Many people know Tom Hooper’s film The Danish Girl is based off of a true story, but little know that it was the turning point in transgender awareness. The film presents the story of Einar Wegener, played by Eddie Redmayne, a Danish artist married to a woman named Gerda Wegener and the first person to undergo sex reassignment surgery. Einar’s transition began the day his wife (also an artist)’s life model failed to show up for her to paint, and he was forced into stepping in for her. He put on a dress and high heels, and at once he felt at home. In his diary he wrote, “I cannot deny, strange as it may sound, that I enjoyed myself in this disguise. I liked the feel of soft women’s clothing.” That was the day he realized who he really was- a woman. Publically, he was Einar Wegener, a male artist, but privately, she was Lili Elbe, a thoughtless and superficially minded woman. Her first name, was chosen by a close friend of Gerdas, and Elbe was chosen to signify the river that flows through the city of her “rebirth”. He began dressing as Lili more often, and even accompanied Gerda to balls, their explanation for her close resemblance to Einar being that it was Einar’s sister. Einar and Gerda’s marriage became quite unconventional, as she was Lili’s greatest supporter. She would watch as Lili flirted with men at the balls, seeing the experience as nothing more than a game. There is also a belief that Gerda herself was gay, and both were unhappy in their marriage together. Either way, when Gerda realized the seriousness of Einar’s intents, her support remained strong. She even began painting Einar as Lili, and her career as an artist began to take off.
Einar became depressed as the years passed, and both him and Gerda attempted to reach out to doctors for help. Most of the doctors diagnosed him as gay, hysterical, or completely insane. No one had seen something like this before, so to them it was not possibly true. His depression grew worse, and with no hope of a solution he began considering suicide. On May 1, 1930, he was to kill himself. As he explains in his diary, “Lili has known this for a long time. That’s how matters stand. And consequently she rebels more vigorously every day.”
Lili remained suppressed by her male body, and believed she could never fully become herself, until she met Magnus Hirschfeld, a German physician who founded the first gay rights organization. Hirschfeld told Lili about a surgery that had never been conducted before but would give her the female body she desired. In 1930 she went to Germany to start a series of operations that would be carried out over a period of two years. As the procedures began, many of Lili’s old friends refused to see her, saying that she had “murdered Einar”. Gerda however remained supportive throughout the change, despite their marriage dissolving because of it. Lili began seeing a French art dealer named Claude Lejeune, and was planning to marry and have children with him after her last surgery. However by September 1931, Lili was dead, caused by the rejection of the uterus implanted in her during the last surgery. Although the surgery was unsuccessful, Lili became one of the most well known people in the transgender community, and brought both awareness to the matter and inspired many other transgendered people to accept themselves.
One of the last things Lili wrote before her death was, “That I, Lili, am vital and have a right to life I have proved by living for 14 months. It may be said that 14 months is not much, but they seem to me like a whole and happy human life.”