The Tragic Life Of Lili Elbe – One Of The First Recipients Of Gender Reassignment Surgery (2023)

A successful painter who lived in Paris, Einar Wegener would undergo groundbreaking gender-affirming surgeries and live as Lili Elbe before dying in 1931.

Einar Wegener didn’t know how unhappy he was in his own skin until he met Lili Elbe.

Lili was carefree and wild, a “thoughtless, flighty, very superficially-minded woman,” who despite her womanly ways, opened Einar’s mind to the life he never knew he was missing.

The Tragic Life Of Lili Elbe – One Of The First Recipients Of Gender Reassignment Surgery (1)

Wikimedia CommonsLili Elbe in the late 1920s.

Einar met Lili shortly after marrying his wife, Gerda, in 1904. Gerda Wegener was a gifted painter and illustrator who drew Art Deco style portraits of women dressed in lavish gowns and interesting ensembles for fashion magazines.

The Death Of Einar Wegener And The Birth Of Lili Elbe

During one of her sessions, a model whom she had intended to draw failed to show up, so a friend of hers, an actress named Anna Larsen, suggested Einar sit for her instead.

Einar initially refused but at the insistence of his wife, at a loss for a model and delighted to dress him in costume, he consented. As he sat and posed for his wife, dressed in a ballerina costume of satin and lace, Larsen remarked at how good he looked.

“We’ll call you Lili,” she said. And Lili Elbe was born.

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For the next 25 years, Einar would no longer feel an individual, like a sole man, but like two people trapped in a single body fighting for dominance. One of them Einar Wegener, a landscape painter and a man devoted to his headstrong wife. The other, Lili Elbe, a carefree woman whose only wish was to bear a child.

Eventually, Einar Wegener would give way to Lili Elbe, the woman he always felt he was meant to be, who would go on to become the first person to undergo the new and experimental gender reassignment surgery and pave the way for a new era of understanding of LGBT rights.

In her autobiography Lili: A Portrait of the First Sex Change, Elbe described the moment that Einar donned the ballerina outfit as the catalyst for her transformation.

“I cannot deny, strange as it may sound, that I enjoyed myself in this disguise,” she wrote. “I liked the feel of soft women’s clothing. I felt very much at home in them from the first moment.”

Whether she knew of her husband’s inner turmoil at the time or was simply enchanted by the idea of playing make-believe, Gerda encouraged Einar to dress as Lili when they went out. They would dress in expensive gowns and furs and attend balls and social events. They would tell people that Lili was Einar’s sister, visiting from out of town, a model whom Gerda was using for her illustrations.

Eventually, those closest to Lili Elbe began to wonder whether or not Lili was an act or not, as she seemed far more comfortable as Lili Elbe than she ever had as Einar Wegener. Soon, Elbe confided in her wife that she felt she’d always been Lili and that Einar was gone.

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Struggling To Become A Woman And A Pioneering Surgery

The Tragic Life Of Lili Elbe – One Of The First Recipients Of Gender Reassignment Surgery (3)

Public DomainA portrait of Lili Elbe, drawn by Gerda Wegener.

Despite the unconventionality of their union, Gerda Wegener remained by Elbe’s side, and over time became her biggest advocate. The couple moved to Paris where Elbe could live openly as a woman with less scrutiny than she had in Denmark. Gerda continued to paint, using Elbe as her model, and introducing her as her friend Lili rather than her husband Einar.

Life in Paris was far better than it ever had been in Denmark, but soon Lili Elbe found that her happiness had run out. Though her clothing depicted a woman, her body did not.

Without an outward appearance that matched the one inside, how could she truly live as a woman? Burdened by feelings that she couldn’t name, Elbe soon slipped into a deep depression.

In the pre-war world in which Lili Elbe lived, there was no concept of transgenderism. There was hardly even a concept of homosexuality, which was the closest thing she could think of to the way she felt, but still not enough.

For almost six years, Elbe lived in her depression, searching for someone who understood her feelings and was willing to help her. She considered suicide, and even choose a date that she would do it.

Then, in the early 1920s, a German doctor named Magnus Hirschfeld opened a clinic known as the German Institute for Sexual Science. At his institute, he claimed to be studying something called “transsexualism.” Finally, there was a word, a concept, for what Lili Elbe felt.

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The Tragic Life Of Lili Elbe – One Of The First Recipients Of Gender Reassignment Surgery (4)

Getty ImagesGerda Wegener

To further her excitement, Magnus had hypothesized a surgery that could permanently transform her body from male to female. Without a second thought, she relocated to Dresden, Germany to have the surgery performed.

Over the next two years, Lili Elbe underwent four major experimental surgeries, some of which were the first of their kind (one had been attempted in part once before). A surgical castration was performed first, followed by the transplantation of a pair of ovaries. A third, unspecified surgery took place shortly thereafter, though its exact purpose was never reported.

The medical procedures, if they were documented, remain unknown in their specifics today, as the library of the Institute for Sexual Research was destroyed by the Nazis in 1933.

The surgeries were revolutionary for their time, not only because it was the first time they’d been done, but because synthetic sex hormones were only in the very early, still mostly theoretical stages of development.

Life Reborn For Lili Elbe

Following the first three surgeries, Lili Elbe was able to change her name legally, and obtain a passport that denoted her sex as female. She chose the name Elbe for her new surname after the river that flowed through the country of her rebirth.

However, because she was now a woman, the King of Denmark voided her marriage to Gerda. Due to Elbe’s new life, Gerda Wegener went her own way, determined to let Elbe live her life on her own. And indeed she did, living unencumbered by her warring personalities and eventually accepting a marriage proposal from an old friend named Claude Lejeuene.

(Video) Surgeon Plans To Transplant A Uterus Into A Trans Woman | Queer News Tonight

The Tragic Life Of Lili Elbe – One Of The First Recipients Of Gender Reassignment Surgery (5)

Wikimedia CommonsLili Elbe and Claude Lejeune, the man she’d hoped to marry.

There was just one thing she needed to do before she could get married and start her life as a wife: her final surgery.

The most experimental and controversial of all, Lili Elbe’s final surgery involved the transplantation of a uterus into her body, along with the construction of an artificial vagina. Though doctors now know that the surgery would never have been successful, Elbe hoped it would allow her to realize her dream of becoming a mother.

Unfortunately, her dreams were cut short.

Following the surgery, she fell ill, as transplant rejection drugs were still 50 years from being perfected. Despite the knowledge that she would never recover from her illness, she penned letters to her family members, describing the happiness she felt after finally becoming the woman she’d always wanted to be.

“That I, Lili, am vital and have a right to life I have proved by living for 14 months,” she wrote in a letter to a friend. “It may be said that 14 months is not much, but they seem to me like a whole and happy human life.”

After learning about Einar Wegener’s transformation into Lili Elbe, read about the Joseph Merrick, the Elephant Man. Then, read about the transgender man who gave birth to a healthy baby.

(Video) A Brief History Of Transgender Surgery By Dr. Sherman Leis


The Tragic Life Of Lili Elbe – One Of The First Recipients Of Gender Reassignment Surgery? ›

She was the first known recipient of a uterus transplant in attempt to achieve pregnancy, but died due to the subsequent complications. The UK and US versions of her semi-autobiographical narrative were published posthumously in 1933 under the title Man into Woman: An Authentic Record of a Change of Sex.

Was Lili Elbe surgery successful? ›

The fourth procedure, in 1931, was to actually transplant a uterus and to finally surgically 'construct' a vaginal canal. Unfortunately, Lili Elbe tragically died just three months after this ambitious surgery as her immune system ultimately 'rejected' the transplanted uterus.

Did Lili Elbe survive her surgery? ›

This, however, resulted in the Danish court invalidating her marriage to Gerda Gottlieb and the two went their separate ways. Sadly, Lili Elbe did not survive her fourth, and final gender reassignment surgery, which involved the transplantation of a uterus into her body.

Who was the first successful gender reassignment surgery? ›

One of the first identifiable recipients of gender confirmation surgery was Rudolph “Dorchen” (Little Dora) Richter, who had an orchiectomy in 1922 by her own request at the Institut für Sexualwissenschaft, founded by Magnus Hirschfeld in Berlin.

When did Lili Elbe undergo surgery? ›

During this period Lili's two identities tried to coexist but this proved untenable. In 1930, she began her medical transition with the first of many gender confirmation surgeries. The first procedure was performed under the supervision of famed sexologist Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld in Berlin.

Was the Danish girl intersex? ›

One of the key elements of Lili's own memoirs is that she was intersex – she relates how doctors found her to possess ovaries as well as testes. The film never so much as hints at her intersexuality.

What is the tragic true story behind the Danish girl? ›

The real Lili Elbe/Einar Wegener (left) endured a series of sex change surgeries. The last operation was to implant a womb (uterus), which ultimately proved fatal. Eddie Redmayne (right) embodies Elbe in The Danish Girl movie.

What did they do to Lili in the Danish Girl? ›

Remember: this is 1930, without modern anesthetics and pain relief. But the surgery works. It's a modern miracle, as Einar completes the physical voyage from man into woman, emerging as Lili, the first person to have male-to-female sex reassignment surgery. If you think of gender as a binary, this is quite a reversal.

Who performed surgery on Lili Elbe? ›

The first surgery, performed in Berlin, was the removal of the testicles, carried out by Erwin Gohrbandt. The remainder of her surgeries were carried out by Kurt Warnekros, a doctor at the Dresden Municipal Women's Clinic.

Did Gerda accept Lili? ›

There, Gerda Wegener is depicted as a woman that would do anything for her husband out of unconditional love. In reality, she was supporting Einar to become Lili just as he was supporting her with her unusual art. Theirs was probably a marriage of convenience.

Who is the best gender reassignment surgeon? ›

  • Dr. Toby Meltzer. Dr. Meltzer is a plastic and reconstructive surgeon who is widely recognized as one of the leading surgeons in the field of Gender Reassignment Surgery. ...
  • Dr. Curtis Crane. Dr. ...
  • Dr. Eric Bensimon. Dr.
Jul 28, 2023

Who is the girl suing for gender reassignment surgery? ›

A 21-year-old woman wants to take the Nebraska Medical Center and four of its doctors to trial. In a lawsuit, Luka Hein alleges malpractice stemming from care she received at 16 years old. According to court documents, Luka had her breasts "surgically amputated as the first step in her gender-affirming care."

What country has the best gender reassignment surgery? ›

Gender Reassignment Surgery Cost in Thailand

Thai SRS surgeons are considered one of the best in their expertise. Thailand offers a wide range of cosmetic and plastic surgery procedures to patients from all over the world, and Thai experts have performed many natural-looking sex Reassignment procedures in Thailand.

Why is gender dysphoria? ›

Gender dysphoria occurs when there is a conflict between the sex you were assigned at birth and the gender with which you identify. This can create significant distress and can make you feel uncomfortable in your body. People with gender dysphoria may want to change the way that they express their gender.

When was gender dysphoria first diagnosed? ›

The psychiatric diagnosis of gender identity disorder (now gender dysphoria) was introduced in DSM-III in 1980. Arlene Istar Lev and Deborah Rudacille have characterized the addition as a political maneuver to re-stigmatize homosexuality. (Homosexuality was declassified as a mental disorder in the DSM-II in 1974.)

Did Gerda Wegener support Lili? ›

By law, Gerda and Lili had to have their marriage annulled before gender reassignment surgery could take place (same-sex partnerships wouldn't become legal in Denmark until 1989), but Gerda supported Lili and funded much of her surgery.

Did Gerda still love Lili? ›

However, Gerda was known for painting incredibly graphic lesbian sex scenes, and when Lili and Gerda moved to Paris in 1912 (the timeline of the movie is way off) it was to allow Lili to live as a woman and Gerda to live as a lesbian. They said their love was more like that between sisters, not spouses.


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