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Lili Elbe

Lili Elbe
Lili Elbe in 1926
Born Einar Magnus Andreas Wegener
(1882-12-28)28 December 1882
Vejle, Denmark
Died 13 September 1931(1931-09-13) (aged 48)
Dresden, Germany
Other names Lili Ilse Elvenes

Lili Ilse Elvenes, better known as Lili Elbe (28 December 1882 – 13 September 1931), was a Danish transgender woman and one of the first identifiable[1] recipients of sex reassignment surgery.[2] Elbe was born Einar Magnus Andreas Wegener[3] and was a successful artist under that name. She also presented as Lili, sometimes spelled Lily, and was publicly introduced as Einar's sister. After transitioning, however, she made a legal name change to Lili Ilse Elvenes[4] and stopped painting.

Elbe's year of birth is sometimes stated as 1886. This appears to be from a book about her, which has some facts changed to protect the identities of the persons involved. Factual references to Gerda Gottlieb's life indicate that the 1882 date is correct since they clearly married while at college in 1904.[5][6] It is highly likely that Elbe was an intersex person,[7][8][9][10] though it is disputed by some.[11]


  • Marriage and modelling 1
  • Surgeries and marriage dissolution 2
  • Death 3
  • In popular culture 4
  • References 5
  • Further reading 6
  • External links 7

Marriage and modelling

Lili Elbe c. 1920

Elbe met Gerda Gottlieb at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen,[12] and they married in 1904, when she was 21 and Gottlieb 19.[5] The two of them worked as illustrators, with Elbe specializing in landscape paintings, while Gottlieb illustrated books and fashion magazines. They both traveled through Italy and France, eventually settling in Paris in 1912, where Elbe could live openly as a woman, and Gottlieb could be actively lesbian.[5] Elbe received the Neuhausens prize in 1907 and exhibited at Kunstnernes Efterårsudstilling (the Artists Fall Exhibition), at the Vejle Art Museum, and in the Saloon and Salon d'Automme in Paris. She is represented at Vejle Art Museum in Denmark.[13]

Elbe started dressing in women's clothes one day filling in for Gottlieb's absentee model; she was asked to wear stockings and heels so her legs could substitute for those of the model. Elbe felt surprisingly comfortable in the clothing.[13] Over time, Gottlieb became famous for her paintings of beautiful women with haunting almond-shaped eyes dressed in chic fashions. In 1913, the unsuspecting public was shocked to discover that the model who had inspired Gottlieb's depictions of petite femmes fatales was in fact Gottlieb's spouse, "Elbe".[5]

In the 1920s and 1930s, Elbe regularly presented as a woman, attending various festivities and entertaining guests in her house. One of the things she liked to do was disappear, wearing her modeling fashions into the streets of Paris in the throngs of revelers during the Carnival.[14][15] Elbe was introduced by Gottlieb as Einar Wegener's sister when she was dressed in female attire.[2] Only her closest friends knew once she had transitioned.

Surgeries and marriage dissolution

Lili Elbe by Gerda Gottlieb

In 1930, Elbe went to Germany for sex reassignment surgery, which was experimental at the time. A series of four operations was carried out over a period of two years.[15] The first surgery, removal of the testicles, was made under the supervision of sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld in Berlin.[15] The rest of Elbe's surgeries were carried out by Kurt Warnekros, a doctor at the Dresden Municipal Women's Clinic.[16] The second operation was to implant an ovary onto her abdominal musculature, the third to remove the penis and the scrotum.[17]

At the time of Elbe's last surgery, her case was already a sensation in newspapers of Denmark and Germany. A Danish court invalidated the Wegeners' marriage in October 1930,[18] and Elbe managed to get her sex and name legally changed, including receiving a passport as Lili Ilse Elvenes. She stopped painting, believing it to be something that was part of the identity of Einar. After the dissolution of her marriage, she returned to Dresden for a final surgery.


In June 1931 she had her fourth operation, which was to create a vagina and allow her to marry, should she wish to do so.[19] She died three months after the surgery.

Gottlieb 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]". After living for several years in Marrakech and Casablanca, the Portas divorced, and Gottlieb returned to Denmark, where she died in 1940.

In popular culture

The book Man into Woman: The First Sex Change was written about Elbe.[20]

The Danish Girl, David Ebershoff's 2000 novel about Elbe, was an international bestseller and was translated into a dozen languages. The film version, produced by Gail Mutrux and Neil LaBute and starring Eddie Redmayne as Elbe, was well received at the Venice Film Festival in September 2015,[21] although it has also been criticized for its casting of a cisgender man to play a transgender woman.[22]

MIX Copenhagen gives four "Lili" awards named after Elbe.[23]


  1. ^ Hirschfeld, Magnus. Chirurgische Eingriffe bei Anomalien des Sexuallebens: Therapie der Gegenwart, pp. 67, 451–455
  2. ^ a b Lili Elbe. 17 May 2003
  3. ^ Meyer, Sabine (2015), »Wie Lili zu einem richtigen Mädchen wurde« – Lili Elbe: Zur Konstruktion von Geschlecht und Identität zwischen Medialisierung, Regulierung und Subjektivierung, p. 15, pp. 312-313.
  4. ^ (Meyer 2015, pp. 311–314)
  5. ^ a b c d She and She: The Marriage of Gerda and Einar Wegener. The Copenhagen Post. 3 July 2000
  6. ^ "Ejner Mogens Wegener, 28-12-1882, Vejle Stillinger: Maler". Retrieved 30 December 2011. 
  7. ^ Hoyer, ed., Niels (2004). Man into woman : the first sex change, a portrait of Lili Elbe : the true and remarkable transformation of the painter Einar Wegener. London: Blue Boat Books. pp. vii, 26–27, 172.  
  8. ^ "Lili Elbe’s autobiography, Man into Woman". OII Australia – Intersex Australia.  
  9. ^ Vacco, Patrick (29 April 2014). "Les Miserables Actor Eddie Redmayne to Star as Queer Artist Lili Elbe".  
  10. ^ "Could this be Eddie Redmayne's most challenging role?".  
  11. ^ Kaufmann, Jodi (January 2007). "Transfiguration: a narrative analysis of male‐to‐female transsexual". International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education 20 (1): 1–13.  
  12. ^ "Conway's Vintage Treasures". Retrieved 8 April 2014. 
  13. ^ a b The Arts and Transgender.
  14. ^ Gerda Wegener.
  15. ^ a b c "Lili Elbe (1886–1931)". LGBT History Month. Retrieved 8 April 2014. 
  16. ^ Brown, Kay (1997) Lili Elbe.
  17. ^ (Meyer 2015, pp. 271–281)
  18. ^ (Meyer 2015, pp. 308–311)
  19. ^ (Meyer 2015, pp. 284–289)
  20. ^  
  21. ^ "‘The Danish Girl’ Wows With 10-Minute Standing Ovation In Venice Premiere". Deadline. 5 September 2015. Retrieved 6 September 2015. 
  22. ^ Denham, Jess (September 1, 2015). "The real reason Eddie Redmayne was cast as a trans woman in The Danish Girl".  
  23. ^ "In Competition". MIX Copenhagen. Retrieved March 5, 2015. 

Further reading

  • Man into Woman, a book about the life of Lili Elbe (edited by Ernst Ludwig Harthern-Jacobsen using the pseudonym Niels Hoyer) was published in 1933. The book also uses pseudonyms for her friends. ISBN 0-9547072-0-6.
  • »Wie Lili zu einem richtigen Mädchen wurde« – Lili Elbe: Zur Konstruktion von Geschlecht und Identität zwischen Medialisierung, Regulierung und Subjektivierung by Sabine Meyer (2015), ISBN 978-3-8376-3180-7.
  • 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.

External links

  • Sabine Meyer: Mit dem Puppenwagen in die normative Weiblichkeit. Lili Elbe und die journalistische Inszenierung von Transsexualität in Dänemark. In: NORDEUROPAforum 20 (2010:1–2), 33–61. Article in German scholarly journal
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