Who was April Ashley? Liverpool-born transgender pioneer passes away at 86

The socialite and model was an activist and pioneer in the transgender community.

Born in Liverpool in 1935, April Ashley led a career that spanned decades and became a pioneer in her work with the transgender community fighting for equality.

Alongside her activism, she was a successful model and had been featured in publications such as Vogue. She partied with John Lennon and Mick Jagger, and was wooed by Elvis Presley.

Sign up to our LiverpoolWorld Today newsletter

Her early life was harrowing and she ended up checking herself into a mental hospital, writing of her accounts for a national newspaper in 1961.

She wrote that she begged doctors to ‘make me more manly’ and she was subjected to drugs and electroshock therapy for a year.

After leaving the mental hospital she ended up working as a dancer in Paris nightclub, Le Carrousel after meeting drag performers while on holiday in France.

She was one of the earliest British people known to have had sex reassignment surgery.

After undergoing surgery she returned to London, where she slipped into the fashion world with ease, modelling with Britain’s top designer.

She also began acting, with small roles in The Road to Hong Kong which was released in 1962.

However, her career was cut short and the spotlight was projected onto April Ashley in 1961 when The Sunday People newspaper outed her as a transgender woman.

As people began to turn their backs on her she moved to Spain, where attitudes were more relaxed and she could continue modelling.

She married Arthur Corbett, the son of Thomas Corbett the second Baron Rowallan.

Their publicised divorce thrust her into the spotlight again, with the Corbett v. Corbett case becoming famous.

After suing Corbett for failing to pay her a stipend, he countersued for an annulment. The case went on for three years and the judge ruled against Ashley that despite her surgery, she was “at all times a man,” and that marriage between two men was impossible.

Ms Ashley was resilient, and went on to open a popular restaurant in London where she worked the door.

April Ashley returned to London, and became an activist. While it was still dangerous to be transgender, life had improved significantly since she left 25 years ago.

She lectured at Oxford University, released a memoir, The First Lady, in 2006, and was the subject of a year-long museum exhibition in Liverpool.

Her work went on to make a lasting impact. Ashley was appointed Member of the Order of the British Empire in the 2012 Birthday Honours for her services to transgender equality.

She was interviewed in 2008 by The Liverpool Daily Post, and asked about her experiences, to which she responded: “I always say three things.

“Be beautiful, be kind — to yourself and others — and most of all be brave. Chins up — get on with life and be as brave as you can.”

In 2015 The City of Liverpool named her a “citizen of honour”. The University of Liverpool also awarded an Honorary Doctorate in December 2016 in recognition of her work.