26 September 2013

Museum of Liverpool and Homotopia open major April Ashley exhibition

By Colin Bailey

On Friday 27th September, the Museum of Liverpool will open a major exhibition telling the story of the irrepressible April Ashley – one of the first people in the world to undergo gender reassignment surgery – and the history of transgender people in Britain over the past 70 years.

On until 21 September 2014, April Ashley: Portrait of a lady is the first major exhibition to look at April’s story and also uncover personal accounts of the lives of other transgender people, who have been affected by the same experiences as April.

April Ashley said: "I'm very excited. I could never have imagined that when I left Liverpool sixty years ago I would one day return to an exhibition about my life in the Museum!"

April was a successful model and actress, photographed by David Bailey, appearing in Vogue. When the news of her gender reassignment was revealed to the world by the Sunday People in 1961, her impact on sexual and gender debate was to make history, which continues to be as relevant today as it was then.

The year-long exhibition and project has been funded with a £78,000 grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) and curated by Homotopia in partnership with National Museums Liverpool. It will draw on April Ashley’s previously unseen photographic archive and personal documents to investigate the wider impact of changing social and legal conditions for all transgender, lesbian, gay and bisexual people from 1935 to today.

April Ashley was born George Jamieson in Liverpool in 1935. She prayed each morning she would wake up a girl, and joined the Merchant Navy aged 14 to escape an unhappy home life and the confusion around her gender. While abroad, April attempted suicide, trying again when she returned home and was then admitted to a mental institution for electric shock treatment.

April later moved to Jersey and then Paris where she transitioned from male to female, working at Le Carrousel nightclub to earn the money she needed for pioneering gender reassignment surgery. April was Dr Georges Burou’s ninth patient when she had the surgery at his clinic in Casablanca, Morocco in 1960.

It is Le Carrousel that provides an important centrepiece for the exhibition, which allows April’s story to be told against the backdrop of this sophisticated 1950s Parisian nightspot, which gave her the confidence to make her dream a reality. The reconstruction of the club within the exhibition includes a screen whereby visitors can watch footage of April and the various landmark occasions that have punctuated her eventful life.

Gary Everett, Exhibition Curator and Director of Homotopia said: “We wanted the visitor to be completely immersed in April’s life, experiencing the glamour of Le Carrousel while learning the story behind the face we’ve seen in the papers, and the many obstacles she’s had to overcome.”

After being ‘outed’ as transsexual by the Sunday People, her life was often headline news, including her divorce from The Honourable Arthur Corbett - later 3rd Baron Rowallan – in 1970. The judge ruled that April remained a biological man and the marriage was therefore invalid and annulled. This very public divorce set a legal precedent for transsexuals that remained until 2004 when the Gender Recognition Act was passed to legally allow people to change gender.

Gary continues: “April has had an astonishing life but throughout it all she has fought for her rights, and provided advice and support for those suffering similar discrimination. The impact her life has had on law and legal definitions of gender and identity has been enormous, and her strength and determination is admired by many, which led her to receiving the MBE in 2012.”

The exhibition has been part of an ongoing project by Homotopia and funded by HLF to record and reflect shifting social attitudes and representations of gender and sexuality. The exhibition will feature personal histories captured by the project, telling individual experiences and of the impact April has had on the movement from marginalisation and prejudice towards inclusion and equality.

Janet Dugdale, Director of the Museum of Liverpool said: “This exhibition is highly significant in telling the story of an iconic figure in Liverpool’s history. The Museum of Liverpool is dedicated to highlighting the many landmark events and people associated with Liverpool. As one of Britain’s first transsexual women to undergo gender reassignment surgery, April Ashley’s story - which began in this, her home city - has had a tremendous impact on the trans community and people across the globe.

“The exhibition is internationally important and will share April’s story along with experiences of transgender people during the last 70 years. As a social history museum it was essential for us to be involved, supporting Homotopia to co-produce the exhibition in order to share with our visitors how April’s life has influenced the social, political and legal aspects of transgender people’s histories.”

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