Sometimes the awareness of your own boby comes unexpectedly. Lili Elbe, a woman who used to define herself as “unhappy, moody and very superficial” opened the eyes of Einar Wegener on how little he knew about his own nature.

Einar Wegener e Lili Elbe

Above: source Wikimedia Commons – Wellcomeimages – licence CC BY 4.0

Einar bumped into Lili shortly after his wedding with Gerda Gottlieb, in 1904. Einar and Gerda were a couple of Danish artists: him, with a strong and secure character would paint landscapes and her, as much resolute, used to illustrate books and create feminine painting in art decò style, published on prestigious fashion magazines.

One day, the absence of one of Gerda’s models changed Einar’s destiny forever. A friend of the wife, the actress Anna Larsen, gave an odd suggestion, perhaps seeing the big picture; she suggested to use Wegener as an alternative to the missing model and, after the first refusal of the husband, he eventually gave in to the woman’s insistence.

dressed in a ballerina costume in satin and lace, Einar was renamed Lili by Anna Larsen

Einar’s portrait in 1920

Above: source Wikipedia – Wellcomeimages – licence CC BY 4.0

In the following years, Einar lived an existence of two people trapped within the same body, one being the painter Einar Wegener, and the other Lili, a carefree woman who desperately wanted to become mother. Lili won the inner battle that was taking place inside the body, becoming the very 1st person in history undergoing experimental surgery to change sex.

Lili after the operations

Above: source Wikimedia Commons –Wellcomeimages – licence CC BY 4.0

In her biography, Lili wrote about her first disguise, the one of the ballerina, which had been the trigger episode of her entire sexual transformation:

“For as much weird it can sound, I cannot deny how fun that transformation was. I liked the sensation of soft feminine garments on me. I felt completely at ease since the very first moment”.

Lili drawn by Gerda

Public Domain picture

Thanks to the support of the wife, who probably was not aware of the inner torment of the husband, Einar started to dress up in pricey feminine dresses for parties and social events. She would introduce herself as Gerda’s sister or one of her models. Some time later, Wegener confessed her wife that Lili had completely taken over and Einar did not exist any longer.

In the following fifteen years, the couple lived a rather unconventional marriage, with Gerda supporting the nature of her new husband. The hermaphroditic tendencies of Einar as well as the plausible gay orientation of Gerda, pushed them in 1912, to enjoy their nonconformist relation in Paris.

Even though moving from Denmark to France took away a lot of pressure from the couple, Lili soon realised that dressing as a woman did not make her a real woman so she fell into depression. In an era where in France homosexuality was hardly tolerated, the concept of transgenderism was even more unacceptable. Unlike Germany, where the “Passes for Trans” were granted in order to help those people with their social activities.

Lili spent six years of her life in utter despair looking for help, even medical, that no one seemed to be wanting to give her. Instead, it appeared that she was able only to gather humiliation over humiliation. When she got to the point of setting up a date for her suicide, Lili came to know of a German doctor, named Magnus Hirschfed, that had opened in Berlin an institute for sexual sciences, where they studied transexualism too.

Below: the sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld in 1928

Above: picture by Wellcomeimages shared via Wikipedia – licence CC BY-SA 4.0

In 1930, Lili relocated to Germany to undergo a series of surgical operations. The promises of the doctor were that Lili would have obtained, in exchange of great suffering, a female body able to conceive a baby. The medical procedures, completely experimental, are unknown because the archives went destroyed by the Nazis in 1933. What it is known is that Lili had four operations within 2 years: the first one, performed by doctor Hirschfed, was a surgical castration. Doctor Kurt Warnekros, the creator of Lili, operated Einar three times: he performed an ovary transplant and another surgery that we have no knowledge of. After these procedures, Einar obtained the legal right to change his name and gender:

She had definitely become Lili Elbe

She chose Elbe as a new surname as a homage to the river crossing the city where she was reborn.

Claude Lejeune and Lili Elbe

Above: source Wikimedia Commons – Wellcomeimages – Licence CC BY 4.0

Considering that Lili was a full fledged woman, there was no obstacle for the cancellation of the marriage between Einar and Gerda. Lili, who was planning on getting married to Claude Lejeune, was desperate to undergo one last surgery as an uterus transplant as well as the construction of a vagina. The dream of Lili shattered into pieces as well as her life: her organism rejected the foreign organ and the following infection led her to death. Although Lili was aware of not having much chance to survive, in her last letters to her family and friends she wrote how happy she felt in those few yet intense 14 months lived finally as a real woman.

They were worth an entire life

In 2001, the writer David Ebershoff wrote a book about Einar/Lili’s story, “The Danish Girl”(UK link) (US link). In 2015 the film based on the book came out too; below the trailer.

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