That Trip Did Her Good

Published in: November-December 2007 issue.


Becoming a WomanBecoming a Woman: A Biography of Christine Jorgensen
by Richard F. Docter, M.D.
Harrington Park Press. 355 pages, $49.95 ($19.95 paper)



WHEN GEORGE JORGENSEN became a woman and renamed herself Christine some fifty years ago, she made headlines around the world. Richard F. Docter sat next to Jorgensen by chance at a banquet one evening several years ago, and since he’s a behavioral psychologist, he wanted to get some idea of how Jorgensen felt about modern transsexuals and cross-dressers. The result is a new biography, Becoming a Woman: A Biography of Christine Jorgensen, which is all about the world’s first celebrity transsexual.

Actually, Jorgensen didn’t give Docter much more than a few breezy statements at that banquet; she was almost dismissive. But Docter decided that he wanted to learn more. What he found in the course of his research was a series of contradictions. Although Christine’s own 1967 biography indicates that George was a socially rejected loner who was mercilessly teased, many people remember Christine’s earlier self as popular and well-liked, with a loving, supportive family.

For much of his life, George was engaged in an internal debate about his sexuality. He rarely dated women as a young man, though he very much wanted to. He vehemently denied being gay but admitted to friends that he liked men “as a woman does,” and he eventually had homosexual relationships. Eventually, George decided that living as a woman—being a woman—was what he had wanted all along. So he famously traveled to Denmark, ostensibly for a vacation, to undergo a surgical procedure that was just becoming available there.

But George’s gender wasn’t the only thing that changed, at least in Christine’s account. The angst-filled, reclusive George came back to America as an outgoing beauty who suddenly had style and grace. George eschewed attention; Christine thrived on it and even put together a song-and-dance act. George was on the shy side; Christine craved publicity—and got plenty of it, as the tabloids went wild.

In the end, though, and as much as she glossed-over the first part of her life, Christine Jorgensen could not escape George Jorgensen.

Although a little dry at times, Becoming a Woman is fascinating reading, not only because of what the book reveals about Jorgensen but also because of what it doesn’t disclose. Docter was clearly thorough in his research, and he dug deep into a life that genuinely intrigued him. But Christine Jorgensen was a chameleon of sorts. Since different people knew her in different ways, the accounts we receive are contradictory and inconclusive, and we may never know her entire story.

However thorough the research, Becoming a Woman’s structure is almost too methodical to make for a smooth reading experience. The basic design is chronological and the writing style factual and even dry, giving the book the feel of a chronicle rather than a biography. At other times the book reads more like a medical treatise than like the story of a beguiling celebrity who brought the subject of sex reassignment into the living rooms of everyday Americans more than half a century ago. Despite this aridity, this incandescent woman does ultimately shine through as a person who still has the power to captivate our attention nearly twenty years after her death.