Whilst transgender politics now have an important voice in the modern societal landscape, this is only possible due to the experiences of people such as Lili Elbe, one of the first recipients of gender reassignment surgery.
Born in 1882 Vejle, Denmark as Einar Wegener, Elbe studied at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, where she built up a reputable status as a landscape painter. Whilst there she met and married fellow painter Gerda Gottlieb, a notable illustrator for fashion magazines. One day, due to the absence of one of her wife’s models, Elbe was called upon to pose as a woman. After initial resistance, Elbe noted how she “liked the feel of soft women’s clothing” and “felt very much at home in them from the first moment.” Christened ‘Lili’ by a mutual friend, the couple moved to liberal Paris in 1912. Here, the couple lived freely for over a decade with Elbe attending parties as ‘Einar’s sister’, whilst Gottlieb’s fame soared due to her paintings of Elbe.
However, the struggle of containing two different people within one body became overwhelming. Elbe, planning on killing herself in February 1930 wrote, “I am finished. Lili has known this for a long time. That’s how matters stand. And consequently she rebels more vigorously every day.” After failed visits to a series of doctors, Elbe met with sexologist Magnus Hirschfield. Only the second woman ever to receive such procedures, her first surgery was to remove the testicles, thus beginning her physical transition. Over the next two years under the supervision of Kurt Warnekros, Elbe had a further three surgeries implanting an ovary, removing the penis and scrotum, and transplanting a uterus which totaled 5000 Kroner.
She adopted the surname ‘Elbe’ after the river running through Dresden, the city of her rebirth. Despite remaining Elbe’s biggest support, Gerda obtained a divorce in 1930 from the Danish king. Tragically her new life was short-lived as the effects of the surgery on her body were too great and her immune system failed. Elbe died from a cardiac arrest on 13 September 1931.
Recently her life was immortalised in the 2015 film The Danish Girl, but the success of how faithfully it represents her and the transgender experience is debatable. Instead we look to extracts of her diary where Elbe wrote “That I, Lili, am vital and have a right to life I have proved by living for 14 months.” She wrote, “it may be said that 14 months is not much, but they seem to me like a whole and happy human life”, which highlights her story of bravery and inspires many with whom the struggle of identity is ongoing.