Not many had heard of Lili Elbe before the release of ‘The Danish Girl’, both as a novel and movie. She owns her place in history and, in trusting her physical transition to the rudimentary surgical techniques of the early 20th Century, gave her life to live in the body she was always meant to live in.
As with most people in the early 20th century, Lili married in to a cisgender marriage with Gerda Gottlieb and they both worked as successful artists and illustrators. Lili was first able to express her true self when Gerda asked her to pose in stockings and heals to finish an art piece.
Moving to Paris so they could both live true to themselves, Lili as a woman and Gerda as a lesbian, throughout the 1920s Lili regularly presented as a woman particularly when entertaining guests in her house.
In 1930, Lili traveled to Germany to undergo experimental gender reassignment surgery which, at the time, was a process of multiple surgeries aiming to transplant female reproductive organs in to the person undergoing the reassignment.
At the time of Lili’s last surgery, her case was already a media sensation in central Europe. Later in the Autumn of 1930, Lili and Gerda’s marriage was invalidated in their home nation of Denmark and Lili was legally able to change her gender and name – including receiving a passport in her new name.
Lili was excited to undergo her fourth surgery in Germany to transplant a uterus and construct a vagina, as she had begun a relationship with a French art dealer and sincerely hoped to have children with him. Unfortunately Lili died of cardiac arrest caused by an infection due to her immune system rejecting the transplant and her dream of becoming a mother was never realized.
Why is Lili’s story so relevant to today? It is a struggle heard time and time again by our brothers and sisters born in to the wrong body. Self-identification is so much more than physicality but in appearing to the world on the outside as you feel on the inside instills a sense of completeness that so many cisgender people take for granted and can never understand.
Lili’s story is one of inspiration. A story not of politics and endless battles for Trans Rights across the world, but one of acceptance of a loving wife and companion, one of doctors with the desire to further the understanding of transgender people and what they could do to help, and one of staying true to yourself – wherever you fit in this turbulent world.
Lili has a place in history already but we now are on the cusp of making great changes in Trans Rights and marking our own place in history – the opportunity can not be missed.
The LGBTQ Heritage Team