The Real Danish Girl: The Amazing Story of Lili Elbe, the First People to Transition From Male to Female in the Public Eye

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In 2015 the movie The Danish Girl was screened in cinemas all over the world, making known for the first time the story of Lili Elbe, one of the first recipients of sex reassignment surgery. The real story, though, is more complex.

Lili Elbe was born as Einar Magnus Andreas Wegener on 28 December 1882 in Vejle, Denmark. He studied at the Royal Danish Academy of Arts in Copenhagen, where he met Gerda Gottlieb, a talented Art Deco painter who would soon become his wife. They got married in 1904 when Wegener was 22 and Gottlieb was 19, and stayed as a couple until 1930 when Wegener’s transition to a woman began.

They traveled through Italy and France before settling in 1912 in Paris, where Elbe could live more openly as a woman by posing as Gottlieb’s sister. Elbe received the Neuhausens prize in 1907 and exhibited at Kunstnernes Efterårsudstilling (the Artists’ Fall Exhibition), at the Vejle Art Museum in Denmark, where she remains represented, and in the Saloon and Salon d’Automne in Paris.

Einar Wegener, c.1920

Einar Wegener, 1929

Einar Wegener

Einar Wegener’s wife, Gerda Wegener

Gerda and Einar Wegener in front of Gerda’s painting Sur la route d’Anacapri at an exhibition in 1924.

Elbe started dressing in women’s clothes after filling in for Gottlieb’s model, friend and actress Anna Larssen, who was late. Elbe was asked to substitute as Larssen’s legs, wearing wear stockings and heels. Elbe felt surprisingly comfortable in the clothing.

After walking in on the modeling session and witnessing Elbe embrace her new persona, Anna Larssen suggested she take the name “Lili”. It was soon adopted, and Elbe began appearing in public as “Lili”, ultimately identifying as a woman in every respect. Many names were changed in Elbe’s autobiographical novel, Man Into Woman, to conceal their identities, but Anna Larssen is barely obscured by the alternate spelling, “Larsen”. Although Elbe legally changed her name to Lili Ilse Elvenes after transitioning, she later chose the surname “Elbe” to honor the Elbe River that flows through Dresden, Germany, the site of her last surgeries.

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