April Ashley, model, actor and transgender activist, dies aged 86

Performer and campaigner was one of the first Britons to undergo gender reassignment surgery

April Ashley

April Ashley was made an MBE in 2012 for her campaigning work for the transgender community. Photograph: Keystone Press/Alamy

April Ashley was made an MBE in 2012 for her campaigning work for the transgender community. Photograph: Keystone Press/Alamy

Tributes have been paid to the “true trailblazer” transgender activist April Ashley, who has died aged 86.

One of the first Britons to undergo gender assignment surgery, the model and actor was made an MBE in 2012 for her campaigning work for the transgender community.

Born to a working-class family in Liverpool in 1935, Ashley joined the merchant navy as a teenager. After repeated suicide attempts and a stint in a psychiatric unit, she moved to London in 1955 and then to Paris.

In Paris, she performed at the Le Carrousel nightclub, which was famous for its drag acts, where she was able to save up money for her gender assignment procedure.

In 1960, Ashley became only the second Briton to undergo male to female transition surgery when she had the operation in Casablanca, Morocco. She said in later interviews the procedure made her the happiest she had ever been.

Back in England, she obtained a national insurance card, passport and driving licence that identified her as female.

She went on to have a successful modelling career and was photographed for Vogue magazine and appeared in films including Road to Hong Kong with Bob Hope, Bing Crosby and Joan Collins.

Her career was abruptly cut short in 1961 when the Sunday People outed her as transgender.

In 1963, she married aristocrat Arthur Cameron Corbett in Gibraltar. Their divorce in 1970 marked a landmark legal ruling when the judge ruled it was not possible to legally change sex, and that the marriage was therefore invalid.

Left with nothing, Ashley emigrated to the US west coast to escape the prejudice and discrimination she faced at home. She returned to Britain in 2005, when she was legally recognised as female thanks to the Gender Recognition Act.

The singer Boy George tweeted: “R.I.P April Ashley! A force of nature and transgender high priestess!”

Peter Tatchell, the LGBTQ+ rights campaigner, called her “the GREAT trans trailblazer for decades” and “hero”.

“I was so honoured to know & support her in a past era when she was reviled after being outed as trans,” he said.

Trans activist and actor Jake Graf wrote: “A true trailblazer of the trans community has left us. April Ashley MBE was the definition of grace and humility, despite having fought hard throughout her life for her place in society.

“A true queen. Gone, but never forgotten. Rest in power.”

By admin