Throughout the centuries, many famous artists have challenged norms and helped us to visualize the complexity of human nature, but rarely are we taught that a considerable number of them were queer. It was the masterful skill of their art that kept them alive through time, which is all well and good, but we have left out essential parts of who they were by omitting their sexual orientation and gender identity. Today we still struggle to publicly call ourselves queer or trans, so how did artists of the past do it? They created works that launched movements, social trends and awareness. Two notable artists that shook society with their need for expression were Gerda Wegener and Lili Elbe.
If you’ve seen the film The Danish Girl based on the book by David Edershoff, you are already familiar with them, but if you haven’t, worry not, for I will tell you the story and fill in some of the gaps it left in its path. Gerda Wegener was the wife of painter Einar Wegener, also an artist, and lived with him in Denmark where the two worked on their art together during the early decades of the 1900s. Einar was a notable landscape painter and Gerda was a famous fashion artist, painting beautiful, stylish women, often in erotic poses—often in erotic poses with each other. Although she was well-known in Paris, it was taking her more time and effort to catch-on in Denmark, due to the deemed inappropriateness of her art: sexual and immoral. The Danish society did not appreciate her seemingly corruptive art in their galleries. Still, she continued to paint in her style, not giving up and not giving in.
Because of the nature of her paintings, many have suggested that Gerda herself was a lesbian, or at least, bisexual. However, these aspects of her artwork and her life are not portrayed in the film which does her a huge disservice because it at least deserved some commentary for social and biographical purposes. Ideally, a film is a platform for important messages and perspectives. If this one had even proposed the idea that she was queer (evidence exists that in Paris she was openly queer), it would’ve fulfilled its purpose instead of choosing to omit it altogether, focusing narrowly on Einar’s change. Moreover, it lessens the power of her work, diminishes her spirit, and limits her unique, far-reaching voice.
Einar changed the world when he decided to express himself, not only through his art, but through his body. Realizing that he could no longer hide who he was, he began his transformation into Lili Elbe, which he at first said was his sister. In 1908, at a time when transgender and transsexual weren’t even words to define what he was feeling, Einar bravely became the woman he always knew he was, wearing dresses, makeup, and letting his hair grow. Lili was his soul, she was the true form. Naturally, people did not understand her, often calling her mentally insane, diseased, and corrupt. Lili went from doctor to doctor to try and find a way to be herself fully, meaning surgery to correct her body’s misunderstandings. She finally found a doctor that understood and wanted to help. They performed a series of surgeries to remove the masculine body parts and added breasts. On her last surgery where they transplanted a womb into her body (her greatest desire was to be a mother), she died from organ rejection. Gerda went on to marry a French man, divorcing soon after and dying alone.
Although they met tragic ends, their lives live on in their legacy of courage, self-expression, and evolving visions. Gerda changed the way women were seen, pushing the boundaries of gender and how women were expected to be. Her depictions showed beautiful, strong women freely expressing themselves—giving them depth and character rather than just being an object as men had for so long depicted them. She gave the independent woman a voice in society. What is more amazing is the fact that she continued to paint this way even in the face of much disapproval and condemnation, defying traditional views of men and women. Lili demonstrated how all people can be who they are, that they are not alone, and that nothing was wrong with them for suffering body dysphoria. Having the first sex reassignment surgery was an incredibly brave testament to the strength of her convictions— no therapy was ever going to change what was in her heart. Gerda and Lili’s passion changed the way the world understood gender and sexuality. They paved the way for people to feel validated in their differences from others, giving them the fuel for change. Several artists have since leant their voices to this cause. Even those of generations past remain relevant as many of us struggle in the same way to be heard, to be seen, to be validated. We would be wise to heed and echo them, lest they fade into obscurity at the hands of those who seek to stifle and oppress.