Global Christine: Sex Change in Mexico, Taiwan, and the United States in the 1950s

AHA Session 200
Committee on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender History 12
Saturday, January 5, 2019: 1:30 PM-3:00 PM
Boulevard C (Hilton Chicago, Second Floor)
Leisa D. Meyer, College of William and Mary
The Audience

Session Abstract

In recent years, the history of sexuality has witnessed a growing interest in global and transnational approaches. New books and edited volumes have appeared to recast the history of prostitution, sex education, migration, sexual science, and other important topics in a framework that transcends the nation-state. This panel boldly extends these efforts by contextualizing the history of transsexuality—still a marginal topic within the history of sexuality—across Latin America, East Asia, and North America. Centering on the legacy of Christine Jorgensen, who acquired worldwide fame over 65 years ago for undergoing sex reassignment in Copenhagen, this panel considers the usefulness and potential limitations of a “global Christine” meta-narrative from three distinct regional viewpoints.

Specifically, the panel features three coeval developments of this meta-narrative through the proliferation of “Christines” in post-World War II Mexico, Taiwan, and the United States. Ryan Jones analyzes the sensational story of the Mexican Christine Marta Olmos, who was construed by reporters, physicians, and other interested parties as the recipient of the first official male-to-female sex reassignment conducted in Mexico and one of the earliest to take place outside Europe. Olmos’ experience troubles any straightforward mapping of a queer identity on to her transition. Howard Chiang’s paper examines the geopolitical shifts that made possible the media attention commanded by the story of the Chinese Christine, Xie Jianshun. Dubbed as the first transsexual in Chinese-speaking societies, Xie received an unparalleled level of publicity in Taiwan and opened the flood gate for other sex change-related stories to appear in Cold War East Asia. Finally, Susan Stryker revisits the global celebrity of Jorgensen whose glamorous whiteness and conventional feminine beauty constructed the terms by which gender-sexual malleability came to be normalized—and resisted—both in and beyond modern America. Taken together, the three papers use the global symbolism of Jorgensen to anchor broader historical narratives about transsexual embodiment, medical technology, political economy, popular media, visual culture, and the geopolitics of decolonization.

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