Juno Dawson and Peter Tatchell lead tributes to pioneering trans model April Ashley, dead aged 86

trans model April Ashley

Trailblazing trans model April Ashley, one of the first people in the UK to have gender affirmation surgery, has died aged 86.

Ashley was born in 1935 and grew up in Liverpool, which she later described as “a very tough place [which] gave me enormous strength, and most of all gives one an extraordinary sense of humour”.

At the age of 15, in 1950, she joined the merchant navy, but was discharged after she attempted to take her own life.

She was admitted to a psychiatric hospital, and after her discharge moved to London and 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 and back in the UK Ashley obtained a passport and driving license with a female gender marker. Her modelling career took off, and she was even photographed by David Bailey for Vogue.

But in 1961, in an article headlined “‘Her’ secret is out”, Ashley was outed by the tabloid Sunday People, and her modelling career was over.

In 1963, she married aristocrat Arthur Cameron Corbett, but their marriage was over by 1970. Their divorce resulted in a landmark case – Corbett v. Corbett – which saw the marriage annulled, as Ashley was considered a “man”, and created for the first time the concept of “legal sex” and led to hurdles for the legal recognition of trans people which still exist today.

Ashley moved to the US, before returning to the UK in 2005 after the passing of the Gender Recognition Act, finally able to be legally recognised as a woman.

She spent the rest of her life speaking out for trans rights, becoming an MBE in 2012 for her services to trans equality, and passed away on Monday, 27 December, at the age of 86.

Tributes to the trans icon flooded social media, with author Juno Dawson tweeting: “Hearing that April Ashley has passed away. I met her just once, and honestly, it was like meeting the queen.

“The poise, the grace. An icon. Rest in power.”

LGBT+ activist Peter Tatchell added: “Trans pioneer, actress and 1950s Vogue model April Ashley MBE dies aged 86.

“She was the GREAT trans trailblazer for decades. I was so honoured to know and support her in a past era when she was reviled after being outed as trans. Hero! Rest in power!”

Trans veteran Hannah Graf MBE wrote on Twitter: “A true pioneer for the trans and wider LGBTQ community, April Ashley MBE will be remembered for being unapologetically herself in a world that was stacked against her.

“I and many others owe her a great debt. May she rest in power.”