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Pioneer Trans model April Ashley dies at 86

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April Ashley in 1964 — Photo by Vic Singh / Rex Pictures
April Ashley in 1964 — Photo by Vic Singh / Rex Pictures

Transgender model April Ashley — who started her life in a working class Liverpool neighborhood and ended up receiving the Order of the British Empire from Queen Elizabeth II — died on December 27. She was 86.

Ashley was not only one of the first Trans models but also one of the first Britons to have gender-affirmation surgery.

She was born in 1935 in Liverpool, a gritty port town in northwest England, which she remembered as "a very tough place [that] gave me enormous strength, and most of all gives one an extraordinary sense of humor."

In 1950, at the age of just 15 years, she joined the merchant navy but was discharged after she attempted to take her own life. She was then admitted to a psychiatric hospital.

After her discharge, she moved to London and then Paris, where she performed in a drag cabaret show.

In 1960, when she was 25, she became one of the first British people to undergo affirmation surgery in Casablanca, Morocco.

The operation was a success. Back in the UK, Ashley obtained a passport and driver's license with a female gender marker. She opted for a career in modeling, where she was quite successful, and was photographed by David Bailey for Vogue.

Clipping originally collected by Richard Ekins (from The University of Ulster Trans-Gender Archives / Richard Ekins collection at the Transgender Archives, University of Victoria  

In 1961, however, her modeling career crashed and burned, after the tabloid Sunday People published an article headlined "'Her' secret is out," outing her as Trans.

In 1963, she married aristocrat Arthur Cameron Corbett, but their marriage ended in divorce in 1970.

The landmark divorce case, Corbett v. Corbett, created for the first time the concept of "legal sex" and ended with the court annulling the marriage on the grounds that Ashley was legally a "man." The precedent led to legal hurdles for the recognition of Trans people that still exist to this day.

Ashley then moved to the US, not returning to Britain until 2005, after Parliament passed the Gender Recognition Act, which finally allowed her to be legally recognized as a woman.

She spent the remaining years of her life as an activist for Trans rights. She was honored for her work with an MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire) in 2012.

When he learned of her death, British LGBTQ activist Peter Tatchell tweeted, "She was the GREAT trans trailblazer for decades. I was so honoured to know & support her in a past era when she was reviled after being outed as Trans. Hero! Rest in power!"