By: JOANNE MEYEROWITZ/Politico.com
With her recent cover appearance on Vanity Fair, primetime interview with Diane Sawyer and exploding Twitter following (more than 2.5 million and counting), Caitlyn Jenner has climbed into the stratosphere of American celebrity—sharing that rarefied air with the likes of Katy Perry and President Barack Obama The coverage of Jenner’s transition from male to female—in the New York Times, People, USA Today and virtually every other media outlet—has only continued over the past two weeks, seeming to give the onetime Olympic athlete and reality TV father unprecedented notoriety.
But unprecedented Caitlyn Jenner is not. In many ways, her spectacular fame mirrors that of Christine Jorgensen, America’s first transgender celebrity—more than half a century ago—whose remarkable moment in the spotlight reminds us of the enduring power of celebrity, while telling us, too, about celebrity’s limits.
More than 60 years ago, the New York Daily News had the scoop. On December 1, 1952, its front-page headline read, “Ex-GI Becomes Blonde Beauty: Operations Transform Bronx Youth.” The story inside related how Jorgensen, a 26-year-old photographer who had served in the army after World War II, had undergone a “rare sex-conversion” from man to woman. Jorgensen was young, white, photogenic and conventionally attractive, and within a few weeks, her story had taken off into media madness, covered obsessively in hundreds of newspaper and magazine articles in the United States and abroad. More than a year later, with Jorgensen still in the headlines, the Daily News claimed that she was its top story of 1953, boosting its circulation more than any other story, including the controversial execution of atomic spy Julius Rosenberg and his wife, Ethel.
Today the press coverage of Caitlyn Jenner sounds strangely similar. Jenner’s story, of course, has its own updated specificity. The incessant media buzz now includes intrusive paparazzi stalkers, the stereotypical masculine success once connoted by “ex-G.I.” has morphed into “former Olympian,” and the fan mail arrives instantly via online social networks. With a flourishing transgender rights movement, her story is nowhere near as startling as Jorgensen’s was in the 1950s. In other ways, though, a new CJ walks in the footsteps of an original. In the mid-20th century, Jorgensen shaped her own story and, like Jenner, won a surprising amount of public sympathy and support.
Born in 1926, George William Jorgensen, Jr., grew up in a Danish-American community in the Bronx. She had what seemed to be an ordinary childhood. But in later interviews and her autobiography, Jorgensen remembered turmoil, isolation and sadness. As a child, George longed to play with girls’ toys and wear girls’ clothes and, as an adolescent, developed crushes on teenage boys. By early adulthood, George lived uncomfortably as a man, with an insistent, unshakeable and irrepressible yearning to live as a woman.
In the late 1940s, Jorgensen read a popular book, The Male Hormone by Paul de Kruif, which suggested that testosterone created masculinity. She came to see “sex hormones” as the cause of and partial solution to her problem. Instead of seeking testosterone, though, she sought estrogen. She consulted with doctors and learned that a few surgeons in Europe had already performed what doctors now call “sex reassignment surgery.” The medical literature included a few accounts of operations performed in Germany in the 1920s and 1930s under the auspices of Magnus Hirschfeld’s Institute for Sexual Science. But the Nazis had destroyed Hirschfeld’s institute in 1933, and it was not clear whether or where Jorgensen could find a willing doctor. Nonetheless, in 1950, she left for Denmark to visit relatives and search for medical help. In Copenhagen she met an endocrinologist who agreed to treat her free of charge. Under his supervision, she underwent two years of hormone treatments and surgery to remove the male genitalia. She changed her name to Christine and embarked on her new life as a woman.
At the time of the Daily News’ initial scoop, reporters claimed that a lab technician had leaked the story, but historians now agree that Jorgensen leaked it to the paper herself. Either way, it’s clear that Jorgensen, like Jenner today, appreciated the limelight. A few weeks after her story broke, she signed on with American Weekly, a Sunday newspaper supplement, for the exclusive story of her life, and the paper orchestrated her return to New York to coincide with publication of the story. In February 1953, a crowd of reporters and photographers met her at the airport in New York and scrutinized every detail of her clothing, hair, gestures and voice. As with Caitlyn Jenner, the journalists and commentators assessed whether Jorgensen made a convincing woman. One reporter groused that she “tossed off a Bloody Mary like a guy,” but others noted her “hipswinging” gait, her “slender, trembling fingers” and her “girlish blush.” Three days later, American Weekly published the first installment in its five-part autobiographical account, “The Story of My Life.”
Before long, press coverage of other transsexuals established that Jorgensen was not alone. In 1953, Jet magazine announced that Charles Robert Brown, a nightclub dancer who hoped for surgery in Germany, might become the first African American to transition from man to woman. And in 1954, various newspapers and magazines reported on Charlotte McLeod and Tamara Rees, both also former GIs, who had had surgery in Denmark and Holland, respectively. The press showed less interest in female-to-male transitions, but it occasionally, and usually briefly, reported on them. In 1954, the magazine People Today stated: “Next to the recurrent hydrogen bomb headlines, reports of sex changes are becoming the most persistently startling world news.”
with Milton Berle
Although her transformation was highly unusual, Jorgensen’s style of womanhood was not. She adhered, as the vast majority of American women did (and do), to conventions of femininity. Jenner’s sexy Vanity Fair cover, shot by renowned photographer Annie Leibovitz, has drawn some critical commentary as a “stereotypical male fantasy of a woman,” but in the 1950s, no one complained that Jorgensen reinforced gender stereotypes.
She did, though, encounter some detractors who considered her a fraud. In April 1953, for example, the New York Post published a nationally syndicated six-part series, an alleged exposé, “The Truth about ‘Christine’ Jorgensen,” that presented Jorgensen as a man pretending to be a woman. The Post revealed that Jorgensen was not, as some early news reports had suggested, physically intersexed; that is, before her surgery, she had the standard male equipment. The series presented Jorgensen as a cross-dresser, hinted at homosexuality and referred to her with male pronouns. Still, Jorgensen’s celebrity continued unabated, as the hostile stories only made her more controversial: Was she a woman, or wasn’t she?
In the wake of the exposé, almost all of the press accounts continued to grant Jorgensen her status as a woman, and so, it seems, did the public. To capitalize on the publicity and also to earn a living, Jorgensen launched a nightclub act, with successful runs in Las Vegas, New York, Havana, Montreal, San Francisco and elsewhere. She agreed to radio and television interviews, and acted in summer stock theater productions. In 1967, Jorgensen published her long-awaited autobiography, remade in 1970 into a (notably awful) Hollywood film. And in the early 1970s, she lectured at colleges, sharing her life story with baby boomers who had missed her sensational debut. Although she was conventionally feminine, she fashioned herself as an urbane career woman with every right to participate in the world around her.
The stories of Jorgensen and Jenner are both episodes in the history of sensational journalism and celebrity. They attract audiences in part because they offer an unconventional twist on a long-favored American tale of striving and success. They tell optimistic stories of someone who pursued her dreams and refused to give up on the seemingly impossible. In both cases, the carefully posed glamour shots—in evening gowns and other elegant, pricey attire—create an aura of highbrow femininity and fend off critics who would condemn a transwoman if she failed to look womanly. Today, as in the past, the before-and-after photos stand as public restatements of what qualifies as conventionally masculine and conventionally feminine. At the same time, both stories recount transgressive border-crossings that undermine any attempt to stabilize gender by placing it into two unbreachable boxes.
Then and now, much of the frisson comes from the stories’ sexual edge. In an era when homosexuality was routinely stigmatized, Jorgensen confessed her pre-operative (and post-operative) attraction to men. Although she differed from gay men in her sustained desire to live as a woman and refused to speak in any detail about her sex life, Jorgensen nonetheless reminded readers that people born with male bodies did not necessarily desire women. Amazingly enough, she spoke out for gay rights in the 1950s, even though she did not consider herself gay, and she pushed her readers to consider whether (and why) the very same person was somehow more acceptable as a heterosexual woman than she had been when living as a feminine man attracted to other men. For Jenner, too, the sexual question, it seems, is unavoidable. In her recent interview, journalist Diane Sawyer felt compelled to ask Jenner about sex. Jenner discussed her past attraction to women and left open the possibilities for the future. Will she be queer or straight or both or neither? And why do we have to know?
The déjà vu of the Jenner story ultimately reminds us that Jorgensen’s individual fame did not change the world. This was as obvious in the 1950s as it is now. In early 1953, two cross-dressers, arrested for dressing as women in public, appeared before a New York magistrate. According to the newspaper account, they told the court that they hoped to follow in Jorgensen’s path with hormones and surgery in Denmark. The judge was “unimpressed” and described them, along with Jorgensen, as “men posing as women.” In response one of them asked, “Then why hasn’t she been picked up like us?” We might ask a similar question today. Transgendered people, especially poorer ones, are still fired from their jobs, ejected from their homes, abused on the streets and in prison, ostracized and sometimes murdered, while Caitlyn Jenner enjoys the trappings of celebrity. Why the disparity in treatment?
Celebrity, it seems, allows exceptions but rarely changes the rules. From the 1950s until her death in 1989, Christine Jorgensen spoke out for transgender rights, but ultimately her life as a star made only a minor dent in the laws and attitudes that pathologize unconventional gender expression. Caitlyn Jenner invites the public to consider once again how transgender people challenge and redefine conceptions of sex, gender and sexuality. Today we live in a different era, with a steady stream of trans celebrities (think Chaz Bono, Laverne Cox and Janet Mock), doctors who perform “sex reassignment” operations in the United States, large and active transgender, feminist and gay and lesbian movements, and at least a few laws, court decisions and policies that prohibit discrimination based on gender identity. Caitlyn Jenner is not at the vanguard of this movement, and her peculiar celebrity will not usher in radical social and cultural change. But her desire to stand out and speak up won’t hurt the cause either. And the positive responses to her story might help us imagine a future when unconventional expressions of gender no longer elicit either gawking and stalking or ridicule, harassment and assault.