Play shines light on trans pioneer
When Don Horn of Triangle Productions went about putting together a world premiere about the first recognized fully transgender person in the United States, people asked him about
the individual, guessing that it was 1970s tennis player Renee Richards.
"No, this person came way before Renee Richards," Horn says. "Nobody knows about this person."
It was George Jorgensen, who went to Denmark in 1947 after leaving the military and came back Christine Jorgensen to much fanfare in New York City in 1952. "Ex-GI Becomes Blonde Beauty" stated a headline on the cover of The New York Daily News, accompanied by a story.
Jorgensen went about spreading goodwill as an actress and nightclub performer before her death in 1989 at age 62, and then was largely forgotten by many in the LGBTQ community — until now. It was such a fascinating story that Horn had to write and produce a play about it. "Trans-formation" stages Feb. 1-24 at the Sanctuary at the Sandy Plaza. Young actor Matthew Sunderland, Aloha High class of 2007 and Linfield College class of 2011, plays George and Christine.
"It's been a challenge to navigate through this," he says.
The story came about when Horn was visiting with good friend Walter Cole, aka Portland's famous drag queen Darcelle. He saw a photo of Darcelle with a woman on the wall, and asked Cole about it. Cole informed him about Jorgensen.
"I grew up in Burns and didn't get that kind of press out there. Then I moved to Arkansas," Horn says. "Once I researched it, 'Holy crap, she started the revolution.' While we're still talking about (transgender) bathrooms and pronouns, she had the full surgery (more than 60 years ago). They're fighting for transgender rights now. Let's remember people who came before us."
The play follows Jorgensen through his time after serving in the U.S. Army as George, and then through the transition and surgeries in Denmark until her return to the United States as Christine. She underwent full sex reassignment surgery. The procedures were performed by Dr. Christian Hamberger, who had read all of the medical records of the partially transgender individual Lili Elbe (made famous in the movie "The Danish Girl").
Surgery, after she had taken estrogen, was done in the name of "research," Horn says. For castration, Jorgensen had to get the Danish authorities to document her as a homosexual, a classification at the time that allowed for castration.
"She was very proud that (surgery) cost her only $30," Horn says.
When Jorgensen returned to New York City, word leaked out about her transformation, and people "didn't put her down at all," Horn says. She rarely met discrimination or ridicule in her life. Her family and friends accepted her. Jorgensen became quite famous, befriending such celebrities as Roger Moore, Forrest Tucker and Mae West.
She had another surgical procedure in the United States to finish the transition.
Horn has read the books on Jorgensen. The Ed Wood movie "Glen or Glenda" was supposedly about Jorgensen, who had turned down an opportunity to play a role in it.
Why had Jorgensen gone through with sex reassignment surgery?
"If you look at videos of his childhood and read of his yearnings, (George) always felt something was wrong," Horn says. "He didn't want to be gay. She said literally over and over again as Christine, 'I knew I was not complete.'"
Sunderland, 28, was given the part after an audition a couple years ago. He'll play George and then Christine, accompanied by some visual projection on stage.
Horn had some pushback from the Portland transgender community, which wanted a transgender person in the role. "I would do that," Horn says. "But it's hard to find a trans actor ... because they're just coming out. Five years from now, we're not going to have a problem."
Sunderland has been working on his mannerisms and voice — with the help of mentor Todd Van Voris — and getting used to makeup and wigs. He had his hair bleached blond last weekend.
"It does not come easy (to play a woman)," Sunderland says. "I've been around women my entire life, but it doesn't mean I've observed things like mannerisms, and how they walk, sit, carry books or a purse. Now I've been having to observe. You have to train your brain. 'How would Chrsitine move?'" And, simply, Sunderland has to act as a woman who used to be a man.
Jorgensen was shy as George, but depressed and sad. As Christine, she blossomed.
Sunderland has worked with Lakewood Theater, CoHo Productions and Oregon Children's Theatre. He was drawn to playing the role of an LGBTQ icon that not many people had heard of.
"Don wanted to produce work that deserves attention," he says. "It's what drew me to the story as well.
"I'm definitely excited, but also nervous, because this woman had such a huge impact on our society. There's definitely a desire to do it right, to tell her story as clearly as possible."
Says Horn: "The reason I'm doing this show is because I love history, and to honor the people in the past, to honor what she did in the movement."
"Trans-formation" is being produced in conjunction with "Madness of Lady Bright," the first gay off-Broadway play that started the off-Broadway revolution for diversity. For more: www.trianglepro.org.