Inside Lili Elbe’s Story as a Transgender Pioneer – Ashley Hanson
Einar Wegener had no idea how unhappy he was in his own body until he had the fortune to meet Lili Elbe. Lili Elbe was wild and carefree, and she opened Einar’s life and mind to a part of himself that he never knew he missed. Einar met Lili right after he took Gerda as his wife in 1904. Gerda was a gifted illustrator and painter who excelled in the Art Deco style. Her specialty was creating portraits of women dressed in interesting ensembles and lavish gowns for various magazines.
During one of Gerda’s drawing sessions, the model she had lined up to dress up and draw didn’t show up. An actress friend of Gerda suggested that she dress up Einar and have him sit for her in the model’s place.
Initially, he refused this offer, but he consented for his wife to dress him in a costume and draw him when he saw her delight. He sat for his wife’s drawing session dressed in a ballerina costume made of lace and satin, and Gerda’s friend complimented him on how good he looked.
“We’ll call you Lili,” Gerda’s friend said. These four words gave birth to Lili Elbe.
For the next 25-odd years, Einar would no longer feel like a sole man or an individual. Instead, he would feel like two people trapped in one body, and both sides were in a constant fight for dominance. One person was Einar Wegener, who was a man devoted to his wife and a landscape painter. The other was a carefree woman named Lili Elbe.
Eventually, Einar gave way for Lili. Lili was the woman Einar felt like he was always meant to be. Lili was also the first person who would be able to undergo a then-experimental gender reassignment surgery and open the door for a new era of understanding revolving around LGBTQ+ rights.
Lili wrote her autobiography titled: Lili: A Portrait of the First Sex Change. In this book, Lili described the catalyst for her transformation as being the second Einar put on the lace and satin ballerina outfit. She 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.”
It’s not known if Gerda was simply enchanted by being able to dress her husband in costumes or if she knew of the inner turmoil Lili had, but she encouraged her to dress up as Lili every time they went out. They would both don furs and expensive gowns and go to social events and balls. The story they told attendees was that Lili was a model that Gerda was using for her illustrations, and she was Einar’s sister.
The people that were closest to Einar began to consider the fact that Lili may not be an act. She seemed to be so much more comfortable when she was Lili than she ever was when she was Einar. Lili confided in Gerda that she felt like she’d always been a woman, and Einar had faded away.
Despite how unconventional their marriage was, Gerda stayed with Lili and turned into Lili’s greatest advocate over time.
They picked up and moved to Paris where Lili could live in a more open fashion than she’d been able to when they lived in Denmark. Gerda continued to draw and paint, and she began featuring Lili as her main model. She also started introducing Lili as a friend instead of her husband.
Although life was much easier in Paris than it was in Denmark, Lili found herself wanting. Her clothing depicted a woman, but her body was still male. Without being able to match how she felt inside with her outward appearance, Lili wondered how she would be able to truly live as a woman. She slipped into a deep depressive state because she couldn’t name the feelings that were weighing her down.
Identifying as transgender didn’t have a concept as of yet in Lili’s pre-war world. Being gay was hardly a concept, and this was the closest thing Lili could think of to try and describe the way she felt.
But it wasn’t quite right, and it wasn’t enough.
Lili lived with her depression for six years, and she spent this time looking for someone who could help her name how she felt. Lili did consider suicide, and she set a date.
However, the 1920s, brought along a German doctor by the name of Magnus Hirschfeld. He opened a clinic he called the German Institute for Sexual Science. This clinic is were Dr. Hirschfeld began to study something he called “transsexualism.” Lili found that there was finally a concept or word to describe how she felt.
To make it even better, Dr. Hirschfeld put out a hypothesis about a surgery that would help Lili change her body from male to female. Once she learned of this possibility, she moved to Dresden, Germany to have the operation.
The next four years brought four experimental but major surgeries. The first procedure was a surgical castration. The second involved implanting a pair of ovaries. A third surgery’s exact purpose was never reported, but it came close behind the first two. Since the Nazis destroyed the Institute for Sexual Research’s library in 1933, any documentation that may have existed is gone, and it has unknown specifics.
These surgeries revolutionized the medical field. Not only was this the first time anyone had attempted these surgeries, but it was very early in the synthetic sex hormone development. Most of them were in theoretical stages only.
After she had the first three surgeries, Lili was able to legally change her name and get a passport that designated her sex as being female. For her new surname, she chose Elbe. This was a river that flowed through the country where she was reborn.
However, when Lili officially became a woman, the King of Denmark made her marriage to Gerda null and void. Gerda went away because she was determined to let Lili live her own life. Live, Lili did. She even accepted a marriage proposal from an old friend.
Before she got married, there was one more thing she had to do. She had to have her final surgery. The final surgery was also the most experimental, and it involved creating an artificial vagina and transplanting a uterus into her body. Although we now know that this surgery wouldn’t have succeeded, Lili hoped that it would help her have a child of her own.
Unfortunately, Lili fell ill shortly after the final surgery. It would be 50 years before transplant drugs would be perfected. In spite of the fact that Lili knew she would never recover, she wrote multiple letters to her family and friends. These letters described how happy she was to be the woman she always dreamed of being both inside and out. In a letter she penned to a friend, Lili wrote:
“That I, Lili, am vital and have a right to life I have proved by living for 14 months. It may be said that 14 months is not much, but they seem to me like a whole and happy human life.”