To Be Trans: Lili Elbe and Me

(April Rose Schneider has written for Litkicks about novelist Richard Farina and Rush lyricist Neil Peart. This is by far her most personal piece. Thanks, April. —Marc)

“Whom the Gods would destroy they first make mad.” — Euripidies, from “Prometheus”

Einar Wegener—Europe’s best known transgender person in the early 20th century—lived a satisfying and perhaps gratifying male life for a very short time. He painted and partied, drank and danced and sailed on the clear calm water of life for his first twenty years. If he caught a glimpse of storm clouds gathering on the horizon he gave no hint. But the storm was coming, and a strange lightning bolt would strike Einar, shattering his egg shell mind, stripping his flesh all the way down to the bone. This is a description of the life of Einar Wegener aka Lili Elbe … and about the way my own life resembled theirs. The plural will make sense as we proceed.

I know the transgender journey well. I too suffered the same path of secret despair and self loathing in the grip of gender dysphoria before it was a recognized medical concept. At the age of 12 — a tad earlier than Einar if we are to believe the apocryphal storyline of his autobiography The Danish Girl and the movie based on it — I realized that I was the only person in the world who felt displaced in a body incongruous with my emotional self. When I was not quite ten years old I discovered the life of Christine Jorgensen, America’s First Lady of Trans, and a little light went off deep within my awareness. Perhaps, I dared to hope, I was not alone?

Nor was Einar Wegener alone as the world’s first post-operative transsexual as suggested in the recent film version of The Danish Girl. That honor belongs to Dora Richter, whose penis was amputated and replaced with an “artificial vagina” over the course of nine years from 1922 to 1931 in Berlin by the Magnus Hirshfield Institute for Sexual Research physician Dr. Levy-Lenz. Dora Richter would eventually become the spark that jettisoned Wegener’s journey of hope and madness from Einar the man to Lili the woman.

Einar was born in Denmark probably in 1882, and married the painter Gerda Gottlieb in 1904 . As the story goes, Gerda needed a model in a pinch because the model she had hired was a no show. So Gerda imposed on Einar to fill in for the model and the rest is Trans history. Einar put on women’s clothes, and voila! — instant recognition of a feminine spirit of which he was hitherto completely unaware. Makes for a great cover story and little else. Indeed I suspect that like me Einar had always known that something was amiss within a deeply felt, random, intermittent feminine identification submerged beneath a barely concealed yin disposition too profound to ignore. This must have plagued his consciousness as it inhabited mine.

In reference to the pivotal aspect of the plot, was there really an ‘Aha’ moment in Einar’s recognition of his secret feminine gender? No, of course not. Gender is not something that just happens to a human. Gender is innate, biological. The condition known as Trans is not a lifestyle choice as many people imagine. Humans, and no doubt the rest of the animal kingdom do not and can not choose their gender. You can put a dress on a pit bull, or a tux with a tie, and I guarantee that the dog won’t bat an eye. But me and Einar? We knew from very early that there was something amiss. Normal little boys do not longingly envision and anticipate the precise moment when they might finally express their secret feminine personas.

Myself, I did indeed long for that moment when I could ‘free myself’ from the prison that gender becomes for the closeted Trans person. Beginning at approximately age twelve, circa 1963, I spent every possible moment alone, only to emerge from that dark place of fearful solitude to bask in the satins and chiffons that beckoned from my mother’s dresser. I can only sympathize with the closet in which Einar was forced to live during the late 1800’s and early 1900’s of prewar Europe before gender reassignment became a medically accepted reality.

Thus within the confines of that very weird closet that both protected us and caged us like animals, both Einar and I did the only thing that made sense for us. We found ‘nice girls’ to marry in an effort to lend respectable cover, to give us time to sort our feelings out. Or time to kill and dismember these feelings. Four months after I graduated from high school in late 1969 I was living alone in my divorced parents house when I had a mini-nervous breakdown accompanied by a bad case of hives. No one noticed. My parents were gone. My isolation was complete. High school had been the glue that held my fractured consciousness together. That same year I broke my leg on my first motorcycle and started dating a nurse I’d met in the hospital. Bad move resulting in seven years of bad luck. At least she had a job and a car. She was my Gerda.

* * * * *

Before proceeding to describe Einar/Lili’s very odd journey I think it is important to frame the issue of gender with some facts both scientific and empirical. From the moment we are born our personalities, beginning with the concept of gender, are constructed by our capitulation or agreements to the conditions of our environment in an effort to survive the chaotic imprinting of early childhood. All of humankind is conditioned to behave within rigid, strictly enforced guidelines according to the specific culture of our indoctrination. By the time we reach adulthood, most human beings accept their personality as fixed in time and space. Yet our personalities are anything but fixed.

The pronouncement of gender, based on a cursory glance of one’s anatomical sex, sets the stage for a lifetime of socially predetermined behaviors that profoundly affect and inform the subjective nature of our experience. This encompasses everything in our lives, our material relationships to politics, religion, spirituality and beyond. Against this backdrop of conditioned experience, of all those things which divide us as humans, we passively accept the mandate of predetermined gender identity, and we commit ourselves to the suffering inherent in that identity.

Much of our destiny is predicated on a biological scheme which precedes our entry into this material world. The relative coincidence of gender and morphology is a blessed biological gift within the scheme. And the timeless question of nature versus nurture is a moot point to the transgender or transsexual person. We live the answer to the question for it is an unequivocal truth that no one chooses to be a member of this reviled class. And not even the threat of torture or death has or ever will succeed in changing individual gender identity. Yesterday, today and tomorrow, we Trans people will continue to live and die with the weight of societal judgement arrayed against us too often with deadly force.

* * * * *

Gay sexuality was known and tolerated in much of Europe in those idyllic days before the First World War. Victorian attitudes about sex were disintegrating yet the condition known first as “transvesti” (which refers strictly to the antiquated concept of crossdressing) was unknown. Men were men and women were women, and the gendered twain never met let alone changed sides. No cultural or medical precedent existed that might have mapped the pre-operative and post-operative path for a transgender person. No language was available to Einar Wegener to explain the gender dysphoria that she kept well hidden. Yet the pathos that came with that denial without the benefit of historical relevance or factual reference must have been psychological torture. Thus in the dying light of post-Victorian Europe one could not blame Einar for seizing the fortuitous moment. Her prison door swung open ever so briefly. Einar stepped through, and Lili emerged on the other side.

I was not that fortunate. Their was no moment in time, no door opening to the sunny pastures of self realization. In my first forty years on the planet there was only hate, fear, judgment, condemnation, institutionalization, sexual exploitation, imprisonment, alienation, ostracism, isolation, alcoholism, drug abuse, and excommunication. I was twenty when my father peeked through the bedroom window of the apartment I shared with my nurse partner and saw his son in a pink baby doll nightie. And that was that: the end of hope for any kind of understanding that might have passed between us. A week later I tried to kiss him on the cheek and received only a stern rebuke from him. “That’ll be enough of that, boy.” We never spoke of it again.

* * * * *

While Lili’s life and mine bore striking similarities, the outcomes were reversed. Einar seemed relatively happy with his painting and sexuality intact whereas my early years were fraught with depression and confusion. Is there a clearer path to insanity and self destruction than a vague yet persistent denial of one’s true essence hidden beneath the flesh … the essence of us which precedes personality? There was not for me. The thought of suicide was my constant companion as I floated through the first three decades of my life without the love and affection that adorned Lili’s life.

An excerpt from my still-unpublished complete autobiography:

“La Vida Loca — the crazy life — two little words that neatly sum up my six decades as a transsexual. Not Ooga-Booga crazy like those poor deranged souls cloistered in tiny cubicles with flower print wall paper, who sway to the hypnotic strains of Muzak and glaze through tiny windows that look out over the ragged cliffs of psychic oblivion. No, it wasn’t that pleasant at all. Not even close.

My life felt crazy because at the age of six I had my first psychic break with reality: crazy because by the tender age of ten, I lived secret, forbidden life that, if discovered, would bring dire consequences not for me alone but for my family as well; imperiled because I realized with disturbing certainty by a very early age, that, if I had any choice at all regarding my future, mine was a choice between a deceitful path of spiritual corruption barely mitigated by the possibility of material success, or a dark, forbidden, rocky road to the center of my being where I might resolve this strange conundrum or fatally lose my tenuous grip on reality.

If you stick with my tortured tale to the end, you may notice, and I will be the first person to admit with a certain amount of perverse pride, that the total effect of the life transsexual over the course of nearly six decades has warped my spiritual innards like a DVD left on the dashboard of your car on a sizzling hot summer’s day. Over the course of six decades, sequestered in the dark underbelly of global sexism, choking on the bile of culturally justified hatred, I’d managed to convince myself that nobody gave a damn about the life of a sideshow freak.

As a result of this programmed state of self-loathing, a rather pitiful voice of noble resignation plots surrender every time I sit down to write. It’s the defeated voice of my collective life experience that represents a continuum of endless repetitive humiliations like a thousand tiny daggers in my soul. The voice of the Ugly Duckling transsexual keeps telling me that no one cares, and that I don’t have what it takes to finish this — my legacy to the future.

A few years earlier, when I hadn’t yet become so well adjusted to my ostracism, I had written this:

I live the life of two-spirited medicine in my sanctuary, a little room on top of a little desert hill covered by fragrant pine, where cacti stand like guardians under the relentless New Mexican sun. The silent pulse of the desert swirls around me in mute waves of tawny beige. I peer at the sky through the window of my lonely sanctuary, and see hope, like an airy cumulus cloud, drift overhead, just out of reach. A dark, sad princess, I gaze across this familiar sea of isolation, and dream of another life a utopian world, that, unlike this cold, dark world, celebrates diversity and human potential. Lost in the stark contradiction, I turn my attention to the gaping, gray-black maw of my computer monitor, where a dim silhouette mocks me.

I move in a little closer, as if looking for clues to mystery of my self. Instead, I find a stranger who knows only confusion and dissonance that arise from a life unfulfilled, a life denied, my humanity like the contents of an empty, odd shaped bowl. With every encounter my perception is confirmed: I do not belong here. I am not a part of this life Excommunicated by silent decree, I am disallowed, denied, refused, rejected, vilified, condemned, used, abused, then flung upon the garbage heap of life and scattered by the winds of a world gone mad.

Though I am passionate and full of fire for the oppressed of the world, I walk this tortured path alone. I dangle at the end of a hangman’s noose, and sear in the afternoon sun, while the persecuted masses of the world turn away. The fire in my heart consumes me and my blood drips into the ashes of their collective apathy. My spirit blazes while my bones turn to water at the possibility that I will die before I am heard.

In a dream, I float outside of the bubble of society, where ‘normal’ life seems to go on as it will. Sadly floating as a dark specter just outside the glass wall of life, I see people of many colors, old and young people, married and single, children laughing and playing. People with jobs, families and friends. With hopes and dreams, jobs and goals, self respect and a sense of community. Outside the bubble there is only me and my sense of exile. Furiously I pound and wail, scream and pound some more. But I alone am invisible and no one hears me. No one witnesses my dissolution, as I am borne away on a veil of tears.

My trans identity and transition progressed past the dubious escape of alcoholism into the 1980’s, just as Einar’s transition to Lili incurred a state of debilitating gender-based schizoid behavior. No doubt due to the early paths trod by the first notorious Trans women of the early 1900’s I was capable of seeing myself as a transsexual person biding my time in a closet of societal prejudice. By contrast, by the time Lili was well down her path to medical transition, she manifested a profound syndrome of split personality in her attempt to understand her gendered identities.

Within a couple of years after making her life changing discovery as a substitute model, Lili began to think of herself as two people: the former Einar, who was doomed to remain merely a memory in Lili’s past, and the emergent Lili beset by belated expectations regarding her life as a new woman. Lili desperately needed Einar at the outset. And Einar felt the pressure to help Lili — along with Gerda and a few close friends. The tenuous search for a suitable doctor began.

From Lili’s autobiography Man into Woman:

Nobody understood what was wrong with him. But his sufferings were of the strangest kind. A specialist in Versailles had without further ado declared him to be an hysterical subject. Early in Lili’s transition, the roles of husband and wife began to change as they must when a hetero couple transform into a Trans-lesbian couple:

Grete felt herself to be the protectress of this carefree and helpless Lili. And Einar felt himself to be the protector of both Grete and Lili. His ultimate hope was to die in order that Lili might awaken to a new life.

In 1930 Lili’s dream of a new life as a woman began to take shape under the celebrated scalpel of the renowned father of sex and gender research, Magnus Hirschfield. Three more operations over the next two years brought Lili ever closer to her dream of becoming a fully anatomical woman — a concept which remains beyond the reach of medicine yet today. Lili, the world’s second fully transitioned transsexual, had no idea what was medically possible. But she clung steadfast to her dreams.

As her dreams became her reality her mind began to suffer from the immense pressure, the idealized, internalized, self-imposed necessity to become fully female. As the result of the gendered apartheid that dominated culture in 1920, Lili felt that she was in fact two personalities which could not inhabit the same body without madness. Thus Lili felt increasingly detached from Einar. Einar was a burden from her past. In order for Lili to live, Einar had to die:

For Einar was, in fact, two beings: a man, Einar, and a girl, Lili. They might even be called twins who had both taken possession of one body at the same time. In character however they were entirely different. Gradually Lili had gained such predominance over Einar that she could still be traced in him, even after she had retired, but never the reverse. Whereas he felt tired and seemed to welcome death, Lili was joyous and in the freshness of youth. She wrote the following in her journal in February 1930:

“I am finished. Lili has known this for a long time. That’s how matters stand. And consequently she rebels more vigorously every day.

Please understand me: the alienation from Einar must inevitably crystallize into the resolution to forget a person who, as Einar, has been a tragic obstacle which prevented me from experiencing all the mysteries and wonders which are part of the life of the girl, the maid, and the woman, in the same way as all other members of my sex. Because I lived a first life encased in a prison, from which I could not get free, my youth as girl and maiden has been stolen from me, has been suppressed.”

* * * * *

For what use is this flesh of human or flower but a thin veil of sensual matter stretched like canvas across the easel of our essence, and what good is served when this flesh perpetuates the madness in our soul? Does not flesh then become the servant of our psychosis?

To be Trans both then and now is to know pathos as intimately as a lover. We Trans people have existed throughout history as a group that transcends all societal boundaries including but not limited to sex, race, religion, ethnicity, politics and the familial bonds of blood and kinship. How great is the irony that, with the compulsion to realize our deepest desire to become the persons hidden in our biology, we are forced by this very fate to sacrifice all that is dear to us, and accept the implicit social ostracism whose knife slices through our lives, severing the ties that once bound us to those we love. Connections to our past … our family … our history … all erased as if a distant dream, all our hopes for normal life shattered.

“So it was. There were days through which Lili dragged a tortured and lacerated heart, days when she was oppressed by numerous fears. It is so easy, she would then think, to bear one’s anonymous fate here among utter strangers; but how would everything shape as soon as this anonymity ceased, as soon as she was obliged to appear in those circles whence Andreas has vanished, to which Andreas had belonged? She thought of her family in Denmark. Supposing she never returned there? Would that not be the simplest? Would it not be better for her, the new creature without a past and thus without a family, to renounce everything connected with Andreas? To renounce her old friends and relations in Denmark? To renounce even the friends in Paris, in order to start a new life right from the beginning ?”

My conscious awareness bore a eerie similarity. From my published mini-autobiography, “Finding the Real Me: True Tales of Sex and Gender Diversity:

‘Then on one particularly poignant spring afternoon circa 1962, I experienced a profound epiphany that seemed to certify my status as a pariah. I remember it as clearly as it was yesterday. I had been experimenting with my mom’s clothes and make up for a couple of years. I used any and every opportunity to stay home alone and indulge myself in the contents of her closet. I never questioned my behavior and my parents never suspected. I had begun crossdressing as a natural progression of the dreams. On this particular day my mom was at her therapist and my father was at work. I was sitting on the floor of our living room in my favorite full-length crinoline petticoat. The kind often worn under a poodle skirt-a style prevalent in the late 1950’s. The sun was shining and a warm breeze blew the sound of boys playing through the large picture window. As I sat there and listened to those happy sounds, sadness overwhelmed me. I remember thinking ‘That’s what it must be like for normal kids‘. Slowly my gaze dropped to the petticoat then returned to the scene outside. Sudden realization raised the veil of youthful innocence from my vision and tears fell from my eyes. How melancholy I felt to be so different.

At that moment I felt the first inkling of the isolation that would eventually both protect me and drive me to the brink of suicide. I was struck by the gravity of my predicament. The sun was still bright overhead. Breezes still blew and birds still sang. But for me a subtle shift had occurred in my self-perception. I was a little boy whose idea of fulfillment was staying home alone and wearing my mother’s clothes. And from that day forward, a part of me knew for certain that I was headed for stormy seas in a leaky dinghy.

* * * * *

Lili’s journey to become the woman of her dreams found her traveling by train to Germany leaving Einar in the dust of her new found womanhood. More poignant though was the utter isolation that Lili had created for herself in her schizo-generated isolation. Beginning in 1930 she underwent a series of four very experimental operations-the culmination of which involved the implantation of a functional vagina and uterus. Lili desperately wanted to bear children no doubt in a way of confirming her full entre into womanhood. Instead of bearing children Lili bore an infection that would take her life. Lili Elbe died alone in a women’s health clinic in Dresden, Germany on September 13th, 1931.

While my story as a Trans woman bears only general similarities to the woeful tale of Lili Elbe, I have walked in her shadow, guided by her footsteps into the future of a new life. Without Lili to blaze this trail into the darkness of gender dysphoria, I could not have become the woman I am today. Along this convoluted path, I have lost four decades of friends, family, social status, and my sense of personhood. I have stumbled, fallen, and risen like the Phoenix-surviving alcoholism, autoimmune diseases, and more than one attempt to commit suicide. I live today by the grace of the love of my soulmate of 36 years.

I close with the final passage from Lili Elbe’s biography:

When I myself am no longer here, I want my sad book of love to be my legacy, a testimony that I once lived. I imagine that this book will be read, read as few books are, by all who are unhappy in love, into whose hands it shall fall year after year, and I feel as if I could shake them all by the hand. And I have such an unspeakable longing; it is in fact the only longing that I have, to say farewell to all — oh, none can realize what ultimate peace this would be for me.

2 Responses

  1. You are a genuine wordsmith,
    You are a genuine wordsmith, Rose. I love your writing.
    You speak of living outside of a bubble. There is a term for that which currently escapes me. A (something) dweller?? Fringe dweller might be close, but not certain if that is it. In a much more general sense, I can relate to that as I’ve always felt there to be a flaw in our societal nest. A flaw which in the past, I’ve always had trouble explaining, and now unable to write the necessary dissertation to explain. The feeling I held was that I was meant to have been or should have been born on another planet. A feeling that wires got crossed, I was born here, and the planet I was meant to be born on was being sullied by the sole which was supposed to have come here in my stead. Obviously not to the same degree, but I do know that feeling of being on the outside of the bubble, looking in wistfully. I suppose one explanation might be that the indoctrination process had failed?? It may have broken my spirit, but had nothing I could accept to replace it?? Oddly or not, the more I learn about the world about me, and the more I see folk ignoring the world about them in favour of sitcoms and such triviality, the less I feel a part of it.
    A great bit of candidness. I appreciate too that you added the images.
    Aside the edification, Its a pleasure to know you.
    Enjoy Peace

  2. Thanks so much, my friend.
    Thanks so much, my friend. I am going to pretend that I don’t already know you, and that I didn’t give you money and promise you more just to say nice things about my writing. Beyond that it is good to have company here on the outside. XO

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