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Published 2022-01-25
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The Story Of Lili Elbe! What Happened To The First Person To Have Gender Reassignment Surgery?

Lili Elbe was the first person in history to have gender reassignment surgery. At birth, her gender was considered male and for most of her life, she functioned as Einar Wegener born in 1882. Under her original name Lili, she was a well-known artist who had a wife, also an artist. The Wegener marriage was considered successful and happy. His wife supported and even encouraged Einar's process of transformation. It started innocently enough, and probably no one, not even Einar himself, imagined that a certain event would awaken in him the immense femininity and sex appeal that had always been in him. How and when did Lili begin to displace Einar? How daring and experimental were the operations performed? Although Lili's life was ended by complications from a uterus transplant, she never regretted what she dared to fight for. Learn the true story of Lili Elbe, who gave hope to millions of transgender people around the world.

Einar Wegener's life and marriage to Gerda

Lili Elbe was born on December 28, 1882, in the city of Vejle, Denmark. Her gender at birth was assumed to be male. Using the name Einar Wegener for many years of her life, she was a well-known painter. And let's go back for a moment to the time before Einar allowed his true self to speak, took the name Lili and decided to have his gender corrected. Before all this, young Einar met Gerda Gottlieb while studying at the Royal Danish Academy of Arts in Copenhagen. A great feeling was born between them and they decided to spend their lives together. In 1904 they became husband and wife. Einar was 22 years old then and Gerda was 19. They worked as illustrators, Einar specialized in landscape painting and his wife illustrated books and fashion magazines. They both belonged to the bohemian artistic circles of Italy and France.

Einar discovers Lili and begins to show his femininity

The artists' marriage was successful, and no one could have imagined the great changes that would take place in their lives. It is not entirely clear whether the immense femininity that lay dormant in Einar influenced his life before he consciously discovered it in himself. It all started with a seemingly small and insignificant event. Einar's wife wanted to finish a painting of the actress Anna Larssen, who did not come at the appointed time. So she asked her husband to replace the original model. Einar agreed and timidly put on stockings and stilettos. According to information, he himself did not think that he would bring his femininity to light in such a way. It turned out that inside the man's body there was a young, beautiful woman with an enormous desire to live. What's more, with time she began to manifest her presence to the world more strongly. The name Lili was suggested by Anna Larssen when she saw Einar posing for a portrait of his wife. She was not aware, however, that Lili is as real as can be and will soon supplant Einar, who was more and more eager to put on women's clothes, to think and speak of himself as - Lili.

Einar ceases to exist

Einar, a faithful husband, a quiet and shy man, slowly ceased to exist. Lili had her own plans and desires and the great support of her wife. Their story is also a tale of great love crossing boundaries. Gerda not only did not protest against her husband "becoming" and then "being" a woman, but encouraged him to do so herself. Lili, still formally Einar not only posed for paintings but eventually began to appear in ordinary life. Over the years, Lili and Gerda received guests in the house and attended various lavish celebrations. Lili at that time was usually portrayed as Gerda's relative. And although those closest to her were aware of the Einar/Lili double life, Lili was so feminine and handsome that no one from further acquaintances suspected the truth. She was rumored to be so attractive that other men courted her and matrimonial proposals occurred.

Lili was Gerda's muse

It is worth mentioning that initially, Gerda's portraits were not particularly popular. When she asked her husband to pose for her in women's clothing, she not only initiated Lili's courage to manifest her existence. And then not only did the Wegners' marriage change but also their professional affairs. When quite unexpectedly Einar became extremely comfortable in his new role and discovered his true self, he became the best model for his wife. Gerda's portraits and erotica of Lili depicted an extremely feminine yet delicate girl with almond-shaped eyes and sensual lips. These works quickly became a great success which promoted Gerda in the world markets and made her a well-known painter. Moreover, Gerda's fame eventually overshadowed Einar's works. When in 1914 it came to light that this beautiful, full of sex appeal, elegant, model was, in fact, Gerda's husband there was an international scandal in the artistic community. It turned out that in the artistic circles it was not the end of the world. The Wegener family continued to appear at the salons and their paintings sold well, some of them can still be admired in museums.

Breakthroughs in Lili's life

Lili still as Einar, began to desire changes in her life. She felt an overwhelming need for correction. Importantly; not a "change" of gender, but a correction. It is impossible to change the gender of a person who, contrary to physical characteristics, has always had that gender, felt that gender. In order to correct nature's mistake, Lili dared to do something that seemed almost impossible at the time and yes, she underwent the first documented sex correction in history. It was 1930 when Lili, after many years of existing in Einar's body, traveled to Germany for the operation, which at the time was highly experimental. It is often reported that the first transgender person to undergo modern sex reassignment surgery (SRS) was Christine Jorgensen in 1952. Yet between 1930 and 1931, it was Lili Elbe who underwent a series of operations to transform her body into that of a woman. However, it ultimately did not end well for her and she was not able to enjoy physical femininity for very long.

First surgeries and marriage annulment

When Lili decided to undergo the first documented sex correction in history, it eventually led to the Wegener marriage being annulled by a Danish court in October 1930. She also stopped painting because she believed it was something Einar was doing. At that time, Einar Wegener also formally ceased to exist. Lili was able to legally change her gender and name. She received documents as Lili Ilse Elvenes. At that time her case became a real sensation in the Danish and German newspapers. The pseudonym "Lili Elbe" was used for the first time sometime later, in a Danish newspaper article written by a Copenhagen journalist in February 1931. The SRS (sex reassignment surgery) of the time, or sex correction process, did not look like the modern one. Little was known about such procedures because they simply were not done. Long before safe organ transplants or the invention of drugs to prevent organ rejection, determined Lili Elbe decided to undergo the risky surgery to fully enjoy her womanhood. Over the course of two years, a series of four surgeries were performed. The first of these was the removal of the testicles. This procedure was performed by Dr. Erwin Gohrbandt under the supervision of sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld in Berlin. Unfortunately, some of the certainly important documentation of Lily's treatment at the sexologist did not survive. It was destroyed by the Nazis in 1933 when they burned the doctor's papers and documents. The remaining surgeries for Lily were performed by gynecologist and surgeon Dr. Kurt Warnekros at a women's clinic in Dresden. The clinic was later destroyed along with the records when Dresden was bombed during World War II. Lili's second operation consisted of an ovary implanted in her abdominal muscles, and the third operation involved the removal of her penis and scrotum. Not only were her male organs removed. In addition to the ovarian transplant, her uterus was also transplanted during the fourth operation. Today, when transgender people decide to surgically correct their gender from male to female, they usually undergo surgery to remove the testicles and shape the vagina, but there is no question of other major medical interventions.

Lili’s Death

It is worth noting that it was Lili who insisted on such thorough changes. For it was a time when she had accepted the proposal of a man, and wanted to marry him and have children with him. However, she intended to marry him only when she "could be a real mother." In order to fulfill her dream, she underwent a fourth operation in 1931, during which a uterus transplant and vaginal canal construction were performed. Unfortunately, the fourth and already invasive surgery proved to be tragic in its consequences. Elbe's immune system rejected the transplanted uterus, and the operation and subsequent surgical revision caused an infection that led to her death from cardiac arrest. Lili died on September 13, 1931, three months after her surgery. She was less than 49 years old. It is not known whether Lili suffered as much as she was shown in the film The Danish Girl, inspired by the lives of artists Einar and Gerda Wegener. Lili's autobiography does not include descriptions of this final stage because she no longer had the strength to take careful notes. However, included in the production the internal hemorrhaging and unbearable pain requiring massive doses of morphine seem close to the truth. It is known that Lili endured much suffering in the last two years of her life. According to information, even before her last surgery, she actually suffered from hemorrhages, was thin and miserable, and the series of treatments weakened her greatly. Ultimately, her body was unable to take much more. It is worth noting, however, that although the fourth operation cost Lili her life, she never regretted the decision to have the surgery. It is worth mentioning that during one of the operations it turned out that Lili had not only male but also vestigial female organs. Because of this fact, Einar's strong desire to be a woman may not have been due to the fact that he was a transsexual, but rather an intersex person. Today it is suspected that Lili may have been a woman with Klinefelter Syndrome. However, this type of in-depth research during Lili's lifetime did not take place.

The Danish Girl

"The Danish Girl," Tom Hooper's acclaimed and widely awarded 2015 film about a woman trapped in the body of an unusual and sensitive man, is not a classic and meticulous biography of Lila Elbe. There are several differences between the story presented in the film and the real events. So if you have watched the film, you must know that not everything in the real life of Einar/Lili looked like it did on the screen, although of course there are more similarities than differences. The 2015 production is a screen adaptation of David Ebershoff's novel which is a fictionalized account of Elbe's life. Eddie Redmayne, who played the role of Einar/Lili, did not live to see another Oscar in his career. He was only nominated for Best Actor in a Leading Role. The statuette for best-supporting actress went to Alicia Vikander, who played the role of Gerda Wegener.

Gerda's life after Lili's death

Although there was an annulment of the Wegener marriage when Einar underwent surgery and officially became Lili, the ladies shared a strong and unique bond until the end. When Lili died, Gerda was distraught but decided to marry her longtime admirer, who was Major Fernando Porta, an Italian pilot, and diplomat. The artist moved with her husband to Morocco. This, in her opinion, is what Lili would have wanted - that her death was not in vain and that Gerda was happy. She painted until the end of her life, but her later works were not so successful. Nine years after Lili's death Gerda Wegener's life was also extinguished. She died in July 1940, at the age of 54.

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