The Real Danish Girl: How Far Have We Come?

After finishing a grueling exam at the LSE, all I wanted was to shut my brain off for a little while. I was drawn to see The Danish Girl as a result of the hype Eddie Redmayne has recently received following The Theory of Everything, and people were claiming he would not disappoint in his upcoming film. However, watching The Danish Girl was not even remotely mindless. Such a provocative and tragic story certainly leaves no room for apathy or disinterest. Indeed, I left the film feeling haunted by Lili Elbe’s story.

Lili Elbe. Credit: N. Hoyer, ed., Man into Woman. An Authentic Record of a Change of Sex.

Lili Elbe was the first identifiable recipient of sex reassignment surgery.1 Lili was born Einar Wegener in 1882 and married Gerda Gottlieb in 1904. Both artists, Lili occasionally modeled for Gerda’s illustrations. Lili began to realize she was a woman born into a man’s body, and became tormented by the fact that he had been living a life not as he truly was born to be. Through diary entries, she claimed, “Lili has known this for a long time. That’s how matters stand. And consequently she rebels more vigorously every day.”2 This came at a time when people were trying to better understand human sex and gender. Lili became aware of Magnus Hirschfeld, a German physicist who opened the Institute for Sexual Research in Berlin in 1918. She travelled to Dresden in 1930 for sex reassignment surgery under Kurt Warnekros of Dresden Municipal Women’s Clinic. The procedures Lili underwent remain partially unknown since the Nazis destroyed the archive of the Institute for Sexual Research in 1933. In 1931, Lili died following a womb transplant surgery. Despite the premature end to Lili’s life, she is considered “a martyr to the transgender community for her bravery in ­accepting the risks of sex reassignment.”3

Some claim that The Danish Girl “highlights how much attitudes have changed” about trans individuals and about the non-binary reality of gender and sexuality in general.4 Is there truth to this statement?

One could point to the progressive steps taken to recognize the full set of rights those of the LGBTI+ community possess. For example, Seattle, the city I am from in the United States, is known for its liberal policies and open-minded culture. In 2013, Seattle elected its first openly gay mayor, Ed Murray.5 This came a year after Washington State became one of the first three states to legalize same-sex marriage.

One could also point to the annual Transgender Day of Remembrance, certainly a monumental step in the right direction. This day was initiated by Gwendolyn Ann Smith to honor Rita Hester, a transgender woman who was killed in 1998.6 As Smith has stated, this day “seeks to highlight the losses we face due to anti-transgender bigotry and violence.”7 It is a day to memorialize those whose lives have been lost as a result of anti-transgender violence.

Members of the Gay, Lesbian and Transgen
Credit: HECTOR MATA/AFP/Getty Images

Though I do not intend to minimize the milestones we have reached to recognize the rights and struggles the LGBTI+ community faces, we still have so far to go. As Redmayne stated in an interview on the Graham Norton show, “What is staggering is that their [Gerda and Lili’s] story happened almost 100 years ago and it’s sort of astounding how little progress there has been. It is only in the past couple years that there really has been some change.”8 The abuses that Lili suffered in the 1920s still endure today.

Take my previous examples, for instance. While Seattle undeniably embraces liberal policies that make LGBTI+ rights a central topic of discussion, progress is inhibited from many angles. On December 26, 2015, Washington State regulation went into effect to “guarantee access to restrooms, locker rooms, and other such facilities according to a person’s gender identity.”9 However, this has spurned some backlash. There is now a debate that has policymakers discussing the details of transitioning, specifically as it concerns the chance of predators posing as someone who is transitioning.

Indeed, one cannot deny that Transgender Day of Remembrance is a positive step to honor those killed as a result of transphobia. Nonetheless, it is painful that such violence still occurs in the first place. From 2008-2015, there has been a recorded 1,933 killings of trans people in 64 countries.10 In 2015 alone, at least 271 trans people have been murdered. These tragedies occurred in 29 countries. However, these cases are still grossly underreported, and consequently so many deaths remain unseen.

The Danish Girl has certainly come at a time where trans issues are finally coming into the mainstream. The myth that sex and gender are binary is slowly eroding away. However, we still have so far to go. Although Lili’s story was long ago, her voice is still being heard. Her writings still resonate. As she has claimed, those of the LGBTI+ community indeed are “vital and have the right to life.”11

Megan Erickson, Staff Writer













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