Born in Denmark in 1886, Einar Wegener must have seemed a typical male of his time. The role that he (or more appropriately, she) would play in medical and social history was something that can only be appreciated through the complex story that I am about to relate Despite a tendency towards female dress and a decidedly effeminate appearance, Einar did many of the typical things that males did, including getting married at the age of 22. Einar had met his wife Gerda while they were both art students and they both embraced the artistic life with enthusiasm Both Einar and Gerda were talented artists whose paintings continue to be shown in museums across Europe. Gerda in particular became well-known for her paintings of beautiful women dressed in glamorous styles (she is now considered to have been one of the great Art Deco artists of the period). It was not until much later that it was discovered that her chief model was none other than her husband Einar, who relished the lovely clothes that Gerda had him wear while posing.
Einar so relished the feeling of dressing as a woman that he invented a whole new identity, "Lili Elbe" (often introduced as Gerda's sister) who was frequently seen during Carnival in Paris in the years that followed. It was even said that Lili turned down a marriage proposal from one of her many admirers (a nobleman no less). What only Einar's closest friends knew was that it was not simply a pretense for him. Einar felt, deep down, that Lili was what he truly was inside. He consulted medical experts of the time, two of whom diagnosed him as homosexual while a third diagnosed him as having rudimentary female sex organs.
And so, in 1930...
Einar went to Germany to seek the help of the legendary sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld to do what had never been done before. He would truly become Lili through a series of experimental operations. Conducted at the Dresden Municipal Women's Clinic, Einar's male genitalia were removed and other, more radical operations were attempted. Not only would Lili be an anatomical woman, but ovaries and a uterus would be transplanted to enable her to bear children (the ovaries were quickly removed due to transplant rejection and other medical complications).
The resulting furor when this reached the media was all that could be expected. Einar's marriage was invalidated by the King of Denmark himself (Gerda later went on to marry an old friend). Lili received a marriage proposal as well. What might have become of her is something that we will never know: she died in 1931 due to surgical complications from the attempt at a uterus transplant She is buried in Dresden, Germany under her new name. While some have speculated that Lili faked her death to live her new life anonymously, there is no real evidence to support this. Before her death, Lili wrote her autobiography which was published in 1933 under the title Man Into Woman.
It is now believed that Einar/Lili was intersexual with more feminine than masculine features although a precise diagnosis can not be made in this case. She certainly made a convincing female, even before the operations that ended her life. Despite the tragic failure in this case, Lili Elbe was a trailblazer and many others would follow her example.