As the subject of the film, “The Danish Girl” Lile Elbe is probably one of the most famous transgender figures of recent times. Lile would never have achieved fulfillment as a woman if it had not been for Dora Richter’s pioneering transition. She also may have never manifested at all, if her original self, Einar Wegener had not acted as a model for his artist wife.
Einar Wegener was born in 1882 in Denmark. He met his wife Gerda at Art College and the pair later married. Einar became a landscape artist, and Gerda painted illustrations of fashionably dressed women for Paris magazines. One day, one of Gerda’s regular models failed to turn up. So after some hard persuasion, her husband agreed to stand-in. The effect on Einar was instantaneous. “I cannot deny, strange as it may sound, that I enjoyed myself in this disguise, ” he later wrote, ” I liked the feel of soft women’s clothing, I felt very much at home in them from the first moment.”
Styling himself as his sister ‘Lili”, Gerda and Einar began to appear at Paris balls. Their married life continued in this vein for the next fifteen years. Mentally, it became a strain for Einar, who felt two people, a man and a woman, inhabited his body. Einar and Lili even had different personalities. Einar “steady and sensible” while Lili was “superficial, thoughtless and flighty.”
By 1930, Lili had won the battle. “I am finished,” Einar wrote “Lili has known this for a long time. That’s how matters stand. And consequently, she rebels more vigorously every day.” Suicidal, he consulted doctors who dismissed him as gay or ‘hysterical’. Then he met a doctor who had heard about the Dora Richter case. The doctor referred Einar to the Dresden Institute, and Lili was finally born. Surgeons removed Einar’s penis and testicles and ovaries grafted inside his body.
In the meantime, Lili divorced Gerda. She even gave up painting as a vestige of her old life. She began a relationship with Claude Lejeune, a French art dealer and started the first steps of her next creative project: a child. In 1932, Lili had a womb transplant. However, her body rejected it and an infection developed. By September, Lili was dead.
She seemed to know death was imminent but had no regrets as she wrote to a friend: “I, Lili, am vital and have a right to life I have proved by living for 14 months. It may be said that 14 months is not much, but they seem to me like a whole and happy human life.”