By Kay Jones
Everyone has a birth certificate and most of us have birthday cards we have received from family members, so what is so special about these? Together they represent truly significant milestones, historically, legally and socially, not just for April Ashley but for all transgender people. For April herself this birth certificate is a symbol of freedom, a declaration and proof to the world that she is finally legally recognised simply as the person she is and has always been.
“45 years and four months after I became the woman I wanted to be, I had a piece of paper to prove I really am April Ashley. I feel free at last.”
April Ashley’s original birth certificate lists her as a boy: George Jamieson, born in Sefton General Hospital, Liverpool, in 1935. However, from a very young age April felt and looked like a girl. As a teenager, April did not grow facial hair, her voice refused to break, and she began to develop breasts. She struggled alone with her gender identity.
In 1955, after many unsuccessful attempts to ‘cure’ her, April left Liverpool for London, aged 20. Here she had the anonymity and freedom to accept and reveal her true identity. She began to call herself ‘Toni’ and wear female clothes and make-up. A year later she began working as a singer and dancer at the famous Le Carrousel de Paris, which was renowned for its spectacular performances by male and female impersonators. By 1960 she had saved enough money to attempt pioneering gender reassignment surgery in Casablanca, Morocco. She was only the ninth patient on which Dr George Burou, a leader in his field, had performed the surgery. She told him that it was “the happiest day of my life”. After the surgery, with her statuesque good looks and newfound confidence she became a high profile fashion model and actress.
A year later, April met Arthur Corbett, an Eton-educated aristocrat who was fully aware of her personal history. They married two years later but the relationship soon broke down. Corbett petitioned for divorce in 1967, using the grounds that April was born male and therefore the marriage was illegal. The medical and legal position on transsexuality was divided, no consensus on whether a person could legally change gender could be reached, and it was left to the divorce court to decide. In February 1970, the ground-breaking case of Corbett v Corbett was heard. The judge Lord Justice Ormrod created a medical ‘test’ and definition to determine the legal status of April, and by extension, all transsexual people. He ruled in February 1971 that ‘she was male’ and the marriage was annulled. This ruling became the legal precedent used to define the gender of transsexual people for subsequent decades.
April continued her campaign to have her true gender recognised. In the 1990s and early 2000s she lobbied and wrote to Prime Minister Tony Blair and the Lord Chancellor, remaining resolutely committed to changing the law for all transgender people. The then Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, who had worked with April in the 1950s, helped her with the process.
In 2004, the Gender Recognition Act was passed which allows transsexual people to change their legal gender. After successfully applying to the Gender Recognition Panel, April was given a Gender Recognition Certificate*. With this certificate she was able to acquire her new birth certificate which finally legally recognises her as a female.
Alongside the legal changes that have occurred over April’s life, there have also been profound social transformations in relation to transgender people. These have occurred in communities and families across the UK.
April’s family life growing up was extremely difficult. Her family, and especially her mother, Ada Jamieson, struggled profoundly with the changes that April was undergoing. Following her surgery, and after many years of estrangement, however, they did reconcile.
Ada officially recognised April as her daughter with this birthday card, writing inside, “To a dear daughter on her birthday”. You can imagine the sense of joy that April felt upon receiving it. This simple message confirmed that her mother recognised her as the person she was, and had always been. Sadly their reunion was not to last.
In 2012 April was appointed a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) for services to transgender equality and continues to be an icon and inspiration to many today.
The certificate and birthday card are currently on display in ‘April Ashley: portrait of a lady’ exhibition at the Museum of Liverpool, 27 September 2013 – 21 September 2014. The exhibition is the first of its kind to look at the history of transgender people in Britain over the past 70 years, focusing on the experiences of April Ashley.
*(Gender Recognition Certificates allow transgender people full recognition of their acquired sex in law for all purposes, including marriage, with two main exceptions. The two main exceptions are a right of conscience for Church of England clergy (who are normally obliged to marry any two eligible people by law), and that the descent of peerages will remain unchanged. Additionally, sports organisations are allowed to exclude transsexual people if it is necessary for ‘fair competition or the safety of the competitors’).
Kay Jones is Curator of Community History at National Museums Liverpool.