Deviant Desire: Gender Politics and the Cultural Metamorphosis of George/Christine Jorgensen.

by Christine Crowle

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“It is not sexuality which haunts society, but society which haunts the body’s sexuality.” Maurice Godelier, The Origins of Male Domination

Christine Jorgensen: A Personal Autobiography published in 1967 is the account of not the first, but the first highly-publicised medical sex change which took place in Copenhagen in 1952-53. In the preface to her autobiography she states that “there had been perhaps thirty cases of sex conversion on record before mine” (xiv). George Jorgensen, a second generation Danish-American, was born May 30, 1926 in New York. In 1945, aged 19, he was conscripted into the army and honourably discharged eighteen months later. In 1950, aged 24, he made his way to Denmark in search for a “final solution” to his sex/gender confusion. An earlier serialised life story appeared in The American Weekly (Feb-March 1953) had announced “the most dramatic transformation of modern times–told by the courageous woman who was once a man”.

In my reading of this autobiography I want to restory this “dramatic” gender transformation as a logical effect of the ideology of sexual difference. My argument is, firstly, that the censored narrative in Christine Jorgensen’s autobiography is homosexual desire. This is the “other” story that the transsexual metanarrative, summed up in the cliché “I was born with the wrong body”, absorbs. Secondly, that in Jorgensen’s case the medical diagnosis of “genuine transvestism” (later changed to transsexualism) is inseparable from the homophobia of the Cold War and its normalising sexual politics, which were profoundly committed to the imperative that only women should desire men, and which were able (via biotechnology) to embody this cultural demand.

Jorgensen’s disavowal of homosexual desire can be read as a recitation of the national script which portrayed the homosexual as an enemy of patriotism. The diverse anxieties and fears of the Cold War, fears about the ability of American institutions, including the family, to withstand subversion from real and/or imagined enemies, found expression in sexual politics. Action against homosexuals included: the US Senate in 1950 authorising a formal enquiry into the employment of “homosexuals and other moral perverts” in government; and large-scale dismissals from civilian posts and discharges of homosexual men and women from the armed services (Freedman 42). FBI surveillance was initiated to keep homosexuals off the federal payroll, and states and municipalities enforced rigorous behavioural standards in the licensing of many professions. The Production Code of Hollywood revealed the bureaucratic intention was to eliminate “deviants” from the social scene.

For George Jorgensen, a committed Lutheran, homosexuality came under the sign of multiple stigmas: medical, legal, social and religious. Jorgensen records: “During the months in service, I had seen a few practicing homo-sexuals, those whom the other men called ‘queer.’ I couldn’t condemn them, but I also knew that I certainly couldn’t become like them. It was a thing deeply alien to my religious attitudes and the highly magnified and immature moralistic views that I entertained at the time. Furthermore, I had seen enough to know that homosexuality brought with it social segregation and ostracism that I couldn’t add to my own deep feeling of not belonging”. (38)

Shame and disgust were the emotions which historically had electrified the rhetoric of sodomy. And it is these powerful affects, the inverse of the power of Eros, which are turned against the self and forbid any identification with an abjected (literally: cast out) homoeroticism.

However, I would argue Jorgensen’s “deep feeling of not belonging” is not just about homosexuality, it expresses his vulnerability to the feeling of being un-American, to the social abjection of the “outsider” when that term detonates an explosive mixture of social dangers. The autobiography recounts a humiliating incident at school when some needlepoint is discovered hidden in George’s desk. Inevitably eight year-old George is put on trial before his class as a gender offender, someone who has failed to learn the sex-appropriateness of all things. The fact that George’s mother shared his shame suggests the transgression was a familial, and especially a maternal, failure to nurture the child according to the American way. In an indignant tone the teacher demands of George’s mother: “Mrs. Jorgensen, do you think that this is anything for a red-blooded boy to have in his desk as a keepsake? The next thing we know, George will be bringing his knitting to school!” (18).

It is clearly insinuated that George is not a “red-blooded boy,” a particularly nasty slight which bears the taint of those eugenic theories which made it the role of schools to produce healthy bodies in healthy minds, and the role of mothers to socialise their children into sex-appropriate behaviour. Elaine May contends that the pervasive national view was that “mothers who overindulged their sons turned them into passive, weak and effeminate ‘perverts’ ” (May 96). If the family and school were the primary institutions for nurturing the citizenry of tomorrow, their effectiveness had to be constantly monitored. In the hysteric climate of the Cold War the enemy was always a demonised conflation of difference — sexual, ethnic and political — one category leeched into another. The most obvious word missing in the teacher’s indictment is “American,” as in the phrase “red-blooded American boy.” The slur cast on George and his mother, perhaps more stinging because it is implied rather than openly spoken, is that he has failed two lessons: failed to learn how to behave as a boy, and failed to learn how to be an American boy. The teacher’s slur implicates the non-conforming family as the source of gender sedition and potential social degeneration. What I am also suggesting here is that differences become homogenised and rationalised in the transsexual “wrong body” story. The narrative quest to be gender “normal” via sex-change masks multiple readings of the subject’s perceived “abnormality.”

A homophobic social climate sent many like George Jorgensen into their closet, or in desperate search of a cure. It was as a teenager on his first solo journey from his family to Washington D. C. that George discovered homosexuality behind the “closed shelves” of the Library of Congress inscribed in the prevailing psychiatric language of “sex deviation” and “case histories” (25-26). The autobiography’s constrained syntax reflects the repressive force of this sexological tradition. It describes George as living in a “strange infernal limbo.” In a symbolic gesture of purification George burns all the letters from the male friend with whom he is in love: “Emotionally the strings were stretched taut and I awaited a miracle to release me from the growing horror of myself” (40). The subliminal use of the rack metaphor is revealing here since the rack was an instrument of torture designed to make the sinful and/or treasonous confess. And in the New Testament letters of Paul it is the flesh which is characterised as the sphere of human rebellion against God.

According to this theological logic Jorgensen required a language with which to confess and be absolved of carnal sin, and I would argue that transsexualism provided such a language. The religious view of “sinful behaviour” as external behaviour which did not create a specific category of person (other than the general category of “sinner”), is crucial to understanding a psychological manoeuvre by which Jorgensen could refuse to internalise homosexuality as an identity category. The Protestant conviction that sin was redeemable and modifiable through personal action prepared Jorgensen to embrace profound change.

To understand George’s theory of “mistaken identity,” his view that “I might not be a man at all, but a … woman?” (58) we need to consider briefly the reconceptualisation of sex within the modern science of endocrinology. As biologist Nelly Oudshoorn and cultural theorist Bernice Hausman document, the scientific discovery of male and female hormones in the one body became a strategic means of explaining sexual and/or gender deviancy. Theoretically the effeminacy of the homosexual could be naturalised as a symptomatic effect of an endocrine imbalance — of too many invisible female hormones. The logic of “hormonal intersex” worked backwards from the assumed “femininity” of the homosexual to the presumption that female sex hormones were indeed the agents of this femininity. Such a view continued the biological speculations of nineteenth-century sexology, and repeated those deeply entrenched cultural assumptions about the “femininity” of the homosexual. Between 1916 and 1921 Viennese anatomist Eugen Steinach performed an operation on at least eleven thousand homosexual males in which testicular tissue from a heterosexual male was transplanted into a homosexual male (Oudshoorn 57). Hormonal technology became a means of establishing a new hidden, chemical story about sex. Meyer-Bahlburg records that homosexuals became increasingly treated with “sex appropriate” sex hormones to change their sexual orientation after the first sex hormones were chemically identified and synthesised (376).

George Jorgensen clearly understood the transformative power of sex hormones. From reading Paul de Kruif’s The Male Hormone he discovered: “Manhood is chemical, manhood is testosterone” (79). In 1949 George enrolled at the Manhattan Medical and Dental Assistant’s School on his GI benefits to continue his research on hormones. But he doubted whether testosterone could endow him with a “man’s desires, attitudes, and emotions” which confirms that it was specifically his anxiety about his unmanly homosexual inclinations, and their immutability, that set him on the path towards sex change (80). Jorgensen recalls: “the recurring questions of what to do about my effeminate appearance continued to plague me. Even if it were possible to adjust my mind and attitudes to a more male outlook, I wondered what could be done about a ‘masculine’ mind in a feminine body” (78). This curious inversion of psychic hermaphroditism works to deny both the given male body and same sex desire. According to Jorgensen there were two possibilities to explain his difference: either he was a homosexual or a woman (43). Ironically in choosing the latter he perpetuated the transformation of the homosexual body that the cultural imaginary had wrought since the eighteenth century.

When the Enlightenment gave birth to an ideology of sexual difference, a “third sex/gender” also appeared in the figure of the “adult, passive, transvestite and effeminate male, or ‘molly,’ who was supposed to desire men exclusively” (Trumbach “London Sapphists” 111). The reason for the emergence of this figure historian Randolph Trumbach and others suggest is a major cultural shift, at least rhetorically, towards a more egalitarian patriarchal morality. In consequence, a “third sex” provided a boundary zone: “a wall that guaranteed the permanent, life-long separation of the majority of men and women, in societies where their relative equality must have been a perpetual danger to patriarchy” (Trumbach “Gender and the Homosexual Role” 155).

Despite the variousness of same-sex acts and the men who engaged in them, the homosexual was stereotypically portrayed as effeminate — a sexual hybrid. One could argue that the consignment of the male homosexual body to psychic drag was the cultural mechanism by which any subversion of heterosexual orthodoxy was contained However, if the homosexual lost his birthright to manhood and was interpellated as a hybrid species situated on the outer limits of the moral majority, he was always potentially a dis-easing spectre for heteronormative purity. And “disease” was a concept blurred across moral and medical discourses.

From the eighteenth to the twentieth century biological metaphors continued to distort both the medical comprehension of sexual inversion and a homosexual’s self-perception. In 1862 Karl Ulrichs proclaimed the existence of “anima muliebris virile corpore inclusa” (a female soul in a male body) which explained and rationalised same-sex desire by an appeal to sex/gender complementarity. The biologising of sexual inversion continued at a rapid pace, notably in the writings of Berlin psychiatrist Karl von Westphal (1833-1890) who invented the term “contrary sexual feeling,” and significantly in Richard von Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis (1886). Heterosexuality was conceived primarily as the normative outcome of a biological process and by implication homosexuality was also governed by the endocrine system. What came to be termed the gland thesis made sex a mutable property open to scientific manipulation.

It was the surfacing of “censored desires” which troubled Jorgensen most. It is after an incident at a Danish Club social when George is propositioned by a seaman that his commitment towards chemical castration is made. Jorgensen’s prose is energised by the force of his revulsion:

“Suddenly my throat constricted and for a moment I thought I was going to be sick. I spun away from his lumbering figure and pushed blindly through the crowd of young people into the darkness outside … I leaned over the edge of the pier and vomited”. (83)

Taboo sex is perceived as a pollution, even a death threat. The focus on the throat is revealing since it was precisely by not speaking his homoerotic desire that Jorgensen maintained his moral purity. When this purity, sustained by a scrupulous self-censorship proves vulnerable (because the sailor assumes George is open to a sexual overture) George decides to take female hormones and begin his own chemical castration.

Castration has a long history, particularly in relation to the control of sexual deviancy. It was integral to those eugenic theories, widely circulated in the West in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, that sought to protect the health of the body politic by de-sexing the bodies of the congenitally abnormal — the sick, deviant or degenerate.

A dual concern to cure the deviant individual and to protect society was echoed in the paper (“Transvestism”) which Jorgensen’s Danish clinicians, Drs. Christian Hamburger, Georg Stürup and Dahl-Iversen, wrote for the Journal of the American Medical Association in 1953. Preben Hertoft and Thorkil Sorensen who have studied the medical files and interviewed psychiatrist Dr. Georg Stürup claim that “the original intention of the medical team was not to change a man into a woman, but to help a man who suffered from his homosexual impulses” (167). Hamburger and his colleagues revealed their anxiety about homosexuality when they commented: “At any rate, from a eugenic point of view it would do no harm if a number of sexually abnormal men were castrated and thus deprived of their sexual libido.”

Hamburger and his team counselled against the creation of a neo-vagina (and Christine was only provided one in 1954 in New Jersey). This indicates that the Danish team intended to produce a gender performance not a sexual performance — in other words, they planned to somatise the “she-male” who had long before made an appearance in the Western theatre of gender. However, in the course of their scientific experimentation with hormones the clinicians discovered the limits of hormonal therapy: its failure to erase maleness because hormonal castration was reversible. Hence a more permanent solution for the “genuine transvestite” was needed, which was genuine castration.

In the autobiography of Christine Jorgensen we can read a story in which homosexuality (a stigmatised identity that already carried a sedimented history of gender discipline exerted upon the offending male body) is translated into the “wrong body” metanarrative of transsexualism. In this twentieth-century medical story, the gender offender was offered hormonal feminisation, castration and genital surgery as normalising therapy. Paul Monette, another homosexual who grew up in America of the 1950s, described the closet as a “doorless room of … internal exile”. As a metaphor representing internal exile the closet is a dark libidinal space of the cultural imaginary, a doorless room for some whose only opening had to be made in themselves.


Christine Crowle is a post graduate student in English at La Trobe University.

References and Works Cited

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