A trans* icon at the Museum of Liverpool

Last week I visited Liverpool and finally got to see the April Ashley: portrait of a lady exhibition at the Museum of Liverpool. The year long exhibition (running until 21st September 2014 update: extended until 7th December) was co-curated by Homotopia and funded by HLF. It’s focus is on the life of April Ashley, but is shaped around a timeline that charts the developments nationally and in the US for trans* people more generally.

April, who is now 79, was born in Liverpool and moved to Paris in the 1950s where she started transitioning. She is one of the first people from the UK to undergo gender reassignment surgery, and was famously ‘outed’ by the Sunday People in 1961 with the headline ”Her’ secret is out’, after which she struggled to work again in the UK, where formerly she had modelled for such publications as Vogue. A mainstay in British headlines since then, Ashley has become a highly regarded activist for trans* issues.

The exhibition is quite small, and occupies an interesting space overlooking the rather ugly sweeping staircase, but as such, it attracts visitors who might otherwise have avoided or not been interested in it, as it is not really a separate space from the main flow of the museum. There were a surprising number of families with young children at the exhibition when I was there.

Alongside the ephemera from Ashley’s life and some original artworks, is an interactive screen from which you can listen to oral histories from a variety of trans* people. I only listened to snippets from two of them (I wasn’t overly keen on the interactive thing), but you can read them here, and listen to a few here.

The most interesting part of the exhibition for me, was the recreated cabaret stage area, which was paying homage to Le Carousel in Paris, where many gender variant people found refuge and worked as performers in the 50s and 60s. The screen on the stage showed short films from and about trans* people, and was a really nice feature.

It’s a respectfully done exhibition, the language and pronouns used are all refreshingly appropriate, and the balance between a singular narrative, and a wider social and legal landscape is just right. Not long left to visit if you haven’t already.

‘Miss April’ by Ben Youdan (2012)

(It was tricky to take a picture of this one without it being a “selfie”)

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