Lili Elbe (1882 - 1931) was one of the first identifiable[1] recipient of male to female sex reassignment surgery.[2] She was born in Denmark and was identified as male at the time of her birth. Born as Einar Mogens Wegener, she identified as male for most of her life and was a successful artist with that name. After the surgeries, however, she took the name Lili (some sources state Lily) Elbe.

Elbe's birth year is sometimes referred to as 1886. This appears to be from the book about her, which has some facts changed to protect identities. Factual references to Gerda's life indicate that the 1882 date is correct as they clearly got married while at college in 1904[3].

Einar and Gerda

Einar met Gerda Gottlieb at the Copenhagen Art School (Kunstakademiet)[4] and they married in 1904[5], when Einar was 22 and Gerda 19[3]. He and Gerda worked as illustrators, with Einar specialising in landscape paintings while Gerda illustrated books and fashion magazines. Apparently, Einar noticed a propensity towards female dress whilst modelling for Gerda.[6].

They both travelled through Italy and France, eventually settling in Paris in 1912, where Einar could live openly as an apparent woman and Gerda could be actively lesbian.[1] Einar Wegener received Neuhausens prize in 1907 and exhibited at Kunstnernes Efteraarsudstilling (the Artists Fall Exhibition), Vejle Art Museum and in the Saloon and Salon d'Automme in Paris. He is represented at Vejle Art Museum in Denmark.[6].


Lili Elbe was "born" one day while filling in for Gerda's absentee model; Gerda asked Einar to wear stockings and heels so that she could substitute Einar's legs for those of her model. Einar felt surprisingly comfortable in the get-up.[6] Over time, Gerda became famous for her paintings of beautiful women with haunting almond-shaped eyes dressed in chic fashions. However, around 1913 it was discovered that Gerda's women were in fact Einar himself. No one had suspected before then that the petite femmes fatales of Gerda's work could have been modeled on anyone other than a woman, but Einar had acted as Gerda's chief model for years. [3]

After that, in the 1920s and 1930s Wegener regularly dressed as a woman, attending various festivities and entertained guests in her house as Lili Elbe. One of the things "Lili" liked to do was to disappear, wearing her modeling fashions into the streets of Paris in the throngs of revelers during the Carnival [interpretation of quote]. [7]. She was apparently very well accepted as a woman and even received a request for marriage many years before her surgical transition.[8]. Only her closest friends knew that she was transsexual and to others, Elbe was introduced by Gerda as Einar's cousin[2].


In 1930 Elbe went to Germany for surgery, which was only in an experimental state at the time. A series of five operations were carried out over a period of two years.[8]

The first surgery, removal of the testicles (Orchiectomy), was made under the supervision of sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld in Berlin.[8].

The rest of Elbe's surgeries were carried out by Dr. Warnekros in the Dresden Municipal Women's Clinic. The second operation was to remove the penis, and transplant ovaries, which were taken from a 26-year-old woman. These were soon removed in a third and fourth operation, due to rejection and other serious complications.[9] The fifth operation was to transplant a uterus and was intended to allow Elbe, then nearing the age of 50, to become a mother[10][11].

Gender Identity

It is believed that Elbe was probably intersexual; she looked more female than male, and may have had Klinefelter's Syndrome or some other SRY gene transfer condition.[citation needed] As most of the known intersex conditions were not formally identified until after Lili's death, it is difficult to be exact. She certainly had feminine body and facial features that allowed her to pass as a young woman better than she passed as a man. When presenting in public as a man she was often taken for a young woman masquerading as a man in trousers.[11]

A Dresden doctor claimed to have noticed rudimentary ovaries and pre-operative blood tests indicated large amounts of female hormones at the expense of the male ones. During surgery, evidence of both male and female organs were found within her body.[10]

Legal Identity

At the time of Elbe's surgery her case was already a sensation in newspapers of Denmark and Germany. The King of Denmark invalidated the Wegeners' marriage in October 1930, and Einar managed to get his sex and name legally changed, including receiving a passport as Lili Elbe. She also stopped painting believing it to be something that only Einar did.

Gerda Wegener went on to marry an Italian military officer, aviator, and diplomat, Major Fernando "Nando" Porta, and move to Morocco, where she would learn of the death of Elbe, whom she described to a friend as "my poor little Lily [sic]." (By contrast, she described her second husband as "a magnificent, splendid and peerless hunk of man".)[2] After living for several years in Marrakech and Casablanca, the Portas divorced, and Gerda returned to Denmark, where she died in 1940.

After the dissolution of the Wegeners' marriage, Elbe accepted a proposal from another unknown man, which she intended to follow up as soon as she would be able to "become a mother"[10].


Lili Elbe died in 1931, due to complications three months after her fifth and last operation. This operation was designed to "allow her to be a mother," and entailed the transplantation of a uterus.[12] Her cause of death is believed to have been transplant rejection. She is buried in Dresden, Germany.

In popular culture

The Danish Girl, (ISBN 0140298487) David Ebershoff's 2001 novel about Lili Elbe was an international bestseller and was translated into a dozen languages. The novel is being developed for the screen by producers Gail Mutrux and Neil LaBute. In music, The Stripper Project releases "Filthy Wonderful" in 2008 was inspired by the story of Lili Elbe.


Further reading

  • Man into Woman, a book about the life of Lili Elbe (edited by Ernst Ludwig Hathorn Jacobson using the pseudonym Niels Hoyer) was published in 1933. The book also uses pseudonyms for her friends. ISBN 0954707206
  • Schnittmuster des Geschlechts. Transvestitismus und Transsexualität in der frühen Sexualwissenschaft by Dr. Rainer Herrn (2005), pp. 204-211. ISBN 3-89806-463-8. German study containing a detailed account of the operations of Lili Elbe, their preparations and the role of Magnus Hirschfeld.

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