Cooperate, be exceptional – “Christine Jorgensen: A Personal Autobiography”


[CN: Anti-black/anti-latin@/anti-asian racism, transmisogyny, misogynoir, homophobia, classism, gender policing]

Christine Jorgensen’s grandparents immigrated from Denmark, settled in the Bronx, and involved themselves in the Danish-American community. Her father started a family-owned construction company and joined the coast guard. The Jorgensens in short were upstanding immigrants who chased and caught the American Dream™. And soon Christine is chasing her own individual dream, with the aid of science, and in the process legitimates transgender issues in US scientific and mainstream discourse, opens up Eisenhower’s America to reshaping gender, and briefly becomes the most famous person in the world.

But for being a “personal” autobiography, Christine’s narrative feels sanitized and alienating. In writing her narrative in 1967, she had to make countless choices in navigating her self-represenation — difficult work since her image was already being appropriated and digested by popular media (and later by historians, more on that below). The result is a calculated text that reveals a great deal about how racial privilege and positionality play into the games of tokenizing and respectability politics, all in the time of postwar technology and the lavender menace.

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Gay panic

The choice to open with the story of her parents’ and grandparents’ immigration experience draws the continuity between the narrative of finding prosperity in the US with Christine’s own ambition to fulfill herself. In the process, she portrays herself as the product of a wholesome, heterosexual nuclear family who sing traditional carols at christmas dinners. But Christine, given the name George at birth, feels unhappy and incomplete. She feels more feminine than masculine, and is awkward at carpentry and other “man’s work.” She carries her books in a “girlish way,” across the chest, and at summer camp is “too modest” to go skinny dipping with the other boys. As Christine grows up through the first six chapters she grows increasingly introverted and soulsick.

But the most salient issue in Christine’s emotional life is her panic regarding homosexuality. In 1943 she strikes a friendship with Tom Chaney, but when Tom reveals his plans to marry Christine is overcome with jealous feelings:

It was a puzzling ambivalence. I didn’t like or understand these feelings for Tom, they were new and foreign. At the same time, though I liked him, I resented him for being the object of these strange emotions. (21)

She reads a book in the library on homosexuality which only leaves her with more confusion.

Later in LA while chasing an ambition to break into films, she networks with “Tony Romero” at a party. But when it becomes clear that “Tony” is a gay man and thinks Christine is one too, she leaves disgusted and fearful “that I, too, deviated from what was termed ‘normal’.”

The third strike takes place at a barn-themed party at the Danish social center. A Danish seamen called Eric Larsen makes drunken advances at Christine:

I spun away from his lumbering figure and pushed blindly through the crowd of young people into the darkness outside, heading for the beach. Sand caught at my feet and seemed to hold me back purposely, until I reached the solid boards of a pier that jutted out over the water. I leaned over the edge of the pier and vomited. (75)

In these passages Christine carves a narrative of exception that legitimates her identity as a woman. This was an era in which “gay” was a patriarchal umbrella term for transsexuals, transvestites, and really anybody who “deviated” in terms of sexuality or gender. But Christine establishes herself as apart from homosexuality and the entire gay culture that had become so woefully visible in wartime (as sex-segregated societies are wont to do) and remained so in the postwar years. Her homophobia (based on her xian beliefs) marks her apartness from same gender attraction, the flip-side of which is her pledge of allegiance to the straight family, and viz a viz that with bourgeois respectability and morals that will defend democracy and capitalism. To gain acceptance as she pursues her desires, Christine has to cooperate with the nationalist program. And to cooperate is to be exceptional.

Ultra-whiteness & legibility

 Christine’s transition put her in a highly advantageous position to embody ideal standards of female beauty. And these standards were and are conditioned by white-supremacy, thin privilege, and domesticity.

Dr. Emily Skidmore is a gender historian who discusses in a periodical article called “Constructing The ‘Good Transsexual'” how mass culture tokenizes certain transwomen on the terms of their reconstruction as images for public consumption. The public gaze on transwomen is traded on the literal “legibility” of their figures.

Christine Jorgensen was a “blonde beauty,” her transition was “a world of difference.” Not only was she a perfect ultra-white woman with blonde hair (one smear claimed that she wore a wig), a slim figure, and a fabulous wardrobe, but these traits were made as palatable for male consumption. Skidmore calls this a process of “naturalization”. It’s a world of difference: don’t worry, readers, it’s okay if you want to fuck this person.

After returning from Denmark in 1952, Christine lands a lucrative career performing vaudeville acts in nightclubs, often in acts requiring multiple outfit changes. This exhibition space is where change and femaleness intermingled. To become an exceptional woman, Christine has to flatten herself into an image, and this process continues in her autobiography — her own narrative is carved down so that transgender historian Susan Stryker calls some bits of the book “little more than lists of which famous and important people she lunched with during any given week, which fabulous and exclusive clubs she performed in, and which tasteful ensembles she wore while doing so.”

Christine reinforces her femaleness in part by emphasizing her subordination to the men who helped her career. This includes her talent agent Charlie Yates, who is quoted saying:

She wanted a career that was respected and tasteful, but all that stuff in the newspapers was pretty overwhelming, and there’s no place she could have gone to escape it. The logical thing then, was to use it wisely and if she was going to be in the public eye from then on anyway, it had to be show business. (202)

Charlie and later on a playwright-producer named Bill Hunt give Christine the right opportunities, the right advice, and while she might push back at first she always learns her lessson to acquiesce herself to their judgement.

Wars of representation

Stryker wrote the introduction to the 2000 reprint of this text: “So intent is she on proving her respectability and countering the many untrue and unnkind things said of her in the press” that her “dignified and understated” tone can make for “admittedly dull reading.” She selected some photographs of a saucy and fabulous Christine that counteracts the images proliferated in the 50s of her in domestic roles, hanging out with her family etc. The war of representation continues.

But putting the color back into Christine’s life does little to address her centrality in 50s culture and transgender hxstory. Her whiteness and heteronormativity made her palatable to a U.S. that was purging thousands of queer and lesbian folk from government agencies, infiltrating their activist groups, and siccing cops on their bars. The bleeding edge technology that won the war was now intervening on gender and sexuality: science conquers nature, constructs the perfect stepford wife.

Christine never examines her race other than a mention of her Danish fair hair. She taps into the science theme, linking her case with the leaps and bounds of atomic energy, but her potential assignment to occupied Japan as a GI is viewed only as a “travel opportunity.”

Later on as an entertainer who travels the world, her snark regarding the exotic peoples and cultures she consumes in a life of luxury is ugly and embarrassing. A laugh out of how the plane ride out of Venezuela must be disinfected. Acts in a show in Hawaii include traditional Japanese music:

Listening to the Shamisen players pluck at their whining instruments for three shows nightly was a violation of to my uneducated Occidental ear, and at a point when I began to like it, I knew it was time to leave. (258)

Saddest of all is Christine’s refusal to perform in front of a Venezuelan censorship board comprised of mothers who have brought their “howling” kids and in one case publicly nurses them. She seems to regard the last detail with horror and her casual dehumanization of these women gives the lie to the cult of white middle-class domesticity she feeds into elsewhere.

Christine’s narrative is so thoroughly scrubbed of details that images like doily-covered tables and swirling dust in the light of a church window stand out. Most of the details regarding her transition come from folks like Dr. Benjamin, whose writings are quoted liberally. The result is medicalisation of transsexualism, and the framing of Christine’s early life as that of an “underdeveloped male” with an “emotional disease” that required curing. The text reproduces the colonisation of trans/gender, participating in a deep and violent historical process under its futurist language.

Skidmore provides more evidence of the conservative attitudes Christine espoused in the 50s. In an interview regarding the prosecution of a sex worker:

Those people make me sick. It’s all right as long as they get away with what they’re doing, but once they get caught they weep and plead for mercy. She had her fun—now she has to pay the price.

It doesn’t matter that the sex worker she’s talking about was poor — we can’t blame society or our individual failings and choices. How to reconcile this sort of right-wingnut victimblaming AM radio sentiment with this passage in her book:

It is frequently considered more appropriate to strengthen the arm of the law against people who don’t fit into acceptable patterns of sexual normalcy, whatever the ‘norm’ may be. (126)

This lip-service comes with the length at which Christine protests her exception from gay and lesbian culture:

I have never worn, or wanted to wear, feminine clothing while I retained any evidence of masculinity…I didn’t wear female clothing until my legal status as a woman was established on my passport, approved by the United States State Department. (162)

Christine faced trasmisogyny and abuse and it continues beyond the grave (see t he pronoun use in the Newsday blurb on the cover). Letters of opprobrium were headed “Dear Sir,” shows were cancelled at the last minute, the press and cops harassed her, and the former was constantly making shit up. Yet the abuse she proliferated to be accepted by straight society, the multiple racial and class oppressions she had to buy into, the privileges she had to exploit — these all deserve foregrounding and can’t be underestimated. Christine Jorgensen’s story is an undeniable intersection of transgender hxstory and cultural history. It’s also the tragedy of respectability politics.

Darkness and epistemology

In 1966, a year after Christine published her autobiography, Delisa Newton was publicized as a black transwoman. What little I can find in publsihed academe stuff includes a tidbit from Joanne Meyerowitz’s book How Sex Changed. The headlines say a lot.

It demonstrates what Skidmore argues in her discussion — the tokenizing of Christine Jorgensen is erasing trans woc (her article includes discussion of trans woc Delisa Newton, Laverne Peterson, and Marta Ramiro, who all were “processed” by the press in different ways according to the racist and sexist tropes stacked against them, respectively, black, asian, and latin@).

The centrality of trans woc to the gay lib movement with their involvement in the Stonewall uprising, and the Compton’s Cafe Riot which happened before Stonewall are slipping into public amnesia, although the research efforts of Stryker and others are working to correct this. And as the limelight on Christine shines brighter, the shadow over this crucial history disappears into inky darkness.

Skidmore’s award-winning piece is unfortunately behind a paywall:

Skidmore, Emily. “Constructing the ‘Good Transsexual’: Christine Jorgensen, Whiteness, and Heteronormativity in the Mid-Twentieth-Century Press.” Feminist Studies 37.2 (Summer 2011): 270-300.

This appears as a single paragraph in  A Personal Autobiography:

During 1955, I had the opportunity to appear as a guest speaker at the Men’s Club of the Massapequa Jewish Center and the Farragut Masonic Temple in New York City. During my visit to the latter, the Masons weren’t aware that in my high-school years I’d been a member of the Demolay, a junior Masonic order, until I told them that I was undoubtedly the only woman in the world who knew the secret rituals of the organization. I invited both laughter and consternation, but they all settled down when I promised to keep the rituals an eternal secret. (254)


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