I have this fun little quirk called “skepticism”—when I see something that seems too good to be true, I assume it is. That leads me to further research to affirm if it A) is actually true, B) the truth was misrepresented, or C) it’s false.
This deep dive started when I saw a post on Tumblr about an article from 1955 talking about a trans woman’s gender reassignment surgery in a respectful way.
I did a double take.
“Respectfully talking about a trans individual? In 1955? We have articles written today that purposefully misgender and misrepresent trans people.
“Is this true?” I dared to wonder.
And folks, I’m pleased to say it is true. Kind of.
It’s sensationalized, it’s plastered in headlines across the world—against the individual’s wishes—but, aside from these glaring invasions of consent, it is pretty respectful.
For more resources about trans issues, or to find community or support for everything from name changes to emergency situations, check out the Trans Lifeline, run entirely by trans people for trans people.
I didn’t know anything about Christine Jorgensen going into this. I’d never heard of her, even though she’s been hailed as the “first transgender celebrity.” She’s got a Wiki page (which for me is the ultimate test of celebrity), and is the subject of articles from The Legacy Project and the National World War II Museum in New Orleans.
From my research, I saw a few themes emerging. These themes are common in the queer experience, and I’d like to use this article to highlight a few:
- Bringing up the past
- Who has the power?
- The ‘stop and gawk’
Bringing Up The Past
One thing these articles did, time after time, was refer to Christine’s dead name. To “dead-name” someone is to refer to them by a name they no longer use—in this case, the name she was referred to before her transition.
To be clear, you can dead-name someone on accident—I’ve done it. We’re human. We all make mistakes.
But when the person to whom you’re speaking reminds you of their name, of their pronouns, and you continue to ignore that and use incorrect addresses for them, that’s no longer an accident. That’s malicious.
Given the facts of this situations, which I’ll get to in a bit, I’d say the constant reference to Christine’s dead name is bordering more on malicious than an innocent accident.
This is something that’s present in coverage of queer issues to this day, a fascination with an individual’s past.
For the record, I will not being using Christine’s dead name in this piece because it’s not her name. It’s that simple.
I won’t be showing photos of her before her transition, because, unless the person themselves has given consent, it seems pretty disrespectful.
There is a time and a place for describing someone’s past, for using their dead name and their dead pronouns, and it comes down to agency and intent and consent.
From my own experience, I can say my past is not something of which I want to be reminded. It’s not something I want to repeat. The past can be a very painful beast. Nostalgia might sugarcoat moments in time, or memories of people and places, but, ultimately, the past is the past. It’s behind us.
And for many queer people, myself included, we don’t want to be reminded of who we used to be because we’re not that person anymore.
For someone who’s spent the majority of their life closeted, it can be very painful to be reminded of that time. Of those years of struggling in silence.
Who Has The Power?
One thing to look for in doing any kind of research is power.
Who holds the power?
Later in her life, following the publicity storm in the 1950s, Jorgensen became a nightclub singer, entertainer, and activist, traveling the world to raise awareness of issues like gender dysphoria until the end of her life.
She was a strong role model, and still is—she fought so the power remained with her.
In December 1952, when her name broke into headlines, the power was ripped from her hands. As she recovered from surgery in Denmark, under care of Dr. Christian Hamburger, she makes it clear that she preferred to remain anonymous, and the doctors attempted to maintain her privacy.
Despite this, a reporter “stole into her room” to get an interview:
“[She] lifted her hands in a surprised, frightened gesture today as she learned that the news of her change from a man to a woman was on front pages throughout the world.
“‘I feared it all the time[.]’”“Former Soldier Changed to Girl by ‘Medical Miracle,’ Times Record (Troy, NY), Dec. 1, 1952.
To best exemplify the intrusion in privacy, let’s look at the first article on Jorgensen, which appeared in the New York Daily News.
It starts with the text of a letter Christine wrote her parents, explaining her identity.
This intensely personal letter, between child and parents, published and widely spread around the world.
The photo captions identified Jorgensen using a hyphenated combination of Christine and her dead name.
It goes into detail about the operation itself, about her family’s reception of the news, of her parents informing of family and friends. Even the address of the family home was made public.
There were different standards of reporting then, you’ll say. And, sure, most scholars agree we shouldn’t judge people of history by our current-day standards. And I agree—to an extent.
There is a common level of compassion that characterizes humanity. A common level of understanding that this is our life, it’s short, and we have to make the most of it, preferably without hurting others.
And as long as there has been discrimination and hatred, there has been resistance. There have been movements arguing for equality and individuals refusing to adhere to what we consider to be societal “norms” for as long as we’ve recorded history (and before).
These individuals’ calls for equality and empathy were (and sometimes now still are) considered radical, and far outside the “norm.” If there was such an emphasis on conforming and the status quo, how is it that I see, time and time again, stories of those individuals who stood up and said “enough”?
Like I said, I agree…to an extent.
So, fine: we shouldn’t use our modern standards when judging history. But that does not mean we shouldn’t consider them.
The ‘Stop and Gawk’
Why was Jorgensen’s case given so much attention?
Her transition was groundbreaking, surely. And she’s not the first queer individual to be covered by mainstream newspapers at the time. I put forth a hypothesis:
These stories were covered because the subjects were considered outliers, apart from what was considered “normal.”
Queer people have long been labeled “freaks,” to the point the two words were synonymous. And though some may argue “queer” came to have a distinct meaning, apart from “homosexual,” the association was still there—is still there. Though it’s been reclaimed by many in the LGBTQ+ community, some members of the community chose not to use it, citing the derogatory and “otherness” nature of the word.
It meant—and, to some, still means—something that was different, that was to be scorned and shunned. In short, a “freak.”
The ‘stop and gawk’ method of coverage is a bit like when you go to a zoo and point and stare at the creature in the cage. It’s putting a spotlight on someone, with or without their consent, and opening them up to public reaction. It’s seeing them as someone so vastly different from yourself. Sometimes it starts with good intentions, but turns into more of a fetishization, a fixation on something you see as different from yourself.
Now let’s think again about the early articles detailing Jorgensen’s transition. Did they do more harm, or good?
The articles brought awareness of gender dysphoria and trans individuals to a large audience…but grossly invaded Christine’s privacy.
The articles showed parents who were accepting of their daughter’s transition…but published an intensely personal letter without the letter writer’s consent.
I argue these early articles did a lot of harm. Christine’s later choice to become a public figure were probably spurred on by the fact her anonymity was snatched from her, meaning she didn’t really have much of a choice. Taking actions allowed her to control the narrative, rather than it being twisted out of her hands.
When sharing an intensely personal experience such as Christine’s, it should always be that individual’s choice. You should never out someone and force them to tell their story—it’s invasive and removes their agency.
We can’t change the past, but we can certainly learn from it. So let’s use this as a teachable moment.
Take a look at GLAAD’s standards for reporting about trans issues.
Among the standards are a list of terms to avoid, and terms to use in their place. These include “transgender” instead of “transsexual,” unless the individual themselves use that term to self-identify.
The term “transgender” is relatively new, only dating back in popular use to around the 1960s, but let me be clear: trans people have always existed.
Here’s an important not to make specifically concerning the series of articles to which I’ve been referring:
“Referring to a “sex-change operation,” or using terms such as “pre-operative” or “post-operative,” inaccurately suggests that a person must have surgery in order to transition. Avoid overemphasizing surgery when discussing transgender people or the process of transition.”“GLAAD Media Reference Guide – Transgender,” glaad.org
I think a danger of these articles is the emphasis on the surgery itself. As stated in GLAAD’s standards, it can make it seem, to the undereducated reader, that surgery is required or desired by all trans people, which is simply not the case.
The path to happiness and contentment for Jorgensen included surgery, and that’s great. I’m truly happy for her.
Some trans people’s paths to happiness and contentment don’t include surgery, and that’s also great. I’m truly happy for them, too.
The constant descriptions of the surgery, the constant hyphenation of Christine’s name with her dead name, the constant references to her past—while bringing attention to her story and allowing other trans and non-binary people to see they are not alone, it did it in a problematic way.
First and foremost, it was against her wishes.
Second, it was praise in a sort of back-handed way. They praised her character and her beauty, while at the same time using terminology that made her seem as an “other,” and emphasized the surgical aspect of her transition.
You may argue that this was just how it was done, and that I shouldn’t be so nit-picky, but semantics are important.
I was trained in journalism, as well as history. I had entire semester-long courses dedicated to editorial decisions like writing headlines and picking and choosing words that conveyed the most meaning in the fewest characters. I understand as much as anyone the importance of words.
Whenever you’re reading an article, especially one written about someone different to you or different to the article’s author, be very aware of the words used. Listen for any sort of indication of “other.”
Be aware of your own inherent bias, and that in others.
The key to acceptance and equality is education.
Learn more about queer history with Matt Baume’s “Culture Cruise” series, in which he does a deep dive into aspects of queer history in media and the news. Also check out this Ted Talk by Samy Nour Younes for a quick introduction to trans history.
Watch the Netflix documentary “Disclosure” about trans creators in Hollywood.
Don’t just be U.S.-centric in your research, check out books like Gay Berlin by Robert Beachy for stories from outside America.
Most importantly, remember to be true to who you are, to not be afraid of asking questions, and to be supportive of others.
Title Card Credit: Background: Transgender Pride flag, SVG file Dlloyd based on Monica Helms design / Public domain; Right: “Former Soldier Changed to Girl by ‘Medical Miracle,'” Times Record (Troy, NY), Dec. 1, 1952, p1.