Gender reassignment surgery is not uncommon in the 21st century, and there are many doctors and clinics around the world that specialize in helping trans men and women become who they want to be.
However, not only was this type of surgery almost unheard of in the 1920s, but the idea of transsexualism was hardly on the radar of the medical profession, never mind the rest of the world.
When Einar Wegener, a well-known Danish painter, started his transition to become Lili Elbe around this time, he was labelled insane and a freak of nature. But this didn’t stop him and gradually, with the help of his understanding wife, Gerda, also a painter, he achieved his dreams.
Although Einar had been conflicted all his life about his identity, he buried these thoughts deep inside. His feelings were awakened accidentally and unexpectedly when Gerda’s model didn’t arrive for a sitting one day. She asked Einar to fill in for her by wearing the stockings and posing with the dress for the painting. And Lili was born.
Einar realized he felt comfortable wearing women’s clothing and he slowly came to terms with the fact that he felt more like Lili and less like Einar as time passed. Gerda continued to use Lili as a model for her paintings, and Lili started going out more and more in public. Eventually, Einar disappeared completely in all ways except one.
About a decade later, Lili and Gerda met an inspirational, pioneering doctor from Dresden, Germany, who believed he could help Lili become a woman in every respect. In 1930, Lili went through gender reassignment surgery becoming the second person to do so. (The first was Dora Richter, born Rudolph Richter, who began her surgical transition with castration in 1922 and had her penis removed in 1931.)
Lili’s first surgery was a success and she felt happy and fulfilled for the first time in her life. However, the surgery she went through about a year or so later was not as successful, and tragically, Lili died soon after on 13 September 1931 (aged 48) in Dresden.
The Danish Girl, a fictional novel written by David Ebershoff, is loosely inspired by the lives of Lili and Gerda. The novel explores how their marriage and work evolve as they move towards Lili's groundbreaking journey as a transgender pioneer. Their touching and beautiful story was brought to the screen in 2015 with Eddie Redmayne as Einar/Lili and Alicia Vikander as Gerda.
Although the film was criticized for not portraying historical events accurately, Redmayne’s and Vikander's performances were praised highly and both were nominated for all the major acting awards. The film was nominated for four Academy Awards, including, Best Film, Best Actor for Redmayne and Best Supporting Actress for Vikander, which she won.
The Danish Girl may not have been historically accurate, but it most certainly is a beautiful portrayal of Lili’s and Gerda’s lives together, and it’s definitely worth watching. Of course, if you want to know the real story, plenty has been written about Lily and Gerda, which can be found easily on the Internet.