April Ashley, Transsexual Pioneer, Dies at 86

Last month April Ashley died. Her New York Times Obituary can be found by clicking Here.

In 1962 she saved my life just by existing. Back then I was a lonely trans-kid living in small rural towns in the Adirondacks and further north in St. Lawrence county New York. I was 15 and had been getting busted dressing up by my parents for a couple of years.

I had heard the names of women who had changed sex before. Christine Jorgensen, Roberta Cowell and others. But their stories were usually limited to a photo caption or a short paragraph or two. The summer of 1962 a tabloid ran a series of articles about April Ashley and her friend and co-worker Bambi (Marie-Pierre Pruvot). It gave her a biography, a history and showed how it was possible for someone like me to do the same.

I clipped those articles and a few others and cherished them because they gave me hope and sustained me in my loneliness.

In the fall of 1962 we faced the Cuban Missile Crisis. We lived about 75 miles or so from the city of Plattsburgh, NY which was home to a major air force base and was surrounded by numerous missile silos. We had been raised with the awareness that a nuclear war would mean probable annihilation which we should face with courage.

I was a teenage trans-kid, my parents knew the path I would walk. I knew the path I would walk. But words had a way of remaining unspoken as though not saying those words meant there was the possibility of a different future.

It had been a school day. My father and mother were there when I got home from school, clippings in hand, an air about them that told me I was in serious trouble, that I might be thrown out.

“Is this what you are?” “Is this what you want to be?”

Thanks to those clipping, that tabloid biography of April Ashley I knew, not thought I might be but knew. I answered, “That is what I am, isn’t it?” There it was the words had been spoken. I wasn’t thrown out, the world didn’t go to war.

I had a role model, I had a dream. I had a vague sort of road map. I would go on to graduate from High School and unhappily go on to college. Over the next four years or so John Rechy’s book “City of Night” would add details of the world and Dr Harry Benjamin’s book would give me the technical knowledge I needed.

In 1967 I made my way to San Francisco and by early 1969 I had hooked up with the Center For Special Problems and was on hormones. I was a patient of Dr. Benjamin. By now one no longer had to seek out surgeons in Casablanca, Denmark or Tijuana. There was Stanford University Medical Center in Palo Alto and a program with support groups. We had our own words, our own way of thinking about what we were doing.

We became our own role models. Later people would decide to erase the words we used and replace them with euphemisms aimed at obscuring differences between those of us who actually got sex reassignment surgery and those who didn’t.

But still, 60 years later I remember, remember how much comfort it gave me reading April Ashley’s story and knowing I wasn’t alone and how it was possible. I’ve said before the first few made SRS seem like manned space travel. By the 1960s it was like transoceanic passenger flights by 1970 and since like hopping on a commuter flight.

But always I will remember April Ashley.

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