery to correct a biological mistake. Of course, the fact that both articles are raising questions about how the fact that she was “a boy turned girl” will affect her marriage suggests that, to the media, her status as a woman was not as settled as Jorgensen has claimed. The details this article includes about her passport have a similarly ambiguous effect. While, again, the reference to her passport serves to validate Jorgensen’s legal status as a woman, the fact that the article states her passport reads “female instead of male” suggests it’s not that simple, as it’s tying her current recognized gender identity to that which she was assigned at birth—that is, she’s not just “female” but “female instead of male.”
While I do not take this statement that her passport read “female instead of male” to mean the State Department did, at the time, literally write “female instead of male,” the fact the reporter refers to what her passport says in this way highlights the ambiguity around her status as a woman after she has asserted it is settled—that is, there is at least an implicit suggestion one would expect it to read “male.” Moreover, referring to the gender listed on her passport in this way is a rhetorical act that Serano refers to as “third-gendering” (174-176). Serano describes third-gendering as a statement in which binary trans people are relegated to a separate category rather than the categories of “man” or “woman” that they belong, by using terms such as “male-to-female” for trans women, rather than just women. As Serano explains, this act of third-gendering denies the trans person’s identified gender, even when it’s not meant to be derogatory, as it necessarily makes a distinction between them and their cis counterparts. Thus, like the early article announcing her transition, Jorgensen’s attempts to author her own gendered experiences are consistently undermined by this reporter through such third-gendering and questions about her ability to get married, despite her apparent legal status as female.
Unfortunately, questions about legal gender are never as simple as Jorgensen presents them when she says there is nothing to refuse, a fact that many trans people understand too clearly due to the different requirements around changing gender markers on different identity documents. As Meyerowitz explains, Jorgensen was eventually denied the marriage license. Despite the fact that she presented her passport, which listed her as female, and a letter from her surgeon stating “she must be considered female” (qtd. in Meyerowitz, How Sex Changed, 51), the marriage license was denied because her birth certificate listed her as male. The news media, of course, took interest in this ambiguity around her legal gender status, and Meyerowitz reports that a front-page headline in the New York Mirror read that she “was denied a marriage license yesterday on the ground of inadequate proof of being a female” (qtd. in Meyerowitz, How Sex Changed, 51). This reporting on the lack of “proof” of her gender identity highlights that questions about the authenticity of Jorgensen’s womanhood remained several years after the initial reporting on her transition.
The news articles I have considered in this brief essay demonstrate the ways that, despite both Meyerowitz’s and Skidmore’s critiques that Jorgensen was often portrayed positively because of her ability to reinscribe notions of white heteronormative womanhood, her accounts of her identity and her experiences were still often reframed by doubting or dismissive reporters. It is for this reason that I still find the circulation of news articles about her as a valuable source for considering how transgender people are about to find a language for our own experiences. Prosser notes the tendency to read trans narratives as either literalizing essentialist notions of gender and sexuality or deliteralizing those same notions. He suggests this creates an easy binary in which some trans narratives (those that are antiessentialist) are “good” and those that are essentialist are “bad” (15). Attempting to move past this binary, he suggests we attend instead to how trans narratives “rupture the identity between the binaries, opening up a transitional space between them” by considering how these texts “engage with the feelings of embodiment” (16). Following Prosser, then, I think it is necessary to consider how Jorgensen attempted to express her own feelings of gendered embodiment, despite a doubting and dismissive public while drawing on the language available to her (even if at times essentialist or normative). As the articles about Jorgensen discussed above show, this requires a variety of sometimes contradictory strategies—sometimes, for example, resisting the dominant medical narratives, yet, at other times, using them when helpful to legitimatize her own experiences.
Despite Jorgensen’s insistence that “there was nothing to refuse,” my reading of the available news articles about her suggest the questions about the legitimacy of her womanhood persisted throughout her life, despite the varying strategies she used to explain her experiences to a cisgender public. I remain hopeful, however, that the media will eventually be able to move past this constant doubting and dismissiveness of trans people’s experiences. Avery Everhart argues that the “theme of unreliable narration is one that has haunted both the clinical archives of transsexuality and the genres of trans life writing,” an outgrowth from the ways “clinicians may have been trained to, at least historically, be suspicious of the transgender life as narrated by the person living it” (Everhart). Casey Plett, while also acknowledging that “media gatekeepers insisted for decades on a very specific trans story,” one which often “attempts to explain trans existence to an unforgiving world” (Plett), notes in her review of the current state of trans memoirs that there is evidence of a move past such limited possibilities for narratives of trans experiences. To Plett’s surprise, she found there is much more variety in the types of stories that are told in current trans memoirs when compared to what was available a decade ago. This leads her to conclude that it’s hard to discuss patterns among them because “there are so many of us now with more platforms than what we were once allowed” (Plett). While there are certainly those who still doubt trans people’s own accounts of our experiences, there has undoubtedly been an increase in opportunities and platforms for trans people to share our stories on our own terms. This increase has allowed us to maintain at least some control over our narratives, rather than having to rely on news reporters and publishers who are doubtful of our experiences to frame the ways in which they are told.
- Ames, Jonathan. Sexual Metamorphosis: An Anthology of Transsexual Memoirs. Vintage, 2005.
- Boston American. “N.Y. Couple Joyous Son Now Daughter.” Clipping. 1952. Digital Transgender Archive, Accessed August 15, 2019.
- Everhart, Avery. “A New Anti-Heroine of Transgender Literature Emerges, Or, Why Everyone Should Read Kai Cheng Thom’s ‘Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars: A Dangerous Trans Girl’s Confabulous Memoir.’” Michigan Quarterly Review, Jan. 27, 2020. Accessed March 15, 2020.
- Jorgensen, Christine. Christine Jorgensen: Personal Autobiography. Bantam Books, 1968.
- Kent, Robert E, et al., directors. The Christine Jorgensen Story. Metro Goldwyn Mayer, 2011.
- Meyerowitz, Joanne. How Sex Changed: A History of Transsexuality in the United States. Harvard University Press, 2002.
- Meyerowitz, Joanne. “Sex Change and the Popular Press: Historical Notes on Transsexuality in the United States, 1930-1955.” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, vol. 4, no. 2, 1998, pp. 159-187
- Plett, Casey. “The Evolution of the Trans Memoir.” Xtra Magazine, Nov. 21, 2019. Accessed March 15, 2020.
- Prosser, Jay. Second Skins: The Body Narratives of Transsexuality. Columbia University Press, 1998.
- Rawson, K.J. and Williams, Cristan. “Transgender*: The Rhetorical Landscape of a Term.” Present Tense: A Journal of Rhetoric in Society, vol. 3, no. 2, 2014.
- Serano, Julia. Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity. Seal Press, 2007.
- Skidmore, Emily. “Constructing the ‘Good Transsexual’: Christine Jorgensen, Whiteness, and Heteronormativity in the Mid-Twentieth-Century Press.” Feminist Studies, vol. 37, no. 2, 2011, pp. 270-300.
- Snorton, C. Riley. Black on Both Sides: A Racial History of Trans Identity. University of Minnesota Press, 2018.
- The Associated Press. “Christine’s Fiancé Acts to Unsnarl Bridal Plans.” Clipping. 1959. Digital Transgender Archive, Accessed August 15, 2019.
- —. “License Next for Christine.” Clipping. 1959. Digital Transgender Archive, Accessed August 15, 2019.