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Art

Lili Elbe (1886-1931)

Lili Elbe
 

Lili was a Danish painter of some renown and lived from 1886-1931. She should be recognised as the very first person to undergo what could be termed a form of recognisable gender confirmation surgery. Her artistic education was received at the Copenhagen School of Art and she worked as both an illustrator and as a landscape painter.

She seems to have 'come out' in the early nineteen twenties and was admired enough to receive offers of marriage (although she already had a female partner, a fellow artist). She appears to have kept the secret very much between herself and her closest friends and relatives in the early stages of her development.

It was in 1930 that she went to Germany in the hope of receiving surgery to correct the physical anomalies from which she suffered.

The surgery was still very much at the experimental stage and took place in a mind boggling (at least to the modern post operative trans person)

five stages over almost two years and was performed under the supervision of the eminent German sexual psychiatrist, Dr Magnus Hirschfeld. Due to a misunderstanding of the nature of transplant surgery, the second operation transplanted ovaries which created rejection problems.

Lili became the victim of sensational newspaper reporting and her marriage to her existing partner was declared null and void (some present day trans people will understand these situations only too well). Lili did, however, manage to obtain a legal change of name and passport.Like some other trans people, Lili's fondest wish was to be able to be able to carry children and this, sadly, led to her death in 1931 from complications bought on by a fifth operation, seemingly an attempt to transplant a womb.Lili Elbe's is in some ways a sad story, but she was brave enough to be a pioneer of gender confirmation surgery and also of some modern transplant surgery.

Lili's story was written about in ELH Jacobson's 'Man into Woman' (written under the pseudonym of Niels Hoyer in 1933) and has also been used more recently as the basis of a novel in David Ebershoff's 'The Danish Girl' (published in 2001).

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