On this day December 28: celebrating the birth of Lili Elbe

Lili Elbe december 28 man into woman
Images: Lili Elbe (?). Watercolour attributed to Gerda Wegener, ca. 1928. Wellcome Collection and Man into Woman, An Authentic Record of a Cha. Wellcome Collection

Lili Elbe was born on December 28 1882. Designated male at birth, she later became one of the first people to undergo gender confirmation surgery. Before her death in 1931, Lili asked a friend to edit her diaries and notes into a biography, later published as Man Into Woman: An Authentic Record of a Change of Sex

(The book and subsequent movie The Danish Girl was a fictionalised account of Lili’s life.)

Published in 1933, Man Into Woman caused a sensation. Despite the use of pseudonyms, the identities of the lead characters were never a secret. A friend leaked the story of Lili’s surgery to the media in 1931.

The Californian newspaper devoted an entire page to the book.

“In the fall of 1931, there died in the Women’s Hospital in Dresden, Germany, a person named Lili Elbe. Her death passed unnoticed by the press of the world.

“But back of it there lay one of the most astounding stories in modern history – the record of a medical case which is almost beyond belief! It is, briefly, the story of a person who was changed from a man into a woman.”

Lili Elbe and Gerda Gottlieb

Lili Elbe met Gerda Gottlieb at Copenhagen’s Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts. They married in 1904 and enjoyed successful careers, Lili painting landscapes and Gerda working as an illustrator.

Lili’s transition began after an incident she related in Man Into Woman. (This article uses actual names rather than the book’s aliases.)

Gerda had booked actress Anna Larssen to sit for a painting. But when Anna couldn’t make it, she suggested that Lili pose instead.

“Cannot [Lili] pose as a model for the lower part of the picture? [Her] legs and feet are as pretty as mine.”

Lili wrote that Gerda laughed.

“Once when [she] was painting a picture of a woman, I had come to her assistance with my legs. ‘You really have pretty woman’s legs’, Gerda had said to me jokingly.”

At first, Lili refused. But Gerda “chaffed me, abused me, implored me, petted me, and a few minutes later, I was standing in the studio in costume and high-heeled shoes. We both laughed as though it were a great joke. And to make the disguise complete, [Gerda] fetched out a carnival wig, a fair, very curly wig. Then she attacked me with rouge and powder.

“When all was ready, we could scarcely believe our eyes. I turned around and stared at myself in a mirror, again and again, trying to recognize myself. Was it really possible, I asked myself, that I could be so good-looking? [Gerda] clapped her hands delightedly. ‘You look just as if you had never worn anything but women’s clothes in your life.’

“And I cannot deny, strange though it may sound, that I enjoyed myself in this disguise. I liked the feel of soft women’s clothing. I felt at home in them from the first moment.”

Double life

Over the following years, Lili dressed in women’s clothing more and more. She became an actual person in the pair’s relationship. A person regarded as a separate identity to her other role – that of Gerda’s husband. One day, Lili confided that she could no longer live without her female identity.

“[Gerda] interrupted me to say that she had very often thought exactly the same. She sobbed: ‘Sometimes I wonder what life would be without her.'”

Lili began to suffer illness and depression when dressed as a man. However, the complaints evaporated when she put on a dress. The pair consulted doctors.

“Some to whom [she] went thought [her] neurotic, some homosexual.

“Gradually, the female personality, Lili, took on such importance that, unless the male self could be made to give place to Lili, [she] could not go on living.”

Lili gave herself a year to either find a doctor who could help or give up on life.

Finally, she contacted a German doctor and went to Dresden for still experimental reassignment surgery. She underwent a series of operations over a nearly two-year period.

Afterwards, Danish authorities annulled Gerda and Lili’s marriage, changed Lili’s name and issued a new passport.

Lili began a relationship with a Copenhagen art dealer. Wanting to marry him and bear his children, she underwent a further operation to transplant a uterus. However, her body rejected the transplant. She died of cardiac arrest three months after the surgery.

‘I shall have known what is to live.”

She wrote to a friend a few months before about the possibility of death.

“I, Lili, am vital and have a right to life I have proved by living for fourteen months. [People might say] that fourteen months is not much. But seems to me a whole and happy human life. The price seems very small.

“If sooner or later I should succumb physically, I am quite reconciled. I shall at least have known what it is to live.”

Read more: December 27 <— On this day —> December 29

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