Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Becoming a Woman: A Biography of Christine Jorgensen by Richard F. Docter

No study on the subject of gender dysphoria could be complete without referencing the account of the transsexual whose sex change shocked America in the early 1950s. Christine Jorgensen in her memoir, "Christine Jorgensen, a Personal Autobiography (1967)," outlined her journey from George to Christine. Jorgensen was one of the first individuals of the modern era to undergo what was in the 1950s commonly termed a "sex change operation." "GI Turned Blond Beauty," screamed the headline of the New York Daily News in December 1952. On the cover of the paper was a photo of an attractive young woman waving to the cameras as she exited a transatlantic flight in New York. While in Denmark, she had undergone a radical and experimental operation to turn her into a woman. The story went on to describe the history and process of how the former Army private George Jorgensen was transformed into Christine.

From a young age the article described, George had felt as if he was really a "female trapped in a male body." Unable to repress these disturbing feelings or compensate for them any longer, he obtained medical help and began hormone therapy. On the advice of friends, he traveled to Copenhagen where he met Dr. Christian Hamburger. What Dr. Hamburger learned in his examination and subsequent interviews with his patient eventually led him to perform the surgery that transformed George into Christine. The Christine Jorgensen story told a tale of overcoming the shame of the "abnormality" of having been born in the wrong body. It provided an inspiration for many mid-20th Century gender dysphoria suffers and a legacy that continues to today. What would it mean to be actually able do something about a problem of this magnitude? Christine Jorgensen had placed the importance of her own personal happiness above all else. From what depths did such tremendous courage flow? In the Christine Jorgensen account, gender dysphoric boys heard the word "transsexual" for the first time. In so doing, many found a niche, an explanation, a hope for the future and a direction.

"Becoming a Woman: A Biography of Christine Jorgenson," by Richard F. Docter, PhD is a book I had long wanted to read. However, I had not done so because I thought it to be too pricey. When I became aware that it could be "rented" for a short time at a fraction of the selling price, I downloaded it immediately. After all, it is now about 62 years since Christine made those newspaper headlines for her gender transition and she remains a legend, role model and a seminal figure to the transgender community. When you think about it, the ground she broke in her 1952 transition from a male to female gender role has significantly impacted all of us, not just those of us who are transgender. It stands as an amazing tale describing how a single event has forever changed our world view concerning sex, gender roles and the bi-gender system. The impact of what Christine did back then continues to evolve, and like the ripples in a pond, will go on and on. For as long as there is a bi-gender system and there are people who from an early age, have the idea or thought that they were born in the wrong body, there will be gender dysphoria.

On balance I found the Docter biography to be a worthwhile and well-researched read that brought me back to the 1950's and my first realization that one need not remain categorized in the wrong sex for the rest of their life.  And although this account provided a good amount of interesting and missing information about the life of Christine Jorgenson, it was not without its faults. There was a tendency to provide excessive and unimportant information to the reader. The author also gave way too much data about some meaningless things such as sales receipts and income statements, and did so in the minutest detail. I thought that such areas could have easily been condensed and his points made more concisely.  Although extremely well researched, this biography also had a propensity toward redundancy. Refreshingly though, I found it to be nicely proofread and relative free of grammatical mistakes. Because of my interest in Christine’s story, I stuck with it to the end and I'm glad that I did. However, the repetition and fixation on triviality left me with the weird sensation that the author might have been paid by the page. I know this couldn’t be true, but the feeling was reinforced when I noticed that the last 30% was devoted to footnoting and bibliography. Lastly, and probably in part because of Christine's own secretiveness, this work left more questions unanswered than it answered. It's not the author's fault, but we probably will never know about many of the intimate parts of Christine's life. There were many hypotheses and projections drawn about her motivations, possible love interests and other areas of behavior, but because of the dearth of available facts, not many definitive conclusions can be formulated, although the author made some valiant attempts to try.

One thing that emerges clearly from this book is that Christine, in addition to grappling with her gender identity issues, was also consumed by the excesses of substance abuse through alcohol and nicotine addiction. Her self-destructive behavior in this area, her propensity toward poor decision making, her variable and volatile mood swings, her fixation on friending the great and the near great and her willingness to cut people off at the knees if she felt even slightly betrayed or disagreed with, begs the question, "was she also driven by some other overriding issue such as Narcissism or Borderline Personality Disorder?" We may never know, but the fact remains that Christine Jorgensen’s impact and legacy will endure.

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