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Great European Lives: Lili Elbe

Lili Elbe. Photo: Getty Images. - Credit: ullstein bild via Getty Images

Lili Elbe: December 28, 1882 – September 13, 1931

After much thumb-twiddling and clockwatching they realised the artist’s model was not merely late, she wasn’t going to turn up at all. In a Copenhagen studio that afternoon in 1908 sat Gerda Wegener, an artist and illustrator of growing renown, her husband the landscape artist Einar Wegener and the couple’s friend, the actress Anna Larsen.

Gerda’s easel was set up facing a chair intended for the woman who hadn’t appeared and in the corner of the room clothes were draped over a screen, carefully selected by the artist for their colour and texture but which, it seemed, wouldn’t be worn that day.

As they tutted, complained and prepared to pack up, Anna suggested playfully that the outfit might fit the slim frame of Einar Wegener – maybe he could pose for Gerda instead and prevent the day becoming a total write-off? Einar and Gerda looked at each other, shrugged, the 26-year-old walked behind the screen and emerged shortly afterwards wearing the clothes intended for the model.

As Gerda and Anna set about making up his face and placing a wig on his head, Einar Wegener knew immediately that life could never be the same again.

‘I cannot deny that I enjoyed myself in this disguise,’ Lili Elbe wrote later. ‘I liked the soft feel of women’s clothing and felt very much at home in it from the first moment.’

Einar Wegener’s landscape paintings were highly regarded: a year prior to his studio epiphany they had been awarded Denmark’s prestigious Neuhausens Prize and a selection had been exhibited at the Kunstnernes Efteraarsudstilling, Copenhagen’s popular art exhibition.

The vistas rarely featured people and were infused with a tangible sense of solitude, even loneliness. Poplars Along Hobro Fjord, for example, depicts eight individual trees with a patch of grey sky between each. There’s no sense of unity or belonging among them; it’s as if each tree exists entirely separate from the rest.

Yet while Einar had always felt different, detached somehow from the rest of the humanity, he wasn’t alone as such. A woman had been there in him for as long as Einar could remember, a ‘thoughtless, flighty, very superficially-minded woman’ who was without a name until he posed for Gerda for the first time and Anna Larsen came up with the name Lili.

That day in the studio, the first physical manifestation of Lili, was the catalyst for her presence to grow and consolidate until by the end of the 1920s it was clear there was only Lili.

‘I am finished,’ wrote Einar in 1930. ‘Lili has known this for a long time. That’s how matters stand and consequently she rebels more vigorously every day.’

So unbearable was the burden of being a woman within the body of a man that eventually suicide seemed to be the only release. At the beginning of 1930 Lili fixed upon May 1 as the date on which she would bring her story to a close, an act that seemed to be the only way of claiming any kind of control over her own life.

Then Magnus Hirschfeld intervened. A pioneering advocate of gay and transgender rights, Hirschfeld had founded the Institute of Sexual Research in Berlin in 1919 as a place where homosexuals and people like Lili could find information and a sympathetic ear in the face of widespread ignorance and hostility (Christopher Isherwood, André Gide and W.H. Auden were among its visitors, until within weeks of Hitler’s appointment as German chancellor in 1933 the institute was forcibly closed, ransacked and its books and files burned in the street).

Lili had visited countless doctors over the years hoping to find an explanation for or even an understanding of her situation. Schizophrenia was mooted as a diagnosis, hysteria was suggested, some physicians spoke openly of insanity and there was even talk of lobotomy as a possible treatment. One doctor interpreted what we would now call Lili’s gender dysphoria as straightforward homosexuality, a ‘condition’ that controlled exposure to radiation might ‘cure’.

Hirschfeld was a rare voice of sympathy and enlightenment among such ignorance, so when he suggested gender reassignment surgery. Lili, despite Hirschfeld pointing out the dangers that lay in undergoing such a fledgling procedure, felt immediately vindicated. All thoughts of suicide were banished.

In the spring of 1930 Lili underwent a surgical castration at the Berlin institute. After that, at Hirschfield’s suggestion she travelled to the Dresden Municipal Women’s Clinic for further operations under Dr Kurt Warnekros to remove her penis and implant ovaries in her abdomen. According to some sources shrivelled ovaries were found already inside Lili’s body, giving credence to the theory that she was born intersexual, but as the Dresden clinic’s records were destroyed by Allied bombing during the Second World War the evidence available today remains anecdotal.

Her gender reassignment meant that under the prevailing legal system Lili’s marriage to Gerda was no longer considered lawful. The couple had met while studying at the Royal Danish Academy of Arts and married in 1904, with Gerda remaining Lili’s closest confidante and most faithful supporter once her true gender was apparent. Gerda’s portraits of Lili, painted right up until the end of the 1920s, proved to be her most popular and successful works, and when it was revealed the subjects were not women but her husband it caused a sensation.

The Wegeners had settled in Paris in 1912, a city in which it was easier for Lili to live more openly as a woman and where she and Gerda would attend social events where Lili was introduced by Gerda as her husband Einar’s sister.

‘It was not I who dressed up as Lili but both for me and for Gerda Lili became a perfectly independent person,’ she wrote. ‘Lili and I became two beings: if Lili was not there we spoke of her as a third person and if Lili was there I was spoken of between her and Gerda as a third person.’

It was in Dresden that Lili adopted the surname Elbe after the river that flows through the city, an eloquent symbol of her rebirth, and as she transitioned from male to a female physicality she left Einar and his world in the past.

She gave up painting because that was Einar’s calling; deep down Lili even worried that she was responsible for the murder of her male incarnation. She applied for and received a new passport as a woman and after news of her medical procedures had made the newspapers in France, Germany and Denmark her marriage to Gerda was annulled by an order of the Danish King Christian X himself.

In the months following her surgeries Lili flourished as a woman, exhilarated by the freedom her true gender permitted. She began a relationship with and accepted a marriage proposal from a Parisian friend, an art dealer named Claude Lejeune, a romance that prompted more surgery as Lili longed to seal her impending marriage by becoming a mother as well as a wife.

‘It is not with my brain, not with my eyes, not with my hands that I want to be creative, but with my heart and with my blood,’ she wrote in her diary. ‘The fervent longing in my woman’s life is to become the mother of a child.’

In June 1931 Lili returned to the Dresden clinic for a womb and uterus transplant. At first the procedure seemed to have been a success but then her body began to reject the implanted organs, leading to an infection that caused her death three months later at the age of 48.

‘That I, Lili, am vital and have a right to life I have proved by living for 14 months,’ she had written to a friend days before her death. ‘It may be said that 14 months is not much, but they seem to me like a whole and happy human life.’

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