The Press and Christine Jorgensen
In the spring of 1954, Editor &. Publisher magazine, a trade paper of the publishing industry, reported that the Christine Jorgensen story had received the largest world wide coverage in the history of newspaper publishing. Although Christine herself was baffled by the press’s interest in her case – she thought it a sad reflection of the times that she had displaced the Korean War, hydrogen bomb testing and the new Queen of England from the front pages – the personal nature of her struggle may have blinded her to the significance of what she had done. She considered her surgery the culmination of an intensely personal experience and regarded the reporting of it as a betrayal and a nightmare. By contrast, the press barely saw the struggle behind the surgery. Here was a story that combined sex with modern science and not coincidentally upended the existing rules of gender. How could it not be big news?
Christine Jorgensen’s story was broken by Ben White, a reporter who covered Long Island for the tabloid New York Daily News. He had heard about it through a “friend” of the family and had convinced the reluctant Jorgensens to tell all rather than have the story “squeezed out through journalistic speculation”.
Reading about the feeding frenzy that followed his scoop, I was struck by how little the press had changed over the years. The reporting had a striking similarity to the way in which the tabloids cover the sex lives of the current British monarchy.
Curious to know what the “respectable” press of the day had to say about Christine Jorgensen, I dropped into the reading room of the National Library of Canada to scroll through some microfilmed copies of 1952 newspapers. It came as something of a surprise to find that the story hadn’t even made the front pages. The New York Times reported it on page 18, the Globe and Mail on page 10 and the Ottawa Evening Citizen on page 25. The reporting was conservative and completely lacking in speculation and titillation.
While I expected to see a difference between the tabloid press and the broad sheets, nevertheless I wondered at the vast chasm between the two. One side wallowed in the story with little regard for facts and even less for objectivity, while the other side delivered only the facts and seemed reluctant to go any further. In the days following the initial news, when one might expect some sort of explanation for why Christine had gone through “sex conversion”, there was stone silence. I reeled those spools of microfilm until my eyes hurt, but still could find no enduring interest on the part of the broad sheets for Christine’s story.
It was not until I read the reports in Time and Newsweek for the week of December 15, 1952 that I got an idea of why this was so. Both Time and Newsweek conveyed the impression that the Christine Jorgensen story was somehow beneath them. Although on the one hand they knew they couldn’t afford not to report on it, they decided the best place to do so would be in their “Press” sections, the part of their respective magazines devoted to analyzing the behaviour of journalists. True, there was much about the behaviour of the press that required analyzing. While ridiculing some of the questions that reporters had posed to Christine, (“Can you have a baby?” “Do you sleep in a nightgown or pyjamas?”), Newsweek nevertheless suggested that Ben White, and the Daily News, had sunk to new depths with the “gaudiest story of his career.” Meanwhile, Time insinuated that Christine and her parents were both in it for the buck, falsely reporting that her parents had received $30,000 for Christine’s story. When Christine returned to the United States in February 1953, Time called her story, “One of the last year’s outstanding contributions to tabloid titillation.”
Some headlines from 1952
Was Her Sex Really Changed? Medics Raise Query on Chris
Christine to Become a Man Again!
Christine – Is She He or He She?
Is Christine Slipping Back?
Goodnight Christine, Whichever You Are
It is easy to criticize the behaviour of the press of the time. It’s clear they missed the larger implications of the story. Despite their apparent differences, both the tabloids and the broadsheets actually had the same idea about Christine Jorgensen’s story. It had something to do with sex. For that reason alone, the tabloids embraced it and the broadsheets avoided it as much as their journalistic consciences would allow. They did not see it as having any effect whatsoever on existing ideas about gender.
This, in effect, is the same problem that exists with today’s media. The tabloids continue to exploit transsexualism to satisfy the prurient interest of the half of their readership who couldn’t care less and to outrage the other half who are inclined to uphold conservative social agendas. The transsexual as a person is generally beside the point.
The broadsheets have shown a greater interest in transsexuals as people and a willingness to explore some of the issues. Unfortunately, because the current gender system so dominates our thinking, issues of gender diversity are never sustained beyond the occasional article or column. In terms of human rights, there is some willingness to see transsexuals as a medical problem, but the gender system itself is rarely challenged.
The truth is, however, that the reporting of this highly significant event started a chain reaction that has not yet played itself out. The publicity surrounding Christine’s surgery brought trans people out of the woodwork. She and her surgeons in Denmark received thousands of letters from trans people who had until then suffered in silence. The response prompted one newspaper to print a story headlined: “Thousands in the U.S. Don’t Know Their True Sex”. There was an instant demand for physicians and psychiatrists with some knowledge of gender issues. While the focus was undoubtedly on “correcting” trans people – an article in Newsweek called it “unmixing the sexes” – the road to where we are now could only have gone through that territory.
Christine Jorgensen wondered for years afterwards about the effect the press had upon her life. She loathed the invasion of privacy. The publicity had scuttled her potential career as a photographer. She became a world famous personality whether she liked it or not. And yet, the publicity also led her to a career as a performer, a career which she initially entered into with trepidation but which ultimately proved extremely satisfying. Like Janus, she said, “the press has presented two faces: one detrimental and one advantageous.”
For trans people the verdict is not so ambiguous. Given that sex conversion surgery was going to make the news sooner or later, it is hard to imagine anyone carrying the weight of that load better than Christine Jorgensen. She withstood the onslaught with grace and courage. She triumphed, and all trans people benefited.
Rising to the Occasion
Never at any time have I regarded myself as a crusader or a rebel fighting for a cause. Except on a few occasions, and those only when my personal freedoms were threatened, I’ve never been very good at carrying banners into battle. From the beginning, my only thought was to seek a way of life I felt had been my rightful destiny.
Fate often has a way of interfering with our plans and changing our course in life. If indeed there had been a number of “sex conversion” surgeries prior to Christine Jorgensen’s, it was a stroke of luck that fate selected Christine to be the first and most visible transsexual woman. While she regarded the press’s interest in her case a nightmare, there are not many people who could have handled the hysteria, malicious comments and moral hypocrisy with more dignity.
If Christine Jorgensen had one advantage in life, it was the strength and love of her parents and extended family. With no information on transsexualism available to them, they nevertheless were steadfastly loyal to Christine. After Christine had sent them a long letter explaining herself and her surgery, she received a cablegram from her parents in New York. It read “Letter and pictures received. We love you more than ever. Mom and Dad”
In those crucial early days when the New York Daily News broke the story and the press made her parents prisoners in their own home, their love and loyalty was tested even further. Isolated in Copenhagen, Christine fretted about the effects upon her family. “I could only lie in hospital as a captive audience, watching the sordid little drama unfold, helpless to do anything about it.” The message she received from her parents at this time typified their warm humanity “Keep your chin up, everything will be all right. We are with you all the way.” Christine’s courage was built on bedrock
Still, there was no way that she could possibly have prepared herself for the press hysteria that followed her for years afterward. Every part of her anatomy and her behaviour were scrutinized for signs of maleness. Each reporter had his or her own standard of femininity by which to judge her, and many were predisposed to see her fail. It was a micro-test for authenticity that most women would have difficulty passing.
The publicity that surrounded her effectively prevented her from pursuing a career in photography. Charlie Yates, an agent who became her manager and friend, suggested she use her celebrity to become a nightclub performer. While this career choice eventually proved rewarding, demands for authenticity followed her for many years. In Boston, city council passed an order that the Licensing Board close down the club where she was to perform until she submitted to a physical examination. Many clubs throughout the country refused her performances on the grounds of “immorality”, although the act itself was always in good taste.
Throughout all the indignities and the personal and professional snubs, Christine Jorgensen carried on with admirable courage and class. In hindsight, the people who judged and vilified her appear so small beside her. “Normalcy” does not in itself grant one courage, dignity, humanity and intelligence, qualities which Christine Jorgensen had in great abundance. Its assumption of superiority is spurious.
Christine Jorgensen died May 3rd, 1989, at the age of 62.