Fri. Jun 14th, 2024

Lili Elbe was one of the first people to undergo gender reassignment surgery

Lili Elbe was born Einar Wegener in Denmark in 1882. The painter was one of the first people to undergo gender reassignment surgery. She became known to a wide audience with the film “The Danish Girl”. 

Lili Elbe – it’s a ringing name. A new life in a suitable body was to begin for Lili Elbe on the Elbe in Dresden. Born Einar Wegener on December 18, 1882 in Vejle, Denmark, she underwent one of the first sex reassignment surgeries in the world in Dresden at 130: “I fight against the bias of the philistine who looks for a phenomenon, an abnormality in me. As I am now, I’m just an ordinary woman.” 

Lili Elbe was born in Denmark as the youngest of four children. After high school she attended the art academy in Copenhagen and met Gerda in her first year. They marry. The Wegener couple travels a lot, including spending a long time in France.

Lili Elbe paints modern landscapes, still lifes and city scenes. She is often a model for Gerda. Portraits of an elegant woman in the iconic dresses and short haircuts of the 1920s are created. The desire grows: not only her appearance but also her body should be that of a woman. 

Lili Elbe undergoes a total of four operations 

The first operation took place at Magnus Hirschfeld’s institute in Berlin in 1930, and the gynecologist Kurt Warnekros performed other major operations at the Dresden women’s clinic. There were four in all. The first three went without complications. If you believe Lili Elbe’s “life confession”, which a journalist wrote down for her, according to “Die Zeit”, Warnekos worked true miracles and after the male genitals were removed, not only formed a vagina, but also planted ovaries. The Federal Foundation Magnus Hirschfeld writes that the performance of a penile amputation is open because details of the operation are not discussed in detail. There is also information that Lili Elbe was born with male and female organs. 

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Two shots of the painter at a commemoration event for Lili Elbe in a mourning hall at the Trinitatisfriedhof in Dresden in April 2016 © Sebastian Kahnert / Picture Alliance

In June 1931, Lili Elbe came to the women’s clinic in Dresden for a final operation. The Federal Foundation Magnus Hirschfeld writes that she had the wish to become “a real mother” one day, so that the assumption of a uterus transplant is obvious. There are no longer any surgical documents, it remains a guess as to what exactly happened at that time. 

“Die Zeit” spoke to experts about the case a few years ago. Marina Lienert from the Institute for the History of Medicine at the TU Dresden is quoted as saying: “It is hard to imagine that Warnekros would have dared to carry out such an operation.” If he did, it would probably lead to rejection reactions and possibly infections, with a fatal outcome.


Van Gogh on his arm, Munch on his stomach: tattoo artist incises famous works of art

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© Instagram / Eva Karabudak

“A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte” by Georges Seurat impresses with its structure and the mixture of colors. Eva Karabudak translated the painting from the late 19th century into a tattoo. And just added an easel. 

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© Instagram / Eva Karabudak

Mother and child intimately connected: The template for this tattoo is a section from the painting “The Three Ages of Woman” by Gustav Klimt

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© Instagram / Eva Karabudak

Dieses Tattoo wurde inspiriert von Edvard Munchs “Madonna”. Der norwegische Maler fertigte Ende des 19. Jahrhunderts mehrere Bilder mit diesem Sujet an. Heute ist es auch auf Haut verewigt. 

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© Instagram / Eva Karabudak

Diese Augen kennt so gut wie jeder, ganz gleich, ob Kunst-Fan oder nicht. Die “Mona Lisa” hängt im Louvre. Sie hat es als Teil der Popkultur und als Souvenir aber auch auf T-Shirts, Tassen und Taschen geschafft. Und als Tattoo auf diesen Unterarm. 

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© Instagram / Eva Karabudak

René Magritte ist einer der bekanntesten Vertreter des Surrealismus. Traum und Wirklichkeit vermischen sich in seinen Werken. So auch in “Das Schloss in den Pyrenäen” aus dem Jahr 1959, das hier als Tattoo-Vorlage dient. 

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© Instagram / Eva Karabudak

Ein Kunstwerk nach einem Kunstwerk entsteht: Ein Selbstportrait von Vincent van Gogh dient als Vorlage für ein Tattoo 

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© Instagram / Eva Karabudak

Vincent van Gogh hat sich immer wieder selbst gemalt. Eva Karabaduk greift diese Selbstportraits in ihren Tattoos immer wieder auf. 

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© Instagram / Eva Karabudak 

Hier werden zwei Kunstwerke zu einem: “Die Geburt der Venus” von Sandro Botticelli und die “Sternennacht” von Vincent van Gogh

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© Instagram / Eva Karabudak

Tattoo-Künstlerin Eva Karabudak ist in einer kleinen Stadt an der türkischen Küste aufgewachsen. Inzwischen betreibt sie Studios in Istanbul, Los Angeles und New York.

Lili Elbe officially calls herself the first operations that way. You get new papers. However, not everything was well-disposed and liberal at the time: the Danish king annulled his marriage to Gerda Wegener. 

In Dresden, a tombstone commemorates Lili Elbe

A few months after the last operation, Lili Elbe died on September 12, 1931 surrounded by her family. The exact cause of death is unclear, in the months after the operation she suffers from pain and weakness. In a last letter from early September, Elbe writes: “Now I know that death is coming… I dreamed of mother last night… she took me in her arms… she said Lili to me… and Dad was there too…” 

Lili Elbe is buried at the Trinitatisfriedhof in Dresden, where her grave existed until the 1960s. For decades, memories of the painter and transgender pioneer faded. Since 2016, a tombstone in the cemetery has commemorated the artist, donated by the production company of “The Danish Girl”. 

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Since 2016, this tombstone at the Trinitatisfriedhof in Dresden has commemorated Lili Elbe© Sebastian Kahnert / ZB / Picture Alliance

Eddie Redmayne plays Lili Elbe in the 2015 film and is nominated for an Oscar. Nevertheless, a few years later he describes his role as a mistake. He accepted the demanding role “with the best of intentions”. Knowing what he now knows about the way minorities are still treated in the film industry, “[he] wouldn’t agree anymore,” the British actor asserted at the end of last year. 

Eddie Redmayne as Lili Elbe in the 2015 film The Danish Girl© B4700/_Universal Pictures / DPA

On December 28, 2022, Google will honor Lili Elbe with a Doodle on the occasion of her 140th birthday. 


By Chala Dandessa

I am Lecturer, Researcher and Freelancer. I am the founder and Editor at ETHIOPIANS TODAY website. If you have any comment use as email contact. Additionally you can contact us through the contact page of

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