Lili Elbe ‘The Danish Girl’

Lili Elbe, also known as Einar Wegener, was a Danish transgender woman who was one of the first recipients of sex reassignment surgery.

Einar married Gerda Gottlieb in 1904 after meeting during their time at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, Copenhagen. Einar and Gerda proceeded to live together as successful professional painters.

Einar’s duel personality was revealed after he was asked to wear a woman’s stockings and heels to substitute the legs the couple’s friend Anna Larssen, the original model for the painting. Surprisingly, after feeling embarrassed at first, Einar realised he felt perfectly comfortable wearing the female clothing and proceeded to continue dressing as a woman at certain intervals, embracing the nickname ‘Lili’ which Anna had given Einar’s female identity. Einar naturally had a petite figure and feminine facial features which allowed her to pass for a young woman without fear of being caught – the only obstacle would be if someone were to recognise Lili as Einar. To an extent this was covered by introducing Lili as Einar’s sister.

Einar was certain that he was a woman trapped within a man’s body. Einar desperately wanted to have this medically corrected, to the extent that he chose the date he wished to commit suicide (1st May 1930) if this were not possible. The process of finding an understanding doctor with safe practices was tough for the couple, as many labelled Einar as schizophrenic, putting his split personalities down to insanity – the correct contextual term for this time period. Radiation therapy would have been used to ‘treat’ this case.

Surgeons had previously conducted experiments on gender with animals, such as rats, to examine the development of female/male sexual characteristics after surgery was carried out. Einar proceeded to have a succession of surgeries at Dresden Municipal Women’s Clinic, beginning with a castration procedure, followed by a penectomy (a transplant of ovarian tissue) and the insertion of a cannula. This allowed Lili to have her name and gender legally changed and was allocated of a new passport. In 1930, Einar and Gerda’s marriage was annulled as Lili wanted to pursue romance as a new heterosexual woman, and dreamt about the prospect of carrying her own child.

Tragically, Lili’s final operation resulted in her death in September 1931 after a failed womb transplant. There are suggestions that the operations actually discovered an shrunken pair of ovaries existing in Lili’s body. The cost of Lili’s operations was around 5000 kroner, about £12,000 today. This was raised by selling paintings.

In 1913, Lili’s true identity was exposed to the public as being Einar, Gerda’s husband. In 2000 David Ebershoff wrote ‘The Danish Girl’, creating a fictional account of Einar’s transformation into becoming Lili.


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