Lili Elbe

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Lili Elbe
Lili Elbe 1926.jpg
Lili Elbe in 1926
Einar Magnus Andreas Wegener

(1882-12-28)28 December 1882
Vejle, Denmark
Died13 September 1931(1931-09-13) (aged 48)
Dresden, Germany
Other namesLili Ilse Elvenes
(legal name)
Gerda Wegener
(m. 1904; annul.  1930)

Lili Ilse Elvenes (28 December 1882 – 13 September 1931), better known as Lili Elbe, was a Danish transgender woman and among the early recipients of sex reassignment surgery. [1] [2]


Elbe was born Einar Magnus Andreas Wegener, [3] and was a successful painter under that name.

After successfully transitioning in 1930, she changed her legal name to Lili Ilse Elvenes and stopped painting altogether. [4] The name "Lili" was suggested by a friend, actress Anna Larssen. Later in her life, Lili chose the surname "Elbe", inspired by the Elbe River in Dresden. [5] She died from complications involving a uterus transplant. [6] [7] [8] Her autobiography Man into Woman was published posthumously in 1933. [9]

Early life

It is generally believed that Elbe was born in 1882, in Vejle, Denmark. Her year of birth is sometimes stated as 1886, which appears to be from a book about her which has some facts changed to protect the identities of the persons involved. Facts about the life of Elbe's wife Gerda Gottlieb suggest that the 1882 date is correct because they married while at college in 1904, when she would have been just eighteen if the 1886 date were correct. [10] [11]

It is speculated that Elbe was intersex, [12] [13] [14] although that has been disputed. [15] Some reports indicate that she already had rudimentary ovaries in her abdomen and she may have had Klinefelter syndrome. [2] [6]

Marriage and modeling

Gerda Gottlieb, 1904 Gerda Wegener.jpg
Gerda Gottlieb, 1904
Lili Elbe c. 1920 Lili Elbe c1920.jpg
Lili Elbe c. 1920
Poplars along Hobro Fjord, 1908 - an example of Lili Elbe's work as a landscape painter Lili Elbe - Poplerne langs Hobro Fjord - 1908.png
Poplars along Hobro Fjord, 1908 - an example of Lili Elbe's work as a landscape painter

Elbe met Gerda Gottlieb while they were students at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen, [16] and they married in 1904 when Gottlieb was 19 and Elbe was 22. [17]

They worked as illustrators, with Elbe specialising in landscape paintings while Gottlieb illustrated books and fashion magazines.

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. [18] 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. [19]

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 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. [20] Possibly due to confusion with the film, "The Danish Girl", some mistakenly believe that it was actress Ulla Poulsen who was Gottlieb's absentee model and gave Elbe the name "Lili". However, it was actually friend and actress Anna Larssen. 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. [21] [5] [22]

By the 1920s, Elbe regularly presented as a woman named Lili, attending various festivities and entertaining guests in her house. She liked to disappear into the throngs of revelers during the Carnival in Paris, arrayed in fashions she had garnered modeling for her wife Gerda. Over time, Gottlieb became famous for her paintings of beautiful women with haunting, almond-shaped eyes, dressed in chic apparel. The model who inspired Gottlieb's depictions of petites femmes fatales was in fact Elbe. [23] [24]

Surgeries and dissolution of marriage

Lili Elbe by Gerda Gottlieb Lili Elbe by Gerda Wegener.jpg
Lili Elbe by Gerda Gottlieb

In 1930, Elbe went to Germany for sex reassignment surgery, which was highly experimental at the time. A series of four operations were carried out over a period of two years. [24] The first surgery, removal of the testicles, was performed by Dr. Ludwig Levy-Lenz, under the supervision of sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld in Berlin. [24] The rest of Elbe's surgeries were carried out by Kurt Warnekros, a doctor at the Dresden Municipal Women's Clinic. [25] The second operation was to implant an ovary onto her abdominal musculature, the third to remove the penis and the scrotum, [26] and the fourth to transplant a uterus and construct a vaginal canal. [6] [27] [28]

Lili Elbe by Gerda Gottlieb Sziv kiralyno - Lili porteja.jpg
Lili Elbe by Gerda Gottlieb

At the time of Elbe's last surgery, her case was already a sensation in Danish and German newspapers. A Danish court invalidated the couple's marriage in October 1930, [29] and Elbe managed to have her sex and name legally changed, including receiving a passport as Lili Ilse Elvenes. She stopped painting after her transition. [4] [2] After the annulment of the marriage, Elbe returned to Dresden for her fourth surgery.

In 1931, Elbe became the second transgender woman to undergo a vaginoplasty surgery, a few weeks after Dr. Erwin Gohrbandt performed the experimental procedure on Dora Richter. [30] Elbe's castration and penectomy had been performed by Dr. Ludwig Levy-Lenz (1889–1966) the previous year. These preliminary surgeries have sometimes caused confusion over the date of her reassignment surgery. [30] The Gohrbandt technique deliberately left remnants of the scrotum intact, with a view to modifying these into labia at a later date, but for reasons that are unclear, Levy-Lenz did not perform this further procedure himself. Instead, Elvenes' case was taken over by Dr. Kurt Warnekros (1882–1949), at the Dresden Women's Clinic. [30]

The May 1933 book-burning at the Institute for Sexual Research by Nazi students, the February 1945 obliteration of the Dresden Women's Clinic and its records in Allied bombing raids, and the myth-making process itself have left gaps and inconsistencies in the Lili Elbe narrative that may never be resolved. [30]


Lili Elbe, 1930 Lili Elbe 1930.jpg
Lili Elbe, 1930

Elbe began a relationship with French art dealer Claude Lejeune, whom she wanted to marry and with whom she wanted to have children. She was looking forward to her final surgery involving a uterus transplant and construction of a vagina. [7] [8] [27]

These two procedures performed in June 1931 were new and experimental at that time. [6] Her immune system rejected the transplanted uterus, and the operation and a subsequent surgical revision caused infection, which, in that pre-antibiotic age, led to Elbe's death from cardiac arrest on 13 September 1931, three months after the surgery. [30] [6] [7] [8] [27] [31]

Elbe was buried in Trinitatisfriedhof  [ de ] (Trinity Cemetery) in Dresden. The grave was levelled in the 1960s. In April 2016, a new tombstone was inaugurated, financed by Focus Features, the production company of The Danish Girl . [32] [33] The tombstone does not record the date of Elbe's birth, just her name and places of birth and death.

The LGBT film festival MIX Copenhagen gives four "Lili" awards named after Elbe. [34]

In 2000, David Ebershoff wrote The Danish Girl , a fictionalised account of Elbe's life. [35] It was an international bestseller and was translated into a dozen languages. In 2015, it was made into a film, also called The Danish Girl, produced by Gail Mutrux and Neil LaBute and starring Eddie Redmayne as Elbe. The film was well received at the Venice Film Festival in September 2015, [36] although it has been criticised for its casting of an English cisgender man to play a Danish transgender woman. [37] Both the novel and the film omitted topics including Gottlieb's sexuality, which is evidenced by the subjects in her erotic drawings, [38] and the disintegration of Gottlieb and Elbe's relationship after their annulment. [39]

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  1. Hirschfeld, Magnus. Chirurgische Eingriffe bei Anomalien des Sexuallebens: Therapie der Gegenwart, pp. 67, 451–455
  2. 1 2 3 Koymasky, Matt & Andrej (17 May 2003). "Famous GLTB: Lili Elbe". Archived from the original on 10 October 2007. Retrieved 2 February 2016. Based on Brown, Kay (1997); Aldrich R. & Wotherspoon G., Who's Who in Gay and Lesbian History, from Antiquity to WWII, Routledge, London, 2001. [ better source needed ]
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  4. 1 2 Meyer 2015 , pp.  311–314
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  28. According to some accounts, Elbe was operated on an additional time after the ovarian implant, to alleviate severe abdominal pain possibly caused by rejection; Koymasky (2003).
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Further reading