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April Ashley, transgender activist, has died

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

A trailblazing figure in the fight for transgender rights has passed away. April Ashley - model, actress, author and activist - died on Monday. She was 86.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

APRIL ASHLEY: Well, I've always said the three things is to be kind to both yourself and to other people; be beautiful both inside and out because if you're beautiful inside, you're beautiful outside; but be bloody brave because you will need it.

KELLY: That is Ashley speaking in 2017. She was born in Liverpool, England, in 1935 and began to question her gender identity from a very early age.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ASHLEY: From the moment I could think, I used to sort of kneel down beside the thing I used to sleep on. And I would say, you know, God bless Mommy. God bless Daddy. And let me wake up a girl.

KELLY: She would later talk openly about the isolation and rejection she felt from her family growing up. But at age 15, she left home, eventually found herself in Paris performing at Le Carrousel, a nightclub famous for its drag shows. The job allowed her to save money. And at age 25, she became just the second Briton to have gender reassignment surgery.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ASHLEY: The morning that I woke up after the operation, to me, was the happiest day of my life.

KELLY: That's Ashley speaking to the BBC in 2013. She began working as a model and actress, featured in Vogue and appeared in films alongside Bob Hope, Bing Crosby and Joan Collins. Then in 1961, a British tabloid outed her as transgender.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ASHLEY: My agent called me, and she said, April, your career is finished. You'll never get another job in this town.

KELLY: After a highly publicized divorce, she eventually settled, for a time, in a small town in Wales, where an interviewer caught up with her in 1980.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ASHLEY: I think I've had a marvelous life, to come out of the back streets of Liverpool, marry a peer of the realm, end up in this beautiful part of the world, have wonderful friends, have quite a few wonderful lovers. What more can you ask for?

KELLY: Along the way, she never stopped advocating for trans rights. And in 2012, she was given the title of Member of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth for her activism. And after years of estrangement, she reconciled with her father in his final days.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ASHLEY: I hadn't seen him for years. And he was amazing because when I walked in, he said, darling, I always knew and you're lovely.

KELLY: April Ashley - model, actress, author and activist for transgender rights. She died this week at the age of 86.

(SOUNDBITE OF APHEX TWIN'S "AVRIL 14TH") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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