First published in VICE, May 3, 2014. Read the original here.
Twenty-five years ago today, transgender pioneer Christine Jorgensen died of bladder and lung cancer, which she believed was caused by genetics, not the fuck-ton of hormones that rocketed her to stardom as “America’s first transsexual” in the 1950s. In her honor, I made a pilgrimage to the one place I know that bares her name: the Christine Jorgensen Memorial Bathroom, an intimate museum experience inside a Brooklyn duplex apartment. What’s a more fitting way to memorialize a transgender person, who always had issues with restrooms, than to give her a personal bathroom?
The facts of the matter: In 1952, a time before ultrasounds and the Polio vaccine, Jorgensen underwent multiple experimental operations to transition her body from male to female, all while under intense public scrutiny. Tons of journalists showed up at Idlewild Airport (now JFK) to cover her return from Copenhagen, where the surgeries were performed. On December 1 1952, the cover of the New York Daily News blared, “EX-GI BECOMES BLONDE BEAUTY,” and an icon was born.
“Christine’s celebrity happened at a very particular time in US history,” said David Serlin, a Professor of Communications and Critical Gender Studies at UC San Diego and the creator of the CJMB. He pointed out, “There was this incredible enthusiasm for science,” and Jorgensen’s transformation was seen as a triumph of modern medicine. The public’s initial response, he said, was, “We are building rockets, we can cure illnesses, and we can take a boy from the Bronx and turn him into a glamorous woman!”
Glamorous is the right word. Standing in the CJMB, surrounded by dozens of portraits of Jorgensen, I was struck by the glam and the glitz, the furs and the crystals, the elegant eyebrows and the perfectly curled lips. The CJMB is a tiny space—maybe 80 square feet of sunshine-yellow tile—and every inch is covered in Jorgensen.
Serlin first became enamored with Jorgensen in 1992, while researching her for a grad class at NYU. Years before the days of Google Image Search, he rented photos from the Corbis Bettmann Archive to accompany his article—his first major academic success. He tacked the images he didn’t use to his bulletin board, where they became a personal talisman. (A few of them still grace the walls of the CJMB.) “Then I started to ask friends of mine about items,” he recalled, and eventually he discovered eBay. “Little by little, I amassed this archive.”
In the late 90s, cash-strapped queer community organizations around the country were digitizing their holdings and selling many original archival objects. Serlin told me that he feels complicated about the provenance of some of his items, but he recognizes that the collectibles were going to be sold regardless. Some objects, like a subway poster advertising a series of articles about Jorgensen in American Weekly magazine, are so ephemeral, it’s shocking they survived at all. Serlin estimates he has nearly 150 pieces of Jorgensen memorabilia and that he installed a third of his collection in the CJMB when he moved to Brooklyn in 2002.
It’s only once I was inside the CJMB, standing face-to-face-to-face-to-face with Jorgensen, that I began to understand the magnitude of her fame. Every major magazine, newspaper, and radio show covered her transition. Books were written about her, and she later wrote Christine Jorgensen: A Personal Autobiography, which was translated into multiple languages and adapted into a movie in 1970. She also released Christine Jorgensen Reveals, an interview album where she discussed her life with Nipsey Russell, who conducted the interview under the name R. Russell. According to Newsday’s obituary, she reportedly made $12,500 a week performing in a stage show in Hollywood. Jorgensen was so famous that a young calypso musician named Louis “Calypso Gene” Wolcott recorded a song about her called “Is She Is or Is She Ain’t?” (Wolcott later changed his last name to Farrakhan and joined the Nation of Islam, but the song is on YouTube.)
This question of realness would end up being Jorgensen’s undoing, Serlin told me. Part of her celebrity had to with America’s love of science, but the rest had to do with how little anyone knew about sex reassignment surgeries. Her peers, even those in the nascent homophile movements of the 50s, had no context for gender transitioning. There was no T in the vague LGB movement, and the word transgender hadn’t even been coined yet. Of course, people with cross-gender desires have always existed, and a few earlier pioneers had also undergone experimental surgical gender reassignments, but they didn’t have a public face in America until Jorgensen, according to GLAAD.
Serlin speculates that at first most Americans “really thought Christine was menstruating and had eggs in her fallopian tubes.” But after six months, the press began to ask more probing questions about what her surgeries actually entailed. When they didn’t like the answers, the country “went ballistic.” Gender panic took over, said Serlin. “They said, ‘He’s not a woman. He’s just a neutered faggot.’” Reputable magazines like Time stopped using female pronouns for Jorgensen, and coverage of her took on a nasty, speculative air.
America didn’t have a huge problem with someone switching between two discreet and very separate sexes, but the suggestion of some middle ground, of a spectrum between male and female, made people fearful and angry. Jorgensen’s existence and acceptance as a woman implied that gender and the body were not necessarily connected, that gender was something one worked to create. If this were true, the sex-segregated ideals of post-war suburbia would have been out the window. In the eyes of the public, Jorgensen was no longer a man-made woman, but a gender terrorist in a blond bouffant.
Though haircuts have changed, America has viewed transgender people this way ever since. What fascinates me about Jorgensen—and what the CJMB, with its reverent air of mid-century majesty, captures perfectly—is the suggestion that it didn’t have to be this way. For six months, Americans decided not to be assholes about gender. Maybe we were too ignorant to act ignorantly, but for a brief moment we decided that it was possible to become a woman. Perhaps this wouldn’t have been the case if Jorgensen wasn’t pretty (couldn’t pass, as it were), or if she wasn’t white, ladylike, and well spoken—but she was, and America loved her. Sure, we’d set the bar on womanhood almost prohibitively high—expensive experimental surgeries, massive doses of hormones—but Jorgensen proved that the game itself wasn’t rigged the way it is now.
Standing inside the Christine Jorgensen Memorial Bathroom, I saw America poised on the threshold of acceptance, and then watched us slink away, afraid to take the plunge. We’ve spent the last 60 years trying to paper over the hole Jorgensen smashed in our gender binary system, but inside the CJMB, it’s easy to imagine an America that went in another direction, where Jorgensen taught us that gender is what Americans make of it and that our bodies are not our destinies.
In the end, the CJMB isn’t only a monument to Christine Jorgensen, but also to the world that accepted her as she wanted to be seen. Visiting helps me remember that our awe came first and our hatred came after, that America stumbles towards every new thing like a delighted (but dangerous) toddler, and that our present moment is just another moment waiting to be changed.