The overwhelmingly positive reception Bruce/Caitlyn Jenner has gotten from her Vanity Fair photo spread has reminded me of Christine Jorgensen and the morbid curiosity which greeted her after her sex change operation.
Christine was born George Jorgensen in 1926 to a Danish-American carpenter and his wife in the Bronx. He was drafted into the US Army in 1945, attended a few schools, and felt increasingly uncomfortable with his male identity. In 1951, in Copenhagen, Jorgensen had an orchiectomy (had her testicles removed). In 1952, also in Copenhagen, Jorgensen had a penectomy (which is what it sounds like). And she later had a vaginoplasty in the US.
When the NY Daily News obtained a three page letter Christine had written her parents, and wrote a front page article on her in 1952, she became an instant celebrity. She later capitalized on this with a career as a singer and a nightclub act.
Here's George Jorgensen, circa 1951:
And here are two pictures of Christine in her later incarnation:
I have to admit, if I didn't know who she was, I'd have found her attractive, at least at first glance. And even if I didn't know who Caitlyn used to be, I would never have found her attractive.
The difference between the receptions each got was striking. All of the public pronouncements about Jenner have been supportive, even if much of the private commentary has not. Even President Obama weighed in by saying that Jenner showed "tremendous courage" in sharing her story.
Back in 1952, nobody felt obliged to be so supportive to Jorgensen. She was universally viewed as something sick, twisted, and unhealthy, an object of horrified fascination. She immediately became a cautionary tale, a walking punchline.
Are we a better society for welcoming -- or at least pretending to welcome -- Jenner with open arms?
I don't know.
One thing I do know: it took a lot more courage to be Christine Jorgensen than it took to be Caitlyn Jenner.