Tributes have poured in for ‘true trailblazer of the trans community’ April Ashley, who has died aged 86.
Ashley became the second Brit to undergo male-to-female gender reassignment surgery in 1960, and one of the first in the world to receive the procedure in its modern form.
Her rise to fame as a model and actor – and the sudden end of her career when she was outed by a tabloid newspaper – was followed by a decades-long battle for acceptance which often kept her at the forefront of trans history.
After a difficult childhood in a working-class area of Liverpool, Ashley joined the Merchant Navy aged 16 but was discharged after a suicide attempt.
She began cross-dressing after moving to London in the 1950s, after which she moved to Paris and began saving for surgery by performing in a famed drag cabaret with Coccinnelle, who was the first widely-publicised gender reassignment case in Europe after the war.
In 1960, Ashley travelled to Casablanca, Morocco, to undergo the procedure with a pioneering French surgeon, later saying interviews that it made her the happiest she had ever been.
After returning to the UK she embarked on a successful modelling career which saw her photographed for Vogue and appearing in films with Bob Hope, Bing Crosby and Joan Collins – all the while using documentation identifying her as female.
Her bookings were cancelled overnight when the Sunday People publicly outed her, but she continued to show her face among high society.
She would later recall: ‘I got slapped four times. The most extraordinary moment was in Sloane Square. I saw this elegant woman coming straight at me.
‘She came up to me and slapped me so hard I had her finger marks on my face for three days. She didn’t say a word, just kept on walking.’
In 1963, Ashley married an aristocrat, Arthur Cameron Corbett, but the relationship quickly broke down.
After years of legal stalemate, Corbett was granted an annulment on the grounds that the court considered Ashley to be a man – even though Corbett knew about her history when they wedded.
The case set a legal precedent for all trans people that remained until 2004, when the Gender Recognition Act was passed to legally allow people to change gender.
She opened a restaurant in Knightsbridge but found the media attention and, after a heart attack in 1975, retreated to the Welsh countryside and later the US.
Upon returning to the UK in 2005 she was legally recognised as female, and was made an MBE in 2012 for her campaigning work for the trans community.
LGBT campaigner Peter Tatchell described her as ‘the GREAT trans trailblazer for decades’ and a ‘hero’.
Trans activist and actor Jake Graf tweeted: ‘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.’