April Ashley, the first British person to have gender reassignment surgery, has been awarded an MBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honors list for her services promoting trans equality.
The recognition in the Queen’s Birthday Honours has thrilled the 77-year-old. “It’s unbelievable and wonderful and especially fantastic to receive it in the year of Her Majesty’s Jubilee,” she said yesterday, at home in Fulham, south-west London. She declined to speak until she had finished watching the Trooping of the Colour.
Duncan Fallowell, her biographer, said: “It makes me proud to be British. Proud of an establishment that can make such an award, perhaps a rather eccentric award.”
Duncan Fallowell praised Ashley’s determination in the face of unkindness as being as important as her campaign work. He recalled meeting her when he was an undergraduate at Oxford in the 1960s. “We gave a celebrated dinner for her in the Oscar Wilde Room of Magdalen College,” he said. “The porters served the food and stood against the walls like footmen. The climax came when April leaped on to the mahogany dining table and performed a flamenco in and out of the candlesticks. Magdalen had never seen anything like this. Ever.”
Ashley, having undergone her gender reassignment surgery in Casablanca in the 1960s at the age of 25, returned to London and took on a modelling assignment at Vogue. Just a year later she became the source of lurid scandal when one of her close friends sold her story to the press.
Ashley is quoted as once saying, “It always makes me laugh when people say I was born a man. I was born a baby, not a man. From the year dot, I knew I was female, so as soon as I could kneel down to say my prayers, it would be ‘God bless Mummy, God bless Daddy, and please let me wake up and be a girl.’”
Ashley became an actress and active socialite, details of which are laced into her biography Odyssey, and would in later life take on the role of art consultant for a variety of projects.
Also detailed in her biography is the 1970s court case wherein her husband of seven years, the future Lord Rowallan, won the right to have their marriage annulled on grounds of Ashley’s chromosomal sex, even though he had been aware of her gender change at the time of their marriage. This ruling set a gender test for what constitutes a legal marriage in the UK that would continue to restrict trans rights for decades to come.
Ashley was not legally recognized as a woman until 2004 which saw the enactment of the Gender Recognition Act, legislation that came about through a separate European Court of Human Rights challenge, Christine Goodwin v The United Kingdom, of which Ashley was not directly involved in, that the the UK Government’s failure to recognize gender transition and allow for gender reassigned individuals to marry violated Articles 8 and 12 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
Ashley’s MBE, which stands for Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, seems at least partly related to her work responding to the volume of letters she has received from members of the trans community seeking help and guidance.
Because Ashley has long been the best-known transsexual in Britain – alongside the writer Jan Morris, who had her operation at the same clinic – she has received distraught letters and emails from often very young children who feel, as she did, trapped in the wrong body.
“Fifty years ago, there was no one I could talk to,” Ashley says. “My mother used to call me ‘It’ and beat me much more than she beat my brothers and sisters. After I tried to commit suicide as a teenager, they put me in a loony bin. That was the very first time – when I was strapped to a bed and having electric shock treatment – that I was able to talk about feeling I was a woman.”
Does she recognise anything of herself in the youngsters who contact her? “I do, but I always write back and say, ‘I am not a professional. I send you all my love.’ I direct them to organisations that can help.”
Ashley is also quoted as saying, ”I would always wish people three things – to be kind to yourself and to others. To be beautiful, on the inside, which makes you beautiful on the outside. And most of all to be brave, because you will need that.”