A man named Einar Wegener was a danish lanscape artist who became a pioneer in transgenderism through his journey to be reborn as Lili Elbe.
Einar was born in Denmark in 1882. As a young adult, he attended the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen where he met his wife, Gerda. The pair were married in 1904 and both worked as illustrators. Gerda specialized in art deco portraits, and many of her paintings were colorful depictions of women that highlighted femininity and fashion. One day, when a schedulled model failed to appear for her appointment, Gerda asked her husband if he would step in. Reluctant at first, Einar finally agreed to model a ballerina outfit for his wife. Einar would later admit that this instance of putting on women’s clothing helped awaken something in him that he felt he had repressed since birth. His wife was very encouraging of him, and the pair would go out dressed in lavish women’s clothing together. For years, Einar struggled with feeling split in half. He was a painter, a man, and a husband, yet he very desperately wanted to be Lili, an outgoing woman who hoped to start a family. The urge to become who he truely felt he was born to be became overwheming and he eventually confided in his wife of his hope to become Lili Elbe for good. Despite the very emotional circumstances of the situation, Gerda continued to support Lili as best she could.
The couple moved to Paris where Gerda contintued to paint and where Lili felt more at ease to be herself. In the 1920’s, there was no concept of transgenderism and sexual research was almost nonexistent. Lili fell into boughts of depresseion which stemmed from her feelings of helplessness surrounding her body, which was the body of a male. Gerda and Lili became aquanted with German doctor and sexologist, Magnus Hirschfeld, whose research springboarded sexual education around the world. He would come to found the German Institute for Sexual Science which advocated for humanitarian causes such as homosexual and transgender rights.
Lili underwent a total of four major surgical procedures over two years to become the woman she envisioned herself as. The first surgery involved castration, the second focused on transplatation of ovaries, the third is unknown, and the fourth surgery constructed an artificial vagina and the transplantation of a uterus. Some of the records regarding these procedures have been lost or are scarce because the Institute for Sexual Research was destroyed by the Nazis in 1933 because they deemed it a harzard to the moral fabric of society. After the procedures, Lili was able to change her name officially, but her marriage to Gerda was void. For a few months, she was able to live as a woman and found new love with a man she hoped to marry and raise children with. Unfortuanately, rejection drugs were still in their early stages at this time and Lili began experiencing extreme complications after her fourth procedure. She was told that she was going to die as a result. All the while, Gerda stayed by her side. Lili wrote letters to her family and confessed her general contentment with life, despite the harsh reality that she was sick. Lili Elbe passed away in 1931 after experiencing surgical rejection and going into cardiac arrest three months after her final sugery. She goes down in history as one of the first people to undergo experimental gender reassignment.
“That I, Lili, am vital and have a right to life I have proved by living for fourteen months…It may be said that fourteen months is not much, but they seem to me like a whole and happy human life.”
Gerda later moved to Moracco and married Major Fernando Portia. The pair divorced five years later. Her last exhibition occured in 1939 after her style fell out of favor, forcing her into financial insecurity. She painted postcards for a living until her death in 1940 in Denmark. Her and Lili’s story is depicted in the 2015 romance, The Danish Girl.
Until Next Time
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“Gerda Wegener.” Biography.com. 9 September, 2015. Accessed 25 June, 2022. https://www.biography.com/artist/gerda-wegener.
“The first Institute for Sexual Science (1919-1933).” Accessed 25 June, 2022. https://magnus-hirschfeld.de/ausstellungen/institute/.
Serena, Katie. “Lili Elbe’s Tragic Life As A Transgender Pioneer.” ATI. 16 February, 2018. Accessed 24 June, 2022. https://allthatsinteresting.com/lili-elbe-einar-wegener.