In 1961, a beautiful model who graced the pages of Vogue appeared in the Sunday People newspaper under the headline: “‘Her’ Secret is Out.” April Ashley, then 25, was the first person in Britain to be outed as a transsexual, not long after she had traveled to Casablanca and survived difficult genital surgery. In subsequent decades, Ashley led the most extraordinary existence, getting up to mischief with aristocrats and actors as well as becoming an informal agony aunt for thousands of people struggling to understand their gender. After her outing, however, she never again worked as a model in Britain.
Ashley’s exceptional experiences are typical of many trans people in Britain.
“It was a very schizophrenic life,” she says, referring not to switching gender, but the combination of glamor and poverty, acclaim and abuse, she has encountered.
Ashley, who is 78, penniless and last month collected her MBE from Prince Charles, is airily dismissive of columnist Julie Burchill, who called trans people “bed-wetters in bad wigs,” among other insults, in a recent article for the Observer, which caused many to wonder how much has changed.
“I don’t know where Miss Burchill goes to see people with crappy wigs on their heads. All the transsexuals I know are very smart looking and have good jobs,” she says. “I do not wear a wig, by the way.”
The transformation for trans people over the course of Ashley’s life is astonishing. It is less surprising how little most people understand of trans lives. If gay activists traditionally asserted their right to be “different,” most trans people have tried to “pass” for their new gender.
There is no data on how many people are living as a different gender from their birth, but activists estimate that 10,000 people in Britain have undertaken gender reassignment surgery, which was pioneered by German doctors on Lili Elbe, a Danish painter, in 1930. Elbe died from complications in 1931 and, although modern surgery is much safer, plenty quietly live their acquired gender without operations, particularly women “transitioning” to men, for whom genital surgery is more complicated.
It is eye-opening how trans people have only recently acquired the most basic of rights. Britain was one of the last countries in Europe to recognize a person’s right to change their gender in law, and it was not until the Gender Recognition Act of 2004 that trans people could become a different gender in law. The court of appeal only established the right for people to access gender reassignment treatments on the UK health service in 1999, and it only became illegal to sack someone who changed or planned to change their gender in 1997.
Perhaps it is inevitable that the small group of trans people, who have had legal recognition for a mere eight years, say they still suffer discrimination, prejudice and violence. A study of 2,600 trans people in the EU in 2008 found 79 percent suffered transphobic abuse in public. More recently, Transgender Europe logged 265 reports of murdered trans people in the 12 months to November last year; 126 were in Brazil, with one in Britain (although not all these deaths are proven to be the result of transphobia).
Paris Lees, 25, an eloquent, media-savvy campaigner and editor of digital trans magazine META, was violently assaulted and abused in the early days of her “transition” when she did not “pass” so well for a woman. She knows countless people who are harassed in their homes and called “freaks” or “perverts” on the streets every day.