Lili & Gerda

Alma Cork looks back on two unconventional figures in transgender history – Lili Elbe and Gerda Wegener

Feature by Alma Cork | 12 Jan 2009

Films about trans people are nothing new: we've had the saccharine simplicity of Transamerica, the downright patronisingly titled Normal, and the brutal Boys Don't Cry. We've even had trans people on television, from the troubles of Coronation Street's Hayley Cropper to the car-crash existence of Ugly Betty's Alexis Meade. Why, then, should it be newsworthy that another indie company is making a film about a trans person?

The film in question is based on a book called The Danish Girl, David Ebershoff's fictionalised account of the life of Lili Elbe. Born Einar Wegener, a Danish painter in the early part of the 20th century, Lili Elbe was the first known person to undergo gender reassignment operations. The film, which is still in pre-production, will star Nicole Kidman as Wegener/Elbe, and Charlize Theron as her wife Gerda Wegener, another Danish painter. What makes this film even more interesting, and has me hoping that they retain its source, is the original story behind Gerda, Einar and Lili, which, considering it took place between 1913 and 1930, is one of the most fantastic and downright radical stories of the last century.

Gerda and Einar met in art school and married in 1904. Einar had a propensity for landscape pictures, while Gerda preferred fashion magazine illustrations that became immensely popular at the time. Her oval watercolour pictures were sometimes erotic, displaying women in a variety of lesbian poses. The biggest shock, though, was that the female models in her pictures were often none other than her husband, Einar.

The story goes that one day Gerda was planning to paint a portrait of a popular Copenhagen actress. The actress, however, couldn't make her appointment, so Gerda asked Einar to pose for her instead. It started as a game, but Einar's costume proved so successful that, over time, Gerda asked him to pose more and more often. Einar began to develop his alter ego, Lili, and would on occasion go to parties as her with Gerda. This was no big shock to Gerda, who in fact encouraged it, and eventually the pair moved to the more liberal Paris, where Gerda could further her art career and, according to some sources, be more actively lesbian.

According to Lili Elbe's biography, Man Into Woman (edited by Niels Hoyer, a pseudonymous friend of the Wegeners), for a few years Einar only dressed as Lili when Gerda was desperate for a model. Eventually, though, Lili was coaxed back out, and she was an incredible hit on the bourgeois Parisian scene, with its decadence, art, and sex. More people became initiated into the Wegeners’ secret, and Lili would wander through the crowds and parties of Paris. Slowly, Einar began to feel himself dying, and he realised that Lili was taking him over.

Eventually, after seeing several doctors for malaise, none of whom took him seriously (and one radiologist nearly killed him), he met Dr Warnekros of the Dresden Municipal Women's Clinic, who, according to the biography, immediately understood Einar’s problem. This led to Einar travelling to Germany for a series of operations that would, in his mind, fully transform him into Lili.

The first operation involved an orchidectomy, performed by Magnus Hirschfeld, a German-Jewish physician, sex researcher, and gay rights activist. Then Lili underwent further operations by Dr Warnekros, including an ovary transplant that was eventually rejected. The operations were totally experimental at the time, and Gerda supported Lili through them with letters and visits. Lili was also found to have rudimentary ovaries herself, confirming that she was actually intersex.

After the initial operations Lili returned to Copenhagen and faced a period of uncertainty in herself. She considered herself to be a completely different person from Einar, and struggled with the notion that she was a brand new person, without any past. With Lili's blessing, Gerda petitioned the King of Denmark to dissolve their marriage. Then, again with Lili's blessing, as she believed she had held Gerda back for so long, Gerda married Major Fernando Porta, an Italian officer, aviator, and diplomat. A lurid article was published about Lili in the local press, which led her to flee Copenhagen for her family home. However, later on a friend wrote a far more favourable article, which made Lili feel like she was being treated as a heroine, rather than an outcast, and she became revitalised. Eventually Lili recontacted the Dresden clinic and requested that one final operation be performed: the transplantation of a womb. Sadly, this operation proved fatal, and she died two days later in 1931.

Even though Gerda remarried, she remained close to Lili. The accounts suggest that they were more like sisters than spouses or lovers. Some even say that she never recovered from Lili's death. In 1936 she divorced Porta and returned to Denmark. Her art had slowly drifted out of fashion and, eventually, she died alone and destitute in 1940.

It was tragic that a painter like Gerda, who was so industrious and fashionable in the early twentieth century, eventually drifted into obscurity. However, in 1984 her erotic watercolours, the most famous of which are lesbian in content and were often posed for by Lili, were discovered in a Copenhagen junkshop. While her art hasn't received the revival it likely deserves, at least it's now possible to find prints of her work.

The Danish Girl does amend the story somewhat, and it remains to be seen how true the eventual film will be to the real story. Also, while both Kidman and Theron have experience of playing lesbian characters, it is slightly disappointing that an actual trans or intersex person was not cast as Einar/Lili. Still, I'm looking forward to this adaptation, purely because of the fascinating story, the hot leads, and the possibility that it might open a resurgence of interest in the sublime erotic style of Gerda Wegener.