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11 January 2015

Lili Ilse Elvenes, surgery and womanhood

Part I:  Einar Wegener, artist
Part II: Lili Ilse Elvenes, surgery and womanhood
Part III:  Lili Elbe, media construct

In Spring 1930 Einar was depressed in that Lili seemed to be taking over. He had been to several doctors, one of whom was a radiologist, who had perhaps exposed him to too much x-ray therapy. This had been all to no effect and he was contemplating suicide. A friend arranged an appointment with the Dresden Doctor Kurt Warnekros who was visiting Paris. It was not Lili but Einar who attended, and Warnekros, after an examination, made an appointment for further examination and surgery in Berlin the next week.

Einer alone went to Berlin – in male clothes and with a change of only male clothes in his suitcase. Warnekros arranged blood tests, and for Magnus Hirschfeld to do a psychological examination. This required a visit to Hirschfeld's Institut für Sexualwissenschaft, where he encountered trans women, and it is highly likely that they included Charlotte Charlaque, Toni Ebel and Dörchen Richter, all of whom had had a first operation by this date. Einar did not relate to them:
"He felt intensely uncomfortable. In this large room a group of abnormal persons seemed to be holding a meeting – women who appeared to be dressed up as men, and men of whom one could scarcely believe that they were men. The manner in which they were conversing disgusted him; their movements, their voices, the way in which they were attired, produced a feeling of nausea." (p54).

Later that day, Einar dined with his Berlin friend Neils Hvide who puts a question:
"'As a man you have always seemed to me unquestionably healthy. I have, indeed, seen with my own eyes that you attract women, and that is the clearest proof that you are a genuine fellow.' He paused, and then placed his hand on [Einar]'s shoulder. 'You won't take it amiss if I ask you a frank question? ...Have you at any time been interested in your own kind? You know what I mean'. [Einar] shook his head calmly. 'My word on it, Niels; never in my life. And I can add that those kind of creatures have never shown any interest in me'. 'Good, [Einar]! That's just what I thought'."(p56)
And two paragraphs later Einar adds:
"I will  honestly and plainly confess to you, Niels, that I have always been attracted to women.  And to-day as much as ever. A most banal confession!"
After Einar's orchiectomy at the age of 48, which was probably done by Dr Erwin Gohrbandt, Gerda arrived and purchased women's clothes for Lili, and Wegener was declared to be no longer male and was now entitled to enter Warnekros' Staatliche Frauenklinik (National Women's Clinic) in Dresden, where a second operation was done.

Lili and Gerda then returned to Copenhagen in October 1930, a few weeks before Magnus Hirschfeld left Germany for New York, never to return. King Christian X Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg annulled the marriage of the Wegeners, and Lili was issued papers in her new legal name of Lili Ilse Elvenes, including a passport.

In 1931 Gerda married Fernando Porta, an Italian officer, aviator and diplomat and went to live with him in Morocco.

A further operation on Lili Elvenes to implant ovaries, or maybe an uterus, taken from a 26-year-old woman was done at the Dresden Clinic by Warnekros. However Elvenes died three months later, probably of transplant rejection, but maybe from infection or a heart attack. She was buried in Dresden.

Gerda Porta was still in Morrocco when she heard of Lili’s death. She divorced Porta in 1936, and returned to Denmark in 1938. She held her last exhibition in 1939, but by then was rather out of fashion. She died alone and impoverished in 1940, of a heart attack at age 54, shortly after the German occupation.
Lili in Copenhagen, late 1930


It is not my practice to name essays by the pre-transition name of the person if the post-transition name is on record.   I have made an exception in this case in that the name Lili Elvenes is not generally known, and would probably not be recognized.  Almost all accounts refer to her simply as Lili Elbe, but that was never her real name. 

As already mentioned, the book by Lili Elbe is an unreliable narration.   To take two examples.  It is claimed that the orchiectomy not only changed her voice from a tenor to a soprano, but altered her handwriting to a definitely feminine style.    It only it were so!  Secondly Lili Elvenes appears to be the only person to have had four gonads: two testicles which were removed in the orchiectomy, and two ovaries which had been feminizing his body.  Note that Dr Norman Haire in his introduction to the English version of the biography says that Einar "was sufficiently normal both psychologically and physically to be able to fulfil  his functions as a husband".

Lili claims that Einar's monthly bleedings from the nose and elsewhere which were taken as representative of menstruation.  30 years later Dawn Langley would also claim to menstruate.

When Lili had her final operations to transplant ovaries/uterus she was 49, an age when many women have reached menopause, and the childbearing years are definitely over.

So how does "I can add that those kind of creatures have never shown any interest in me" fit with the repeated reports of men chasing, making passes and wanting to marry Lili.  Are we to presume that 'those kinds of creatures'=gay, while those who made passes at Lili were 'healthy'=straight.   It was an open secret in both Copenhagen and Paris that  Einar=Lili, and at least some of those making passes must have heard the rumours.

On the eve of the operation Einar asserted an 'banal' interest only in women.  And yet shortly afterwards wanted the extra operations so that Lili could marry a man and bear children.   While such a turnaround is not inconceivable, the assertion of it is very much part of Louise Lassen's program of re-assuring her readers that there is nothing queer in the story.

Sandy Stone, raises the naughty question of whether Einar wrang the turkey's neck, and continues: "No wonder feminist theorists have been suspicious.  Hell, I'm suspicious."

Is Neils Hvide, Neils Hoyer?

Was Einar/Lili intersex?  Here is an article by Karin of OII Australia that argues that she was.  However many of the pioneer transsexuals, Betty CowellDawn Langley, etc maintained that they were intersex, with as little proof.  There is also the problem that most intersex persons stay with the gender of rearing.  An intersex person may or may not be trans, and probably is not.

My opinion is that Einar was what is often called a Natural Beauty, a man who is often taken as a woman, even when not trying.  The pre-transition Coccinelle, April Ashley, Rachel Harlow were all natural beauties.  Nobody has really argued that this condition is a type of intersex, nor does it always lead to transition: Jaye Davidson, who was cast as Dil in The Crying Game, was so cast because of his beauty, but afterwards continued his life as a man.

Although I must admit that looking at the male-dressed photographs of Einar, I do not see a Natural Beauty, although we may put this down to the low-definition photography andthe unflattering male clothes and hairstyles of the 1920s.   But if Einar was not a Natural Beauty why did so many men assume that the male-dressed Einar was a woman in trousers?   Maybe in fact they did not, and again this is part of the unreliable narration.  Lili would not be the last trans woman to overestimate both how well she passed, and how attractive she was.

Why was Elvenes accepted for surgery, when so very few were?  Unlike Charlotte Charlaque, Toni Ebel and Dörchen Ritcher she was not living fulltime as female.  It was Einar who showed for the Paris appointment, and again it was Einar who arrived in Berlin, with only male clothing in a suitcase.  Many transsexuals in later times were rejected until they started arriving dressed as the target gender.  Warnekros did not have Hirschfeld’s experience with trans persons; he was a gynecologist and obstetrician and radiologist, and apparently he wanted to be famous.  I suggest that he mistook being a Natural Beauty for being a transsexual.

It is not clear just what operations Lili Elvenes had.  However there is a general assumption that death was caused by a transplant, either of ovaries or of a uterus.   Orchiectomy, penectomy and vaginoplasty were quite safe though experimental.   Unlike Elvenes, Hirschfeld’s patients lived: Charlotte Charlaque was still alive in New York in 1952; Toni Ebel lived until 1961; nothing is known of Dörchen Ritcher after 1933, but the presumption is that she was murdered by Nazis, not that she died as a result of her surgeries.   If Elvenes had settled for the same she also probably would would have lived several years more.

It was not Lili's age, 49 in 1931, that affected her survival chances.  She was in fact one year younger than Toni Ebel.

We do not have enough information to be sure, but it would seem that Carla, Toni and Dörchen were more androphilic than gynephilic, and they would have been early transitioners if the social support had existed at the time.   So was Lili the first gynephilic transsexual to achieve surgery?   It is of course ironic that Charlotte Goiar proclaims Lili, and not Carla, Toni or Dörchen, as the first surgical HBS person.  Incidentally there was an earlier attempt at gynephilic transgender surgery in Berlin, as early as 1921.   I will return to that later in the month.

We should of course mention Dr Eugen Steinach (1861 - 1944) of Vienna.   Steinach proposed that ligation of the vas deferens, while causing atrophy of spermatogenic tissue, would produce additional testosterone. This vasoligation, unlike the similar vasectomy, was done on one testicle only, and most patients (that is men) reported increased vigour and sexual power. This of course was homeogender not transgender surgery.  Some of the men who had this operation were Sigmund Freud, Harry Benjamin and WB Yeats, all of whom were well pleased with the results.  Benjamin became Steinach's US disciple and performed over 500 Steinach operations in New York (unlike Steinach who never did the surgery himself).  Norman Haire, In London, also performed the operation.  Some other doctors, both then and now, say that the results were psychogenic rather than hormonal.

Along with Steinach, Benjamin pioneered an equivalent operation for women, diathermy, applied to one ovary, supplemented by x-ray treatment of the area.   So much for the idea in the book that Einar's visits to a radiologist had damaged his birth ovaries.

Steinach also did apparent ‘sex changes’ on guinea pigs with castrations and gland transplants.   This was the background behind the decision to transplant ovaries in Lili Elvenes (who of course should not have needed new ovaries if she had two of her own all along).   Could Steinach's results be also achieved in humans?  Steinach did report that he implanted a testicle into a man who was castrated, passive and feminine, and that the man became a 'normal' heterosexual. There is however a lack of verifications and replications.


  1. On rereading the above I realise that some readers may take my comment that at least some of the men who chased Lili would have heard the rumours about Einar and were not therefore what Wegener described as 'healthy', as an insinuation that it is gay men who chase trans women. In recent times, this has been demonstrated to be otherwise. My comment was simply intended to deconstruct Wegener's homophobia, and I did not venture into the wider question.

  2. Perhaps those seeing Elbe as a female dressed in male clothing, went by the mannerisms. I have seen a male from the back walking and thought that is def a female until the person turned around.
    I have seen trans dressed as women from the back and the walk/mannerisms say male.
    Just a thought.


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