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January 1, 2020

The Real Danish Girl: The Amazing Story of Lili Elbe, the First People to Transition From Male to Female in the Public Eye

In 2015 the movie The Danish Girl was screened in cinemas all over the world, making known for the first time the story of Lili Elbe, one of the first recipients of sex reassignment surgery. The real story, though, is more complex.


Lili Elbe was born as Einar Magnus Andreas Wegener on 28 December 1882 in Vejle, Denmark. He studied at the Royal Danish Academy of Arts in Copenhagen, where he met Gerda Gottlieb, a talented Art Deco painter who would soon become his wife. They got married in 1904 when Wegener was 22 and Gottlieb was 19, and stayed as a couple until 1930 when Wegener’s transition to a woman began.

They traveled through Italy and France before settling in 1912 in Paris, where Elbe could live more openly as a woman by posing as Gottlieb’s sister. Elbe received the Neuhausens prize in 1907 and exhibited at Kunstnernes EfterĂ„rsudstilling (the Artists’ Fall Exhibition), at the Vejle Art Museum in Denmark, where she remains represented, and in the Saloon and Salon d’Automne in Paris.

Einar Wegener, c.1920

Einar Wegener, 1929

Einar Wegener

Einar Wegener’s wife, Gerda Wegener

Gerda and Einar Wegener in front of Gerda’s painting Sur la route d’Anacapri at an exhibition in 1924.

Elbe started dressing in women’s clothes after filling in for Gottlieb’s model, friend and actress Anna Larssen, who was late. Elbe was asked to substitute as Larssen’s legs, wearing wear stockings and heels. Elbe felt surprisingly comfortable in the clothing.

After walking in on the modeling session and witnessing Elbe embrace her new persona, Anna Larssen suggested she take the name “Lili”. It was soon adopted, and Elbe began appearing in public as “Lili”, ultimately identifying as a woman in every respect. Many names were changed in Elbe’s autobiographical novel, Man Into Woman, to conceal their identities, but Anna Larssen is barely obscured by the alternate spelling, “Larsen”. Although Elbe legally changed her name to Lili Ilse Elvenes after transitioning, she later chose the surname “Elbe” to honor the Elbe River that flows through Dresden, Germany, the site of her last surgeries.

By the 1920s, Elbe regularly presented as a woman named Lili, attending various festivities and entertaining guests in her house. She liked to disappear into the throngs of revelers during the Carnival in Paris, arrayed in fashions she had garnered modeling for her wife Gerda. Over time, Gottlieb became famous for her paintings of beautiful women with haunting, almond-shaped eyes, dressed in chic apparel. The model who inspired Gottlieb’s depictions of petites femmes fatales was in fact Elbe.

Lili Elbe by Gerda Gottlieb, circa 1928.

In 1930, Elbe went to Germany for sex reassignment surgery, which was highly experimental at the time. A series of four operations were carried out over a period of two years. The first surgery, removal of the testicles, was performed by Dr. Ludwig Levy-Lenz, under the supervision of sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld in Berlin. The rest of Elbe’s surgeries were carried out by Kurt Warnekros, a doctor at the Dresden Municipal Women’s Clinic. The second operation was to implant an ovary onto her abdominal musculature, the third to remove the penis and the scrotum, and the fourth to transplant a uterus and construct a vaginal canal.

At the time of Elbe’s last surgery, her case was already a sensation in Danish and German newspapers. A Danish court invalidated the couple’s marriage in October 1930, and Elbe managed to have her sex and name legally changed, including receiving a passport as Lili Ilse Elvenes. She stopped painting after her transition. After the annulment of the marriage, Elbe returned to Dresden for her fourth surgery.

Portrait of Lili Elbe, Paris, 1926.

Lily Elbe, the first transexual.

Einar Wegener after having definitely assumed the name of Lili, Paris, January 1930.

Lili Elbe, between second and third operations, Dresden, May 1930.

Lili Elbe, after the operation, Dresden, June 1930.

Lili Elbe, Dresden, 1930.

Lili Elbe, as she was completely transformed from Einar Wegener, Copenhagen, October 1930.

Lili Elbe, Copenhagen, February 1931.

Lili Elbe, after the operation, Dresden, 1931.

Einar Wegener, now Lili Elbe, 1931.

In 1931, Elbe became the second transgender woman to undergo a vaginoplasty surgery, a few weeks after Dr. Erwin Gohrbandt performed the experimental procedure on Dora Richter. Elbe’s castration and penectomy had been performed by Dr. Ludwig Levy-Lenz the previous year. These preliminary surgeries have sometimes caused confusion over the date of her reassignment surgery. The Gohrbandt technique deliberately left remnants of the scrotum intact, with a view to modifying these into labia at a later date, but for reasons that are unclear, Levy-Lenz did not perform this further procedure himself. Instead, Elvenes’ case was taken over by Dr. Kurt Warnekros, at the Dresden Women’s Clinic.

The May 1933 book-burning at the Institute for Sexual Research by Nazi students, the February 1945 obliteration of the Dresden Women’s Clinic and its records in Allied bombing raids, and the myth-making process itself have left gaps and inconsistencies in the Lili Elbe narrative that may never be resolved.

Elbe began a relationship with French art dealer Claude Lejeune, whom she wanted to marry and with whom she wanted to have children. She was looking forward to her final surgery involving a uterus transplant and construction of a vagina.

Claude Lejeune and Lili Elbe in France, 1928.

These two procedures performed in June 1931 were new and experimental at that time. Her immune system rejected the transplanted uterus, and the operation and a subsequent surgical revision caused infection, which, in that pre-antibiotic age, led to Elbe’s death from cardiac arrest on 13 September 1931, three months after the surgery.

Elbe was buried in Trinitatisfriedhof (Trinity Cemetery) in Dresden. The grave was leveled in the 1960s. In April 2016, a new tombstone was inaugurated, financed by Focus Features, the production company of The Danish Girl. The tombstone does not record the date of Elbe’s birth, just her name and places of birth and death.

Grave of Lili Elbe


4 comments:

  1. No such thing as transitioning from male to female, only mutilating genitals combined with cross dressing.

    ReplyDelete
  2. In fact, one's gender identity--an internal aspect--is the determinant of whether one is male or female. Lili had always been female inside; her quest was to make her body align with her mind.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Lovely young ladies are consistently alluring to each one, and obviously individuals are want to go to the spots that are commended for marvels.

    ReplyDelete

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