Lili Elbe: The world's first transgender woman

Lili Elbe: The world's first transgender woman

It's a sad fact that transgender people often face erasure in our society, and nowhere is this more clear than in the history books. Depressingly, little is taught about transgender history. This is partly due to the fact that the modern usage of the term "transgender" has only become codified in the last fifty years or so, and the further back one goes in history, the more obscure and alienating the cultural understanding of gender roles becomes. Still, that doesn't mean that we should neglect to examine transgender history or flinch from learning about the suffering and bigotry these people endured. Many believe that the history of the LGBT+ movement began with the Stonewall riots, but the truth is that transgender history stretches much further back

With this in mind, it's pertinent to take a look at one of the most important figures of the LGBT+ movement: Lili Elbe - regarded by many as the first person ever to undergo gender reassignment surgery. But to appreciate her remarkable life, we need to travel back in time to the early 20th century, when gender reassignment surgery was a new phenomenon and posed an incredible risk to those willing to go through with it.

Lili Elbe was originally born Einar Magnus Andreas Wegener in Denmark in 1882. As a boy child, Einar was seemingly-unremarkable, only noteworthy because of her artistic talent, which led her to become a highly successful painter. In 1903 Elbe met Gerda Gottlieb when the two youths were students at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen.

They promptly married in 1904 and travelled around France and Italy after graduating. Elbe was 22, Gottlieb was 19, Gottlieb a lesbian woman hiding from persecution and prejudice, Elbe a latent trans woman. The marriage was one of convenience. Gottlieb wanted a heteronormative shield so that she could enjoy her sexual trysts with women. Elbe's long-simmering gender dysphoria was beginning to cause severe mental anguish.

They eventually settled in Paris, and both became full-time artists, and that was when an innocuous modelling stint transformed Elbe's life forever. Elbe became a transvestite when forced to fill in Gottlieb's absentee model as part of an illustrating commission; she was asked to wear stockings and high heels and felt more comfortable dressed as a woman almost immediately, soon after dressing in women's clothes regularly in private. She later wrote, "I cannot deny, strange as it may sound, that I enjoyed myself in this disguise. I liked the feel of soft women’s clothing. I felt very much at home in them from the first moment."

Elbe soon began identifying as a woman, and eventually Gottlieb became celebrated in Denmark for her portraits of beautiful 1920s flappers. All the women in these paintings had large, almond-shaped eyes. Little did the public know that the women in question had been Gottlieb's spouse the whole time.

By 1920 and throughout the next two decades, Elbe regularly presented herself as a woman in public, especially during public celebrations such as festivals and carnivals. On these occasions, she was introduced to new acquaintances as Einar Wegener's sister. However, those closest to Elbe knew that she was ultimately dissatisfied with her lot, and wanted to transition even further.

She felt depressed and anxious and applied to many doctors for help becoming a woman. But in the early 20th century, such a hope was almost too taboo to even voice out loud, and most physicians dismissed her suffering as "hysteria" or diagnosed her as a gay man. "I said to myself that as my case has never been known in the history of the medical art, it simply did not exist, it simply could not exist," she wrote.

Fortunately, there was one group of people who were committed to making Elbe's secret hope a reality. Sexologist and physician Dr Magnus Hirschfeld, a German-Jewish medical pioneer and outspoken advocate for sexual minorities, also shared the same dream of utilising experimental surgery in order to create female genitalia for a man.

Although the differences between transgender and homosexual people were not as clear in the 1930s as they are today, Hirschfeld was adamant that the sexual predilections of consenting adults and genders people adopted should not be subject to the mandate of the law or the state, and was infamous in Germany for his progressiveness - often finding himself mocked and caricatured in the press.

To that end, he had founded the Institute of Sexual Research in 1919, where homosexual people often consulted with him for advice and therapy. Hirschfeld wasn't interested in curing any of his patients, and when Elbe came to see him about her gender dysphoria, he enthusiastically suggested reassignment surgery - although under the caveat that it was highly dangerous.

In 1930 Elbe went through a surgical castration procedure to remove the penis, and a further three surgeries were performed between 1930 and 1931 by Dr Kurt Warnekros at the Dresden Municipal Women's Clinic. She raised the cash (approximately $12,000 in today's money) by selling many of her most private and personal paintings.

Full reports on the nature of these surgeries are sketchy. Some report that Elbe went through an ovarian transplant, and others contradict this, stating that Elbe already had ovarian tissue, which precludes the possibility that she was actually born intersex), and later a surgical procedure to insert a cannula. Despite the inherent dangers, the first few operations were successful, and Elbe was issued a new passport and allowed to legally change her name. Unfortunately, the fact that she was now a woman meant that her marriage to Gottlieb was legally annulled, and the couple were forced to part ways.

Elbe was elated with her new feminine physique. She described her change as a rebirth. She was now able to live her life as Lili, and later another acquaintance even requested her hand in marriage. Elbe was planning another consultation in order to build a vagina, in the hope that this procedure would give her the opportunity to conceive a child with her fiancé. She wrote, "It is not with my brain, not with my eyes, not with my hands that I want to be creative, but with my heart and with my blood. The fervent longing in my woman’s life is to become the mother of a child."

But then tragedy struck: complications from a urinary infection as a result of her labiaplasty. The fact that this surgery was performed by Nazi doctor Kurt Warnekros has made some sexual historians suspect foul play. Elbe died in 1931 of heart at the Women’s Clinic in Dresden while recovering from her final surgery, a few days before her 49th birthday.

Today Elbe's story is best-known thanks to the period biopic film The Danish Girl, which starred Eddie Redmayne as the eponymous lead, and her life and struggle to live as a woman has inspired many other trans people, who struggle with their own gender identity, yet few cisgender people have heard of this pioneer. If you or anyone else you know is struggling with gender dysphoria, or if you'd simply like to learn more about trans people, please visit UKTrans for help and advice.

Featured illustration by Egarcigu