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April Ashley: A trans hero who changed the world

As the new April Ashley: Portrait of a Lady exhibition opens at the Museum of Liverpool, Stephen Whittle looks at the life of a transgender person who changed Britain
April Ashley from Liverpool, England was one of the first people to have gender reassignment surgery.

A new exhibition at the Museum of Liverpool demonstrates, through the story of one life, how much our society has really changed in the last 60 years.

In 1950, when 15 year old George Jamieson ran away from the poverty of a Liverpool Council House estate to sea, the city, like the rest of the UK, was a place in which boys grew up to be real men, and girls grew up to be housewives.

George, who at school was an endlessly bullied sissy boy, had enough guts to sign up for the Merchant Navy where he spent two years seeking the way to become a real man.

That cure did not work and a suicide attempt led to incarceration in Liverpool’s Walton hospital where a second attempt at a cure, ECT (electroshock therapy), failed.

So George ran away along a road which would lead to becoming a dancer at the famous Parisian club, La Carousel, and then on to a surgeon in Casablanca, by whom he would become she; April Ashley, bon-vivant, raconteur, and high-society model for famous fashion photographers including David Bailey and Terence Donovan, and for Vogue wearing the clothes from the fashion houses of Chanel, Givenchy, and Cardin.

Successful in every way, April’s future in the swinging London of the 1960s looked set to be as far away from the streets of Liverpool as it could possibly be. Except, that in 1971, after being ‘outed’ in the Sunday People – a friend who must have been desperate took a fiver in exchange for her story – April’s marriage to the minor English Aristocrat, Arthur Corbett, was ended in the English Appeal Court.

The judge, Lord Justice Ormrod, a man who was qualified as both a doctor and a lawyer, and so was doubly certain that he knew what he was talking about, held that a person’s sex could be determined entirely through their chromosomes, gonads and genitals. He ignored the major clinical and scientific experts of the day, instead favoring the narrow view of his friend, the psychiatrist Dr John Randell, who was to build up his then very small patient group at Charing Cross Hospital into what has now become the largest Gender Identity clinic in the country.

Faced with Ashley, Ormrod ran out of words, and being unable to describe the gorgeous woman in front of him as a man, he managed simply to say that she was ‘not a woman for the purposes of marriage’.

At the time, nobody quite realized the consequences of this decision, but a series of cases in the English courts held that confidence in the law could only be achieved through consistency.

Gradually over the next 20 years, transsexual people lost one right after another. They found that whilst the National Health Service was far more prepared to accept their need for gender reassignment treatment, becoming the people they really were became more and more difficult, as increasingly they were required to disclose their past just to be able to function in daily life.

Whether obtaining car insurance, passing medicals for jobs, or claiming benefits, it seemed everyone had the right to know their former gender, and once they knew then to indiscriminately cause them to be disadvantaged.

Whilst Ashley herself tried to make the best of what had happened, in 1992, other transsexual people decided the only way out of this mess was to use the law to fight the law, and on the advice of Lord Alex Carlile, set up the pressure group Press For Change.

Since then, Press For Change has been incredibly successful at obtaining those legal rights, especially through their use of the European Court of Justice and the Court of Human Rights.

The group has obtained protection from discrimination in the workplace and when accessing services, a right to privacy about their medical history and, most importantly, a right to recognition of their new gender for all legal purposes, allowing them to marry or become civil partners, adopt children, or simply to get on in peace and quiet with their otherwise pretty ordinary lives.

The reach of Press For Change has been wide, with their work influencing similar legislation in South Africa, Spain, Argentina Japan, Sweden and many other countries.

The exhibition at the Museum of Liverpool focuses on how one boy, born into the poverty of depression hit Liverpool in 1935, fought the system. How she became an extraordinary woman; part of the back drop to that battle for rights, and how she has survived to become one of England’s Grande Dames.

It is right Liverpool has honored this woman in this way, she is yet another of Liverpool’s children who have carried the Liverpudlian fight for social justice out into the wider world. She has become part of a movement for change that has created a better life for those who experience their gender differently.

April Ashley’s life, albeit unintentionally at the time, helped create a social and political movement (led by legal and transsexual activists from that other great city of the North West, Manchester). It is a movement which has led to real change to the lives of millions of real people throughout the world. She is another point of pride in the history of the city of Liverpool.

April Ashley: Portrait of a Lady is at The Museum of Liverpool, 27 September 2013 to 21 September 2014. At Pier Head, Liverpool it is the most-visited museum in England outside London. Find visitor information here.

Stephen Whittle, OBE, PhD, MA, LLB, BA is Professor of Equalities Law at Manchester Metropolitan University, and vice-president of UK transgender organization, Press For Change. You can email him here.

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