Camden Fringe reveals story behind world’s first transgender woman

Simona Continente stars as Lili, the world's first transwoman

Simona Continente stars as Lili, the world's first transwoman - Credit: Archant

The little-known story of the world’s first transwoman is told by a cast who understand her story more than most. Lili is a one-hour drama based on Danish-born artist Einar Mogens Wegener who discovered while standing in for a female model that he liked wearing heels and stockings.

Her journey of adjustment and acceptance led to experimental and risky realignment surgery and the challenge of being the first-known person to change gender.

Her story is slated to be the subject of a film starring Eddie Redmayne and directed by Les Miserables’ Tom Hooper but, in the meantime, director Liz Less has worked with a raw script inspired by Lili Elbe’s 1930 diaries.

She developed the Camden Fringe production at the Theatre Writers’ Workshop with a trans cast and crew.


Lees said: “We’ve worked on the original script to devise scenes around the issues the trans people wanted to include.

“There’s the moment they realised ‘I have got to do this’ then another once they had trans-ed when they realised ‘this is what life’s like now – people are going to look at me and judge the person I am’.”

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Einar married Gerda Gottlieb after meeting at art school and both became successful illustrators and poster designers.

It was when Gerda’s model failed to show up one day that she put her husband in heels and stockings to paint his legs.

The play is set in the last years of Lili’s life when she had lived openly as a woman with Gottlieb in 1920s Paris – often introducing each other as sisters.

“He started going out as Lili and would go between the two. There was a certain acceptance as people would talk to whichever one appeared, but as time went on he became confused as to who he was,” says Lees.

When Einar went to Germany for surgery, it became a sensation in the German and Danish newspapers and the King of Denmark intervened to invalidate the marriage to Gerda.

“There were different reactions, people said he was homosexual, vain, a hermaphrodite. The art world shunned them both, no one came to Gerda’s exhibition,” says Lees.

Lili remarried a man, and died shortly after a gruesome operation to transplant a uterus.

Despite the unhappy ending, Lees is treating Lili as a love story: “It’s a story of that relationship as well as the psychological journey of Lili and of that hope that she would be complete – a real woman – if she could have a baby.”

She adds that the cast, some of whom haven’t acted before, feel the show is important for the trans community.

“They are nervous but enthusiastic. It’s important for them to be accepted just as people. They carry the label around with them but say ‘we’re really just us, accept us for being us”.

Simona Continente, who was born as a boy and raised by nuns in Italy, plays Lili and Stephanie Collins, a former soldier who fought in Iraq, is stage manager.

“I’m not an actor, but I’ve always been a whore to the limbs, for me, the whole world is a stage. Why not live your life like that and enjoy it?” asks Collins, who made headlines when she became embroiled in a dispute with Sainsbury’s over her right to use the female toilets.

She recognises the “pain and suffering” in Lili’s story and in the interaction with her wife.

“Lili was brave enough to go through with this thing, the driving force was unstoppable. No transgender person goes through surgery lightly. It’s a personal journey, you think ‘I can’t carry on like this I have to do something, either throw myself under a bus or have surgery.’”


“Because I didn’t like me for a long time, I put myself in harm’s way being a soldier, hoping someone would sort me out because I didn’t have the guts to kill myself. Now I am content, I love my life and what I am about is normalising people like me in society’s eyes. To integrate with society rather than people saying ‘look at that thing over there?’

“Millions of people have died in World Wars so I can walk down the street like this – it’s called freedom.”

And Collins has an interesting take on gender: “If men and women are equal then I have wasted my time. Men and women aren’t equal, we are different,” she says firmly.

Producer Chris Mellor says: “Trans people often fear being ridiculed when taking part in arts programmes that are not sensitive to their experience. We don’t want to invest time in any project that may create stereotypical images, and want to work in a safe environment. We wish to be able to present a quality piece of work that may help the wider public understand the complexities of being a trans person. The story of Lili Elbe presented the ideal opportunity.”

Lili runs at Etcetera Theatre from July 28 until August 2.