POST: 'Sommerfugl' - the first known gender transition surgery


What's it about?

In light of increasing media attention on members of the transgender community, Sommerfugl goes back to the beginning. The first known gender transition surgery takes place in 1930s Europe, and Lili Elbe is born, garnering almost as much media attention as it would today-- bigots included.

What did I see?

I should probably get myself more acquainted with theatres like the 4th Street Theatre, with its unexpected entrance-- almost like entering an underground apartment-- and rickety stairway leading to the stage. Sommerfugl couldn’t have been set in a better space, the theatre itself has a history-- maybe not as glitzy and glamorous as the theatres lined up on Broadway, but in a way, that’s what makes it so perfect. We all know a place like it, with the feeling of a familiar attic or cellar, where memories are tucked away. The space matched up perfectly with the story of Lili Elbe, the first transgender woman to receive transitional surgery, and her partner, Grete Wegener, and they had a rickety staircase of their own to climb.

The seats are arranged in a way that I’m vaguely familiar with, we sit almost as if we are audience members at a runway fashion show, invited to admire and critique the fabrics flying back and forth on the stage. The relationship between Grete and Lili is on display, and just like in a fashion show, it is very easy to see. Throughout the entire play, I kept wondering how much more powerful it would have been if the role of Lili was played by a transgender actress. Historical accuracy aside, it is already so difficult to find roles for transgender people, and a role built so specifically for a transgender woman should have been given to a transgender woman. Right?

After the play, there was an opportunity for a talkback with the playwright and a guest he had invited, a transgender actor. The topic of the casting of Lili came up, and I’m so glad it did. The talkback provided some context in the casting, and the issues that came up when they attempted to cast a transgender woman for Lili. A fellow audience member commented that everyone has felt isolated, implying that it’s not so bad that the role of Lili went to a cisgender man. Of course, I agree that everyone has been through things that have made them feel left out or alone, but each person’s experience is unique to them or, like in Lili’s case, their communities. If I were to have a movie made about me, I would want the person who portrays me to accurately represent me.

Due to the relevance of transgender people in the media today, I found myself forgetting that Lili’s transition occurred in the 1930s. I did not like that the doctor had assumed Lili had ovaries, and I wasn’t initially sure if that was a fictitious element of the story. But later in the talkback, it was clarified that for Lili’s doctor, especially in the 1930s, it was the only possible explanation for what Lili was feeling. But I wish I didn’t need the talkback to make this clear. For someone who may not be educated on the transgender community (I’m definitely not an expert, but I try to learn more every day) this scene can lead to misinformation on what it means to be transgender.

What I loved was that Grete stayed with Lili throughout her transition and found herself changing as well. The two no longer clicked in the way they did before, and that was alright, it wasn’t as though Grete was leaving Lili because of the transition. By supporting Lili in becoming more like herself, the butterfly emerging from its chrysalis, Grete was able to do the same for herself. Relationships don’t all last forever, and not every love has a happily ever after, but the dedication Grete had in helping Lili is what so many transgender people need today and what they needed throughout history. Just having one person assure you that you aren’t wrong for wanting to be who you are, that’s all you really need to keep you from hating yourself. And I’m sure we can all relate to that, I know I did.

Want to see it?


$18 Tickets
4th Street Theater
hru Oct. 10