“The First Sex Change”: Lili Elbe’s story


The surgical and medical advances of today allow transgender people to successfully and safely undergo gender confirmation surgery, after which they can go on to live a full life. It’s easy to forget that we are not far from a time when the surgical success rate was unknown.

For Lili Elbe, the possibility of becoming who she really was wasn’t just difficult, it was unprecedented. “¨

Also known as Lili Ilse Elvenes, she became one of the first recipients of such a procedure, then called a sex-change operation, in 1930. Born Einar Wegener in 1882, Elbe was a landscape painter married to fellow artist Gerda Gottlieb in Denmark. It wasn’t until she posed as a woman for one of Gerda’s paintings, dressed in a gown and nylon stockings, that Lili realized who she really was.  (Most sources say she was transgender, but there is some evidence that she may have been intersex.)

After the discovery, she started spending less time painting and more time developing her female persona. When she first began going out in public as Lili, she claimed to be “Einar’s sister,” according to her autobiography Man into Woman: The First Sex Change.

Gerda quickly became an essential component of Lili’s transformation into a woman, giving her the love and acceptance that few people of the day would have. As Lili began wearing makeup and women’s clothing more and more in public, the two decided to move to Paris where a lesbian couple would be more accepted. “¨

After living in France for a few years, Lili decided her life would not be completely fulfilled until she had a female body, as she felt she was meant to have. In 1930, she travelled to Berlin, Germany to undergo what we now call gender confirmation surgery, an operation that was previously unheard of. Ҭ

Under the supervision of distinguished German sexual psychiatrist Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld, Lili had multiple operations; the first was the removal of her testicles, and the second removed her penis and transplanted a set of ovaries. As the science of organ transplants was not yet understood, however, her body soon rejected them and several more surgeries followed to remove the organs and other corrective procedures.

Lili was able to legally change her name and passport, but her then-unprecedented change of sex created a legal problem: at the time, a relationship between two women was not recognized anywhere. Their marriage was consequently annulled, and the couple separated.

Still feeling that something was missing led to Lili undergoing another surgical procedure: what may have been a uterus transplant. Sadly, Lili died from related complications on September 13, 1931.   “¨

Lili’s story was first told in her autobiography, Man into Woman: The First Sex Change (edited by Niels Hoyer), and then in The Danish Girl by David Ebershoff. Now, Lili and Gerda’s extraordinary story will be visualized through film in a movie called The Danish Girl, directed by Tom Hopper. Similar to the novel by Ebershoff, the film will show both the remarkable story of Lili and the love between her and Gerda that braved a devastating but metamorphic journey. “¨

Oscar-winning actor Eddie Redmayne, who stars as Lili, told Variety magazine that he prepared for the role by reading her autobiography and other books written by transgender people. He and Alicia Vikander, the actress who plays Gerda, appeared on the cover of Variety alongside a declaration that the movie “hopes to break the transgender glass ceiling.”

Just as Lili’s transformation was unprecedented, this will be one of the first prevailing films to follow the transgender experience in both a positive and sensational way.

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