Sex Change and the Popular Press

| Oct 2, 2017

By Joanne Meyerowitz
Copyright @ 1998 by Duke University Press

Christine Jorgensen

Part One

On 1 December 1952, the New York Daily News announced the “sex change” surgery of Christine Jorgensen. The front-page headline read “Ex-GI Becomes Blonde Beauty: Operations Transform Bronx Youth,” and the story told how Jorgensen had traveled to Denmark for “a rare and complicated treatment.” The initial scoop soon escalated into an international media frenzy. Reporters cast Jorgensen, who was young and beautiful, as a starlet on the rise, and within two weeks had sent out fifty thousand words on her through the news wire services. In the winter of 1953, Jorgensen returned to the United States and surrendered to her celebrity. That spring, she embarked on a show business career that kept her name on marquees and her body in spotlights for the rest of the decade.

The press coverage accorded to Jorgensen triggered an avalanche of publicity about sex change through surgery and hormones, but she was not the first transsexual, nor was her story the first media attention to sex change. Stories of “sex reversals,” “sex changes,” and “sexual metamorphoses” had appeared in American newspapers and magazines since the 1930s. These stories differed from the more frequent reports of “passing,” in which a person known previously as one sex was discovered living as the other. Rather, these were sensationalized stories of bodily change that, in the decades before Jorgensen’s fame, introduced American readers to the concept of sex transformation.

In this article, I place Christine Jorgensen in broader historical context. I focus on the European origins of medicalized sex change in the early twentieth century, on specific examples of American media coverage of sex changes in the 1930s and 1940s, and on the responses of people whom we might now label transsexuals. Although the stories in the American press conflated a European version of sex change surgery for “transvestites” with the more widely known surgeries for intersexed conditions, they allowed some nonintersexed readers to imagine sex change as a real possibility for themselves. I then turn to the media blitz on Jorgensen to position it as a culminating episode in which the unprecedented scope of publicity expanded the process by which some readers identified new options for themselves in the popular culture.

The emphasis on popular culture and on transsexuals themselves revises the limited scholarly literature on the history of transsexuality, an abbreviated rendition of which might read as follows:

In the late nineteenth century, sexologists placed cross-gender identification in the same categories of “inversion” that included homosexuality. In the early twentieth century, as homosexuality increasingly referred to same-sex object choice, sexologists Magnus Hirschfeld and Havelock Ellis defined “transvestism” or “eonism” as an independent category that included cross-gender identification as well as cross-dressing. But transsexualism as a separate sexological classification depended on’ medical technology such as synthetic hormones and plastic surgery that enabled sex change treatment. In the most recent historical account, transsexuals “appeared on the medical and social landscape of the West” only in the late 1940s and early 1950s when doctors David Cauldwell and Harry Benjamin first coined and publicized the English term transsexual and when Jorgensen entered the public domain.

In this article, I suggest that a transsexual identity of sorts emerged well before the sexological category of transsexualism. I do not refer here to the sense of being the other sex or in the wrong body, which existed” in various forms in earlier centuries and other cultures. I refer specifically to modest transsexuality as defined through requests for bodily transformation via surgery and hormones. Especially in gay and lesbian studies, historians have begun to explore how, when, and in what forms specific sexualized identities appeared in the modern era. These identities are “neither innate nor simply acquired,” as Teresa de Lauretis has written, “but dynamically (re)structured by forms of fantasy both private and public, conscious and unconscious, which are culturally available and historically specific.” Recent works in cultural studies explore the processes by which readers engage actively with mass culture to inform and transform their fantasies and practices of everyday life. In the history of transsexuality, marginalized subjects used available cultural forms to construct and reconfigure their ‘own identities. From the 1930s through the 1950s, certain readers appropriated public stories of sex change and included the quest for surgical and hormonal transformation as a central component of their senses of self. Through reading, some transgendered individuals — self-identified in the terms available in their day as eonists, trans vestites, homosexuals, inverts, and hermaphrodites — came to a new sense of who they were and what they might become.

B.C. (Before Christine)

The concept of medicalized sex change did not depend on the invention of synthetic hormones or the development of sophisticated plastic surgery techniques. Surgical attempts at changing sex first won publicity in the early 1910s when Eugen Steinach, a physiologist in Vienna, attracted international acclaim for his “transplantation” experiments on rats and guinea pigs. In 1912, Steinach published “Arbitrary Transformation of Male Mammals into Animals with Pronounced Female Sex Characteristics and Feminine Psyche,” followed in 1913 by “Feminization of Males and Masculization of Females.” The articles, soon scientific classics, demonstrated that castrated infant male guinea pigs implanted with ovaries developed certain characteristics associated with females and that castrated infant female guinea pigs implanted with testes developed characteristics of males. Steinach claimed to have found the specific impacts of “male” and “female” hormones, thus placing his research in the larger turn-of-the-century scientific project that attempted to locate a biological sexual essence in gonadal secretions. His research also suggested the possibility of medically transforming sex. As he put it, “The implantation of the gonad of the opposite sex transforms the original sex of an animal.” His work directly influenced Magnus Hirschfeld, Harry Benjamin, and other sexological scientists.

By the early twentieth century, a few records of surgery for human “inverts” refer simply to removal of body parts such as testicles, uteri, and breasts, a form of intervention that did not require advanced medical technology. In 1902, for example, twenty-eight-year-old New Yorker Earl Lind, a self-proclaimed invert, androgyne, homosexual, and fairy, convinced a doctor to castrate him. He pursued the castration ostensibly to reduce his sexual “obsession” and as a cure for the frequent nocturnal emissions he saw as ruinous to his health. But he also acknowledged that he saw himself as a woman, preferred “to possess one less mark of the male,” and hoped castration would eliminate his facial hair, which he considered his “most detested and most troublesome badge of masculinity.”” Alberta Lucille Hart, a medical doctor in Oregon, also pursued surgery as an expression of gender identity. In 1917, Hart persuaded psychiatrist J. Allen Gilbert to recommend hysterectomy. As with Lind, the surgery required medical justification, in this case the relief of dysmenorrhoea. In the quest for surgery, Hart also employed a form of  eugenic reasoning, advising sterilization for any individual with “abnormal inversion.” Even these arguments did not immediately convince Gilbert, who agreed to the operation only after “long hesitancy and deliberation.” After surgery, haircut, and change of attire, Alan Lucill Hart “started as a male with a new hold on life” and had a successful career as a radiologist and novelist.

Although we have isolated examples of early surgery in the United States, the quest for sex change seems to have been more widely acknowledged in Europe. In 1916, German sexologist Max Marcuse isolated the request for sex change surgery from more generalized sexual inversion. He described a case of Geschlechtsumurandlungstrieb (drive for sex transformation) in which a male-to-female subject referred to as “A.” had read about sex change experiments on animals and requested similar surgery. Around the same time, a few European doctors began to perform transformative surgery. By the early 1920s, two men in England “who aspired to become” women knew of a doctor in Italy “who would remove the male organs,” and in Germany at least one individual “who felt himself to be a female” had “male organs removed at his own request, and was given injections of ovarian extract.”

By the 1920s, Germany stood at the forefront of the human sex change experiments, with Magnus Hirschfeld’s Institute for Sexual Science in Berlin at center stage. Hirschfeld encountered female-to-male “transvestites” who requested” mastectomy and preparations for beard growth and males-to-females who sought castration, elimination of facial hair, and “apparatus for making the breasts bigger.” For Hirschfeld, hermaphrodites, androgynes, homosexuals, and trans vestites constituted distinct types of sexual “intermediates,” natural variations that all likely had inborn, organic bases. He considered transvestism “a harmless inclination” and advocated the social acceptance of transvestites. He listened seriously to the desire to change sex expressed by some of the subjects he studied, and he began to recommend surgery. In 1931, German physician Felix Abraham, who worked at the Institute, published the first scientific report on modern transsexual surgery, an article on the male-to-female genital transformation (Genitalumwandlung) of two “homosexual transvestites. The illustrated account of surgery included castration, amputation of the penis, and creation of an artificial vagina. Abraham believed that countless other patients wanted similar operations.

Part 2

Lili Elbe

Word of the sex change experiments in Germany reached a wider public in the early 1930s when the press reported on Danish artist Einar Wegener, who became Lili Elbe. The operations began with castration in Berlin, following psychological tests conducted by Hirschfeld at the Institute for Sexual Science. Later, in Dresden, doctors removed the penis and allegedly also transplanted human ovaries. Elbe died from heart failure in 1931 after a final operation, an attempt to create a “natural outlet from the womb.” Before her death, the story broke in Danish and German newspapers and soon thereafter appeared in book form in both Danish and German. (In the book version, the pseudonymous Dr. Hardenfeld provides a thinly veiled cover for Magnus Hirschfeld.)

At least one American, Jane Winter (a pseudonym), born around 1900, investigated the medical possibilities for female-to-male sex change in Europe. She went to Germany, probably in the 1920s, “to find solutions to her problems of homosexuality and transvestism.” In Chicago, she had felt “isolated from her kind,” but in Berlin she found others like her through association with Hirschfeld’s Institute. She underwent “years of analysis before she could overthrow her guilt feelings about herself.” Hirschfeld himself agreed to arrange her sex change surgery. “However, when he warned her that after the operations she would not be either a man or a woman, she backed out.” Perhaps Hirschfeld meant that Winter would not have reproductive capacities, or perhaps he referred to the crude technology of phalloplasty that could not create a functioning penis. In any case, after living for “a long time” as a man, Winter left Europe at the outbreak of World War II and returned to Chicago, where she lived again as a lesbian.

While few Americans, it seems, traveled to Europe for sex changes, more began to learn through the mass media of new possibilities for medical intervention. By the 1930s, stories of sex changes began to appear in English. In 1933, Dutton published the first English translation of the Lili Elbe story, Man into Woman: An Authentic Record of a Change of Sex. The book presented its subject as an occasional crossdresser whose female personality had come to predominate. More dubiously, it also depicted her as a hermaphrodite with “stunted and withered ovaries” as well as testicles. The book included an introduction by British sexologist Norman Haire, who informed readers of Steinach’s transplantation experiments on animals but considered it “unwise to carry out, even at the patient’s own request, such operations” as those performed on Elbe.

After the publication of Man into Woman, a few American magazines reported on Lili Elbe. These accounts downplayed Elbe’s transvestism and emphasized her alleged (and extremely unlikely) hermaphroditism. In December 1933, Sexology, a popular magazine on the science of sex, related the case in “A Man Becomes a Woman.” The article distinguished Elbe from the “purely mental” inverts whose “disorder of the mind” stemmed from unhappy childhoods. The distinction lay in “the surprising discovery” that Elbe’s “body contained female organs.” According to Sexology, Elbe’s physical condition presented specialists with “the opportunity” for changing sex previously “taken only with animal subjects.” The article admitted that it was “hard to explain the case” but suggested that further investigation might bring “more relief” to “the ‘borderline’ cases where the apparent sex and the inclinations seem to be in sharp conflict.”

Another account, “When Science Changed a Man into a Woman!” associated Elbe with other alleged intersex cases. As the subtitle proclaimed, “The Cases of Two Girls Who Are Being Transformed into Two Boys Parallel the Extraordinary Drama of the Danish Painter Who Became a Beauty.” The article presented Claire Schreckengost of rural Pennsylvania and Alice Henriette Acces of France as intersexed, with “organs of both sexes.” Both had undergone transformative surgery to correct what the article presented as mistakes of nature. In Elbe’s case, the article noted, she and the scientists she consulted “became convinced that Nature had intended him to be a woman but, in some wretched way, had bungled her handiwork.” With typical reticence, the report refrained from mentioning genitalia or reproductive organs. It did not specify what any of the surgeries involved; it related only that one of Schreckengost’s operations was “of the ductless gland type.” In the case of Acces, the article suggested that surgery had resulted because Acces “was found to be adhering not at all to her girlish role.”

These and other stories of sex changes attempted to lure American readers with shocking accounts of unusual behavior, rare biological problems, and astonishing surgical solutions. Such stories often appeared on the margins of the mainstream press, in sensational magazines, tabloid newspapers, or publications like Sexology that presented the science of sex to a popular audience. They covered cases of cross-gender behavior, intersexuality, homosexuality, and transvestism, sometimes without distinguishing among them, and frequently depicted them all as interrelated pathologies in need of medical cure. They occasionally mentioned “sex reversals” of the “purely psychical” kind but presented them as homosexuality that did not qualify for surgery. Sometimes they reported metamorphoses wherein a woman or man, perhaps with a glandular disturbance, underwent spontaneous changes in bodily sex and gendered behavior during late adolescence or adulthood. (A typical headline read, “Boy Prisoner Slowly Changing into a Girl.”) More generally, though, the articles mentioned surgery but failed to specify what it entailed. They depicted sex change surgery as unveiling a true but hidden physiological sex and thus tied the change to a biological mooring that justified surgical intervention. These stories often reinforced stereotypes of gender and sexuality by locating the sources of gendered and erotic behavior in the sex of the physical body. In this binarist vision of sex, science could and should correct nature’s tragic “rare blunders,” creating an unambiguous male or female sex from a condition of ambiguity.

Zdenek Koubkov

In the second half of the 1930s, these features appeared in widely reported accounts of European women athletes who became men. In 1935, twenty-three-year-old Belgian cycling champion Elvira de Bruyne changed sex and began to live as Willy. About a year later, British shot-put and javelin champion Mary Edith Louise Weston underwent two operations and adopted the name Mark, and Czechoslovakian runner Zdenka Koubkova became Zdenek Koubkov through what one report termed “a delicate surgical operation.” Because he came to New York in 1936, the American press covered Koubkov’s case extensively. Considered female at his birth in 1913, Koubkov grew up as “an utterly masculine youth” who resisted feminine clothes and domestic training. As he aged, “the feeling of masculinity began to assert itself,” and he longed for women sexually, “his imagination inflamed by reading French novels.” He competed as a woman in the 1932 Olympics, setting a world record in the 800-meter event, but in his early twenties “a great light dawned,” and he realized he was a man. Four months after a procedure described only as a “flick of a surgeon’s scalpel,” Koubkov came to New York to perform in a tableau vivant in the French Casino, a Broadway club. He ran on a treadmill, chasing a woman, foreshadowing Christine Jorgensen’s later staged performances of gender. In part, the press attention reflected discomfort with women athletes and confirmed popular opinions that athletic women were, if not actually men, at least suspiciously mannish. But the stories also provided further publicity for the possibility of changing sex.

A Sexology cover from 1939.

Were Koubkov and the others intersexed or what we would now consider transsexual? One quasi-scientific 1938 pamphlet, Women Who Become Men, suggested that “women-athletes” were “changing their sex” through transplants of testicular tissue, but, it claimed, “the press is too delicate to give us exact information.” Sexology, however, reported the various stories of sex changes as accounts of intersex and “arrested development.” In one such article, Dr. Jacob Hubler admitted he had no scientific accounts in medical journals on which to rely and expressed reservations about drawing definitive conclusions from reading the popular press. Nonetheless, he assumed that popular accounts of sex changes referred to intersex surgery, which, by the 1930s, he saw as “nothing new or nothing startling.” He explicitly tried to dissuade readers from seeing surgical sex change as anything more. “The average man and woman with homosexual (‘third sex’) trends and twists,” he wrote, “need not think we are on the threshold of new discoveries which will enable any individual to be changed to the sex he or she prefers.” His approach differed decidedly from that of the German doctors at Hirschfeld’s Institute who saw (and performed) transformative surgery as an option for the people they labeled transvestites.

Despite the warning, some read the stories of sex change in precisely the manner Hubler hoped to prevent. The publicity accorded to sex change surgery caught the attention of individuals who identified possibilities in it for themselves. Sexology published several letters from readers in search of information. In 1934, one letter writer explained: “I have a peculiar complex — I believe it is called ‘Eonism.’ That is, I desire to dress as a woman…. The fact is I have an even stronger desire, and that is — I wish I were a woman…. I am interested in the Steinach operation in regard to change of sex. I would like more information.’’ In 1937, a “Miss E. T.” asked: “Is it possible through a surgical operation, or several operations, to change a female into a male? I have read something — not very informative — about such things having been done…. Could you give me any idea of the method, and also of the cost?’’ In “They Want to Change Sexes” (1937), Sexology acknowledged that press reports on European athletes had “stirred” some of its readers, who now asked “whether it is possible, and if so, how and where.’’ The magazine summarized a handful of letters (both male-to-female and female-to-male). The fragmentary presentation of the letters makes it impossible to know to what extent readers used the popular narratives to plot stories about themselves, but one letter suggests some readers might have fitted the stories of intersexuality to their own wants. A woman who described herself as “nothing feminine” but “apparently of [the female] sex” asked: “If it were true that I have both male and female organs of reproduction, would it not be advisable to undergo what operations are necessary to become the male I wish to be? Can you refer me to a competent surgeon who would be interested in my case?”

The magazine did not offer the information that letter writers sought and tried instead to discourage them. In response to one male-to-female inquiry, the editor acknowledged that the letter writer could have “the operation of complete castration” and thereafter live as a woman but warned that surgery would create a “completely sexless creature.” The editor stated bluntly to a female-to-male correspondent, “There is no operation whereby a normal female can be changed to a normal male, or a normal male into normal female. The operations you have read of were performed on ‘hermaphrodites.’’ Through the 1940s, Sexology continued to advise such readers, whom it sometimes called “inverts” or “homosexuals,” that doctors performed such surgery for cases of intersexuality only. Nevertheless, it continued to run stories about men who became women and women who became men, and letter writers continued to ask for sex change operations.

Such surgery was not available in the United States. Take the case of Daniel Bass (a pseudonym), born in 1904. Bass knew from an early age of his desire to be a woman. A voracious reader of scientific and popular literature, he understood the possibilities for medical intervention and went in search of what he called “feminizing operations.” In Chicago in the 1930s and 1940s, he consulted at least eight doctors, mainly psychiatrists, none of whom would help. He wrote: “I cannot understand why they make no honest effort to help me whereas in literature I see that so many patients have been helped directly…. Doctors have given me to understand that such desires as I have are real and basic and that I can not get away from them. Yet, when I ask them to help me realize my desires, they refuse to do so.” By the mid-1940s, he had given up temporarily on the quest for surgery to pursue female hormones and self-feminization, which he hoped to accomplish by binding his testicles into his abdomen, where he thought they might atrophy. He did not yet have the word transsexual, but neither did he see himself as inter-sexed or homosexual. He labeled himself a “true invert”: “I am a woman in every way with the exception of the body.”

Bass identified the dilemma faced by mid-twentieth-century Americans who hoped to change sex. On one side, the press published a stream of sensational stories that hinted at new surgical options for sex transformation. On the other, American doctors refused to offer or recommend treatment unless the patient could lay convincing claim to an intersexed condition. Some American doctors, especially psychiatrists, expressed a chilling hostility to their nonintersexed trans-gendered patients. Two psychiatrists in Chicago considered one patient’s request for surgery as an example of “his senseless, silly and asinine statements commensurate with mental deficiency.” Caught in the middle, self-identified inverts such as Daniel Bass were increasingly eager to pursue new medical possibilities but increasingly frustrated and depressed by the resistance they encountered. As Bass put it: “I constantly think of suicide as the only way out.” But each new piece of publicity offered another shred of hope.

Part 3

And the publicity continued. In July 1941, newspapers featured the story of Barbara Richards, who had petitioned the Superior Court of California in order to change her name from Edward and assume the legal status of woman. Reporters pursued the story avidly, presenting it, as did Richards herself, as a case of spontaneous sexual metamorphosis.

Richards, then twenty-nine, told the court in Los Angeles that two years prior she had “realized that some vital physiological change was taking place.” She noted changes in her beard growth, voice, skin, and figure. Adhering to prevalent gender stereotype, she also related that she had become “increasingly fond of cooking and housework.” In her petition to the court, she described herself as a hermaphrodite whose female characteristics had become predominant, a story strikingly similar to Lili Elbe’s. In one later account, though, Richards granted that a medical specialist had found no “organic evidence” of an intersexed condition. Endocrinologist Marcus Graham, who presented her case at a medical conference, attributed the change to hormonal imbalance resulting from childhood illness.

The story remained in the public eye for several months, introduced with such startling headlines as “Prank by Mother Nature Turns Los Angeles Salesman into Woman” and “My Husband is a Woman.” Richards and her wife, Lorraine Wilcox Richards, explained to a curious public Barbara’s childhood, their courtship and marriage, and the details of the sexual metamorphosis. While Richards portrayed herself as a victim of changes beyond her control, she conceded that she was “thrilled at being a woman.” Echoing Lili Elbe, she invoked the imprimatur of nature: “I know now that nature intended me for a girl.” As the story unfolded, though, new details suggested that active human intervention might have played a larger role than the stories of passive metamorphosis implied. In October, a newspaper reported that Richards was taking “feminine hormone injections” to “stabilize her condition.” In January 1942, another account suggested that Richards anticipated “plastic operations” to make the “outer body conform to… inner necessities.” (Later, out of the public view, Lorraine Wilcox Richards also changed sex, female-to-male, through surgery and hormones, and the couple remained together as Barbara and Lauren Wilcox.)

As before, the news reports caught the attention of people who hoped to transform their own sexes. Daniel Bass followed the Richards coverage, searching for details that might explain what exactly had transpired. “In July, 1941,” he wrote, “the newspapers had a write up about a man turning into a woman through some freak of nature…. I am very much frantic over the fact that I have not been able to get the necessary information on this case.” Another person wrote directly to Richards, “How did hair disappear from face, and breast grown, this I would really like to have done, and be same as you.” Dr. David 0. Cauldwell, Sexology’s question-and-answer department editor, also noted the response to cases such as Richards’s. The occasional “legal alteration,” he wrote, “leads to brass check proclamations on a wholesale scale that an individual has been medically metamorphosed from one sex into another.” Such reports, he claimed, “make a target of my mailbox…. One question predominates…. ‘Where can I get this done?”

Faced with such requests, Cauldwell began to publish more widely on the subject of altering sex. In a 1949 Sexology article, he chose the phrase “psychopathia transexualis” (playing on Krafft-Ebing’s famous nineteenth-century treatise, Psychopathia Sexualis) to describe the case of “Earl,” who asked Cauldwell “to find a surgeon” who would remove breasts and ovaries, “close the vagina,” and construct “an artificial penis.” Cauldwell acknowledged that a surgeon could perform such operations, but he refused to endorse them, stating that the artificial penis would have “no material use” and “no more sexual feeling than a fingernail.” Furthermore, he considered it “criminal” for a doctor to remove healthy glands and tissues.

What distinguished this article from earlier ones was the definition of “psychopathia transexualis” as an independent sexological category. Cauldwell dissociated this request for surgery from cases of intersexuality and glandular disorder. To Cauldwell, a psychiatrist, transsexuals were “products, largely of unfavorable childhood environment,” And although Earl was sexually drawn to women, the article also distinguished transsexuals from homosexuals. The caption to an accompanying surreal illustration (of a double-headed man/woman binding his/her breasts) read, “Many individuals have an irresistible desire to have their sex changed surgically…. These persons are not necessarily homosexuals.” Cauldwell elaborated in a 1950 pamphlet, Questions and Answers on the Sex Life and Sexual Problems of Trans-Sexuals. The pamphlet’s subheading summarized the key points: “Trans-sexuals are individuals who are physically of one sex and apparently psychologically of the opposite sex. Trans-sexuals include heterosexuals, homosexuals, bisexuals and others. A large element of transvestites have trans-sexual leanings.” In this way, Cauldwell separated gender, described as psychological sex, from biological sex and sexuality. Cross-gender identification and the request for surgery were not necessarily linked either to intersexed conditions or to same-sex desire.

There you have all three parts of the series. The last part had the words “to be continued” but we don’t have any further parts of the series in the TGF Archives.

Tags: , , , , ,

Category: History

About The Editor:

Comments are closed.