In a Nutshell
In 1930, Lili Elbe became the first person in the world to undergo sex-reassignment surgery. Born Einar Mogens Wegener in 1882, she became biologically female at a time when the term “transgender” hadn’t even been invented. Unfortunately, the pioneering operation would eventually prove fatal.
The Whole Bushel
The history of Lili Elbe is a strange and sad one. Born in Denmark as Einar Mogens Wegener, she lived as a male for the best part of 30 years, even marrying a bisexual artist, Gerda Gottlieb. However, it’s pretty clear that she never felt comfortable in her male body, even as a child. Distinctly feminine, she copped criticism every time she stepped out of the house, due to people assuming she was a girl dressed in boy’s clothing (and metaphorically, they were totally right). From almost the moment she married Gerda, the two pursued separate relationships—Lili living as a woman, Gerda embarking on a string of lesbian affairs. Then they moved to Paris, and the last traces of Einar finally slipped away.
Removed from her home country, Lili became the woman she always had been. Gerda introduced her to people as Einar’s sister and she made a habit of disappearing into anonymous crowds where she could spend an hour or so completely unrecognized—to all intents and purposes, female. Gerda even began painting pictures of Einar’s mysterious, flamboyant sister—paintings which became a cause célèbre back in Denmark. And then the truth came out.
In the furor that followed, the Danish authorities amazingly allowed Einar to legally become Lili—on the condition that her marriage to Gerda be declared void. However, they also threw out the possibility of experimental sex reassignment in Germany. Sadly, this would prove the death of Lili. With transplant surgery still in its infancy, and lacking modern antibiotics, Lili’s body rejected the donor uterus. The complications killed her, but not before she got to experience a very brief time as a biological woman. We can only hope that handful of days made all her suffering worthwhile.