A tough-guy hero announces that she has become a woman. Media outlets run glamorous pictures of her, while thousands of admirers send in their congratulations. Reporters query her family members, who express their support as well. The nation is transfixed by the transgendered celebrity in its midst.
Caitlyn Jenner, this summer? No, Christine Jorgensen, in 1952.
That’s when The New York Daily News reported that a former soldier named George Jorgensen had become Christine, after traveling to Denmark for surgery. Her tale briefly became the year’s top story, crowding out the Korean War and the polio vaccine.
But Americans rejected Jorgensen a few months later, when it was reported that she wasn’t a “real” woman after all. As she prepares for the release of her new reality show on Sunday, then, Caitlyn Jenner shouldn’t get too used to her legion of admirers. They can turn against you at the drop of a hairpin.
Just ask Jorgensen. The Daily News broke her story on December 1, 1952 with a gigantic front-page headline, “EX-GI BECOMES BLONDE BEAUTY.” Beneath it was a grainy phonograph of an attractive young woman. “George Jorgensen, Jr., son of a Bronx carpenter, served in the Army for two years,” the caption read. “Now George is no more.”
On the inside pages, readers found “before and after” shots of George and Christine. The paper also reprinted a hand-written letter that Christine had sent to her parents, who praised her in subsequent interviews. “Nature made a mistake which I have corrected,” she wrote, “and now I am your daughter.”
A few days later the Daily News ran a piece about Jorgensen’s boyfriend, an American soldier who had met in her in Copenhagen. “I saw this good looking blonde in a park,” he said. “She looked like an American, and I decided to ask her.”
He also said that he didn’t know Christine had been a man until the Daily News revealed it. But it didn’t matter, at least not to him. “When I met her she was a girl and, as far as I’m concerned, she’s a girl now,” he insisted.
Then other news agencies got in the act. Prefiguring the reaction to Caitlyn Jenner’s cover shot for this month’s Vanity Fair, most accounts focused on Jorgensen’s good looks. Reporters routinely compared her to Joan Crawford, the World War Two pinup queen.
Like Jenner, Jorgensen also received thousands of personal messages—in those days, snail-mail letters–from fans. Some of the notes simply said she was beautiful; others thanked her for bringing attention to transgenderism. “May God bless you for your courage,” one correspondent wrote, “so that other people may more clearly understand our problem.”
News coverage of Jorgensen reached a crescendo during her February 1953 return from Denmark, which reporters inevitably described as a conquering hero coming home. Never mind that George Jorgensen had never seen combat, serving instead as a clerk at Fort Dix in New Jersey. To play the role that the media had assigned to her—an Ex-GI, becoming an Ex-Man–Jorgensen had to fight in a war, not sit at a desk.
Then it all came undone. Four months after the Daily News broke her story, Time reported that Jorgensen had never undergone genital surgery and was therefore “no girl at all, only an altered male.” Other media joined in on the attack, calling Jorgensen a “castrated male.”
She also became the butt of jokes. On the Jack Benny Show, Benny and Bob Hope—dressed as explorers—captured a tiger that turned out to be a leopard. The animal “must have gone to veterinarian in Denmark,” Benny quipped, in an obvious allusion to Jorgensen. “Look, his claws have been manicured,” Hope replied.
Jorgensen would later become a sideshow act in Las Vegas and elsewhere, playing kitschy roles like Wonder Woman. By contrast, Caitlyn Jenner will have the leading role—not a supporting one—in the reality show (entitled, fittingly, “I am Cait”) that premieres on Sunday.
How will viewers react? As in the case of Jorgensen, the answer may depend on whether Jenner confirms or challenges our notions of gender itself. Jenner’s Vanity Fair cover hewed closely to traditional standards of feminine beauty, right down to the cleavage and mascara. What happens if she ends up looking neither “male” nor female,” but something entirely different?
And what will happen if Jenner—who reportedly retains male genitalia—decides she doesn’t want to change them? Will many of us eventually decide that she’s not a woman after all, as Jorgensen’s critics said?
My guess is that many of the admirers now congratulating Jenner for her courage—and, not incidentally, congratulating themselves for their tolerance and open-mindedness—won’t remain so tolerant as her journey continues. As Christine Jorgensen discovered, it’s a lot easier to change your gender than it is to change people’s minds about it. And when it comes to sex, especially, none of us are as open-minded as we like to think.