I was a problem child. Apart from the bed-wetting, I was born with a severe calcium deficiency.
– April Ashley, taken from her official website –
I was 19 when I met a trans woman (male-to-female transgender) for the first time. Her name was Roxy and I think she must’ve been in her mid-thirties. The only thing that gave her away was the size of her beautifully manicured hands and if someone hadn’t pointed them out to me, I probably wouldn’t have been any the wiser.
Confused about my own sexuality at the time — not fully understanding its complexities and nuances — Roxy became an obvious friend and sympathetic confidant for a short while.
I now know that Roxy was ‘living a silent’ life, meaning she was discreet about appearing in public. By no means was she demure. In fact, her smoky, husky voice easily filled a room with the drone of a distant thunder… but only in the privacy of her small condo in Sunnyside, Pretoria — an area which, at the time, was known for its free-spirited bohemian community.
In hindsight, Roxy’s silence and discretion made perfect sense because in the early 90s South Africa wasn’t a very accepting place for people who were not cut and paste from the blue print of prudish religious conservatism — especially in a city like Pretoria. Very few gay men were out and proud, and the only gay bar, Exquisite, was in the backstreets on the outskirts of the wrong side of the city. So, one can barely begin to imagine the social barriers and phobia transgender people experienced. Silence was better and safer… for all of us.
In any event, Roxy didn’t go to ‘those’ place. She was a lady and like she put it to me “This, what I am becoming, is because of how I identify with my body. I know I have the heart, soul, mind and emotions of a woman… when I look in the mirror I want to see who I am. I don’t go to gay bars, because that’s not where I belong. You on the other hand, I can see you like your boy bits. So, you need to figure out if you like dick or fanny. Now, I can tell you where I think your decision lies, but that’s not going to help you one single inch.”
In the last few months of our friendship, Roxy had increasing problems with the hormones she took. A sympathetic doctor in the area who prescribed them cheaply for her lost his practice, leaving her in the midst of her transition and in gender identity limbo.
It was heart-breaking to witness how her body messed with her mind and her emotional state deteriorated rapidly. There was no support, let alone compassion, in the community for someone like her. The fact that she had no financial resources to save her from her hell, made the burden worse. She was trapped between being half of what she knew she was and half of what she hated.
The last day I saw her, she sat in front of her mirror slathering on foundation. “Look at me. It’s a mess. No amount of make-up will fix this. I need help. I need my operation. I need my hormones.”
Jump to November 2013. I’ve been invited to a screening of Dutch director Michiel van Erp’s film ‘I Am A Women Now’, at the Birbeck University of London. The film introduces five trans women, who transitioned in the late 50s — a time when the world transsexual was not mentioned in polite company and admitting to suffering with gender dysphoria or gender identity disorder, would more than like have landed you in a mental institution.
April Ashley, Prof. Marie-Pier Ysser (Bambi), Colette Berends, Jean Lessenich and Corinne van Tongerloo, were among the first men in the world to receive gender reassignment procedures. They all were operated on by the ground-breaking Dr. Georges Burou, the innovator and pioneer of modern male-to-female sex reassignment surgery.
Dr. Burou developed his technique in 1956, and continued to refine and improve it at his “Clinique du Parc”, located at 13 Rue La Pebie in Casablanca, Morocco. It is believed that Dr. Burou performed more than 8000 male-to-female sex reassignment surgeries, until his death in 1987.
Even though the film doesn’t explain how it was possible for a surgeon to perform these controversial operations in a Muslim country, in the 1950s, the stories told by these women are nonetheless richly embroidered with determination, risk and a hopeful pilgrimage that not only reshaped their bodies, but also changed their lives forever.
April Ashley’s last memory before losing her consciousness was of Dr. Burou leaning over her bed and saying, “Au revoir monsieur.” When she woke up after the 9 hour operation, Dr. Burou greeted her again, this time saying: “Bonjour mademoiselle.” She says that those were the most lovely words she’d ever heard.
George Jamieson, originally from Liverpool, effectively died on the operating table that day, and was reborn as April Ashley. April’s story in particular is very touching. She recalls how, as a boy, “my mother used to hang me upside-down and bang my head on the floor.”
Throughout his childhood George, grew used to being referred to as “it”. “People would look at me and say, ‘What is it?’” At 11, he was raped by a family friend. At 14, he ran away from home and joined the Merchant Navy. “I wanted to follow in my father’s footsteps and I became a deck-hand to try to prove my masculinity.”
As a young man, April had a number of failed suicide attempts that eventually led to his incarceration at a mental hospital where his legs and one arm were tied to his bed, while being pumped full of male hormones or given regular sessions of electric-shock treatment.
Eventually in Paris, at the drag club La Carrousel where he worked, rumours went around about a doctor in Casablanca who performed ‘sex change’ operations. But it wasn’t until a friend at the bar passed George a slip of paper with the surgeon’s telephone number on it that he decided to have the operation.
The day after he arrived in Casablanca he was operated on. By this point Dr. Borou had only done eight sex changes. “Basically, I was a guinea pig, but I knew I couldn’t have gone on living like that. Anything was preferable, really. And, as soon as I woke up, I had the most extraordinary feeling. Even though I’d lost a lot of blood and all my hair had fallen out, it was as though my brain was in tune with the rest of my body for the first time in my life.”
Shortly after her rebirth, April’s modelling career kicked off and for a brief time she was Vogue’s most popular underwear model. Her good fortune didn’t last long though and she became the subject of an exposé in the Sunday People revealing that she had once been a man — a friend sold her story to the newspaper for £5. This marked the beginning of many heartaches for April in which she was betrayed by lovers, a husband and friends.
She became a heavy drinker and scavenged for work where ever she went, being a waitress, a hostess, she even sold art for a while… But whenever people learned about her she had to pack up and go somewhere else.
April remains poised throughout the film, except for the final scene in which she speaks about her father and reuniting with him shortly before his death. Her theatricality falls away and her direct stare becomes glassy and unfocused. She breaks down…
One is left with the knowing that underneath the veneer of her powdered face and ox blood lips, the sipping of champagne and speaking in a voice that stretches each vowel, lies the haunting reality of the pain of isolation.
This is where “I Am A Women Now” hit me right in the gut. All the women depicted in the film have equally poignant and bittersweet tales to tell. They all carry a sense of triumph and relief because of their transition into womanhood (apart from Jean Lessenich, who remains conflicted about the choices she made). And yet, below the surface there is an ever-present underlying sadness and loneliness — especially when they speak about their challenges of building lasting, intimate and trusting relationships in a world where they are almost always aware of the fact that they are standing on a knife’s edge of betrayal or embrace.
The film is thought-provoking and a shining example of the power of storytelling. I left the screening with a earning to want to know more about the challenges transgender people are facing. However, with personalities like April Ashley and Prof. Marie-Pier Ysser, ‘I Am A Women Now’ gives a slightly glamorized impression of trans women and some may feel unrepresented when they watch the film. This certainly came out in the discussion held after the screening, which was led by Professor Alex Sharpe whose research interest lies in Gender, Sexuality and the Law.
In fact, statistics show that in total, some 1,374 trans people have been murdered in 60 countries since January 2008. And that’s just those that have been reported. In the last 12 months alone, there have been 238 reported cases of murders of trans people, mainly in Brazil, Mexico and the USA — the majority of them being trans women. This is the harsh reality for thousands of transgender people — a far cry from the beautifully delicate rose tinted picture painted in ‘I Am A Woman Now.’
Even though it’s important and empowering to tell survivors’ tales, the lives that have been lost as a result of suicide, violence, hate crime and prejudice should not be forgotten. A film about them — how and why their lives ended — will bring munch needed insight to a topic that certainly deserves far more attention. It will also shine the spotlight on an area in which all of us, the cisgender (people who have always experienced their mental and physical sexes as being aligned at birth), still need a lot of education.
I cannot help but to think of Roxy, who I never saw again after her cry for help that day in front of her mirror. Or maybe I did, when an androgynous-looking figure walked past me a few years later in a mall — gaze fixed to the floor, face covered with what looked like a cheap wig, carrying with him or her a sense of urgency, concern and melancholy. I can’t say for certain, but I did notice the beautifully groomed hands and nails… holding onto a spark of hope. What happened there? How many more are there who have become a mere shadow in their dream of wanting to simply be who they are?
I’m not trying to be a voice for the transgender community and neither do I want to speak on their behalf. They have their own voices; they need a safe platform from where they can be heard. Most importantly, they need an audience that will listen.
On my own journey towards self-acceptance, I have learned that sympathy does not equate understanding. In fact, sympathy can be ones worst enemy. Empathy, on the other hand — really understanding another human being’s situation by taking a walk in their shoes and gaining insights that surpass all differences — will dispel judgement and prejudice, which in turn cultivates acceptance, ultimately leading to social equality.
Because of all these things, ‘I Am A Women Now’ is a must-see documentary… if only to plant the seed of enquiry and to inspire more filmmakers to step up to the challenge.
The Museum of Liverpool is to host a new major exhibition this September looking at the history of transgender people in Britain over the past 70 years, focusing on the experiences of one exceptional individual, April Ashley.
Opening 27 September 2013 – 21 September 2014, April Ashley: Portrait of a lady will – for the first time – explore the story of April Ashley MBE, one of the first people in the world to undergo pioneering gender reassignment surgery.
Image: April Ashley, Sally Payne /CreativeCommons/Flickr- Rights not owned
Image: Marie-Pier Ysser – Rights not owned
Image: La Carrousel Programme – JD Doyle Collection
Image: April Flower, taken from April Ashley’s official website – Rights not owned
Video: Trailer – I Am A Woman Now – Vimeo
Text: Francois Lubbe