December 28th 1882: Lili Elbe born

On this day in 1882, Danish painter Lili Elbe was born in Vejle, Denmark. Born as Einar Wegener, Elbe was assigned the male gender at birth. Elbe was a talented artist, and studied at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen. While studying there, she met Gerda Gottlieb, and the two married in 1904. Both talented artists, Gottlieb often had her husband sit in for her fashion paintings dressed in women’s clothing. These experiences proved transformative, and Elbe began to envision living as the woman she always knew she was. The couple traveled throughout Europe, and, upon settling in Paris, Elbe began to live publicly as a woman. In the 1920s, she learned about the possibility of permanent sex reassignment surgery, which was being offered at a clinic in Berlin. In the early 1930s, Elbe began the operations, becoming one of the first recipients of sex reassignment surgery. Some reports from the operations, and Elbe’s diaries, indicate that she may have been intersex. Upon completion of the surgery, Elbe was able to legally change her name and gender. However, this legal recognition meant that her marriage to Gottlieb was ruled null and void, and the pair divorced amicably. Despite completing the transition, Elbe continued to suffer from depression and fear of rejection, and she stopped painting entirely. Elbe soon became engaged to an art dealer, and underwent a final surgery to transplant a uterus and construct a vagina, hoping she would be able to have children. However, in September 1931, Lili Elbe died from complications as a result of the surgery, just before her 50th birthday. Lili Elbe’s life is an inspirational story of an early transgender pioneer, and was widely circulated through the 1933 book Man Into Woman. Interest in Elbe has increased in recent years due to the publication of the novel The Danish Girl in 2000, which was made into a feature film by the same name in 2015.