At a time when trans activists and celebrities are more visible than ever, you’d probably expect to hear more about the Labour Party’s first elected transgender politician.
But local councillor and trans woman Osh Gantly remains under the radar in many ways, preferring to work on borough-wide issues than tackle LGBT rights from a more outspoken perspective.
However, she has certainly paved the way for other trans Labour politicians to seek election, such as Wolverhampton Council’s Anwen Dawn Muston in 2016, and Emily Brothers, who ran for the parliamentary seat of Sutton and Cheam in 2015.
Osh Gantly is friendly and articulate in person, but nonetheless has a brisk, slightly preoccupied manner that suggests she wastes no time in getting things done.
Elected as a local Labour councillor in 2014, Gantly is a staunch Corbyn supporter and well-versed in the socialist policies he stands for. Originally born and brought up in Ireland, she moved to London 30 years ago to work for the NHS, where she eventually became more involved in local politics. “I never had ambitions to become an active politician,” she says.
Beara of glad tidings: south-west Ireland’s other great peninsula https://t.co/gjk1XYbB4M
— Osh Gantly (@PurrinaCat) March 14, 2017
Her highly successful campaign won back Highbury East from the Lib Dems – all while she was openly presenting as a trans woman. But she takes care to emphasise that her gender identity was not a central focus of her campaigning manifesto.
“I’m a councillor and candidate that happens to be trans, rather than a trans candidate, if you know what I mean,” she says. “I don’t really see it as a big deal, but as a matter of fact. Obviously I feel more able than most to speak on trans issues, but in every other respect I’m just like any other person”.
But surely there was a chance that she might have had to face some backlash or prejudice, either from fellow party members or constituents? “I’ve had nothing but acceptance within the party,” she begins. “There was some trolling on Twitter when I was first elected, but nothing serious.”
“Any time I’ve experienced anything hostile from the public, it’s never been about being trans – it’s because they don’t like the Labour Party,” she says. It sounds like a remarkably smooth transition into politics from the first elected transgender Labour politician.
“You don’t suddenly decide one day that you’re trans – rather, it’s a journey that you inevitably embark upon”
Gantly appears to be at her most comfortable when talking about the political issues surrounding trans rights, rather than her own personal situation. She often praises the work of Conservative MP Maria Miller, chair of the Commons’ Equalities Committee, who recommended several proposals to reform the UK’s gender recognition laws. This would ensure that people with non-binary gender identities could be legally recognised as such, as well as cutting down the red tape needed for trans individuals to change their gender identity in legal documents.
Surprisingly, Gantly singles out her home country, Ireland, as having the “most liberal gender recognition laws in the world” that were introduced following the 2015 same-sex marriage referendum. “There, trans people can get their documents changed just by going into the registrar and completing a report,” she says. “So there’s none of that nonsense that you have to go through here in the UK. Here, you require doctor’s certificates and all sorts of stuff like that – it’s an extremely bureaucratic and long-winded process.”
The overwhelming tendency of UK doctors (and indeed, the media) to view being transgender as a medical condition is a matter that’s very close to Gantly’s heart. “The idea of being trans as a mental health issue is complete nonsense,” she exclaims. “However, being trans can have a mental health impact, depending on your circumstances. Rejection can give rise to feelings of depression, especially if you don’t get access to appropriate treatment.”
I gently ask whether she, Islington’s first specially appointed Mental Health Champion, has had any experiences with these issues herself. “I’m fortunate in that I’ve got access to the sort of support that I need,” she says. “But there are a huge amount of people who don’t, and are feeling lonely and isolated because they can’t raise these issues at home, or because some of the trans-negative stuff in the media leaves them feeling like they’re some kind of freak.”
She prefers not to divulge any further details, other than the fact that she is still currently in transition, and that her NHS employers, family and social circle are very supportive.
“It’s complicated by how the NHS isn’t very well funded in any area, never mind gender services,” she says. “Just like everybody else, the trans community are suffering because of the state of the NHS under the Tories.”
However, she is slightly more forthcoming over what led to her coming out as a transgender woman: “You don’t suddenly decide one day that you’re trans – rather, it’s a journey that you inevitably embark upon. Once you’ve gone through all the denial, you eventually get to a point where you just have to transition.”
From the age of three, Gantly knew that she had different gender preferences. “I would always be looking to play with dolls and prams. But you won’t be surprised to hear that that sort of behaviour was discouraged,” she says, wearily. There is a long pause, heavy with unspoken meaning. “Well, that’s history now.”
Growing up in Catholic Ireland must not have been easy. “Well exactly, Catholic Ireland says it all,” she laughs, without elaborating any further. But if appropriate therapies – including hormone therapies – were available back then, a teenage Osh “would have leaped at the opportunity”.
She seems resigned to the fact that living in Ireland 40 years ago simply did not afford the same opportunities to her as transgender and non-gender-conforming kids now, many of whom are supported by the important work that charities like the Mermaid Trust are doing to help them accept their own gender identities.
Finally, I ask whether Gantly sees herself as a role model to young trans people looking for more representation in the public eye. She hesitates before she answers.
“I don’t really consider myself very inspirational,” she says, slightly embarrassed by the notion. “But if people see that I’m very happy about being trans and leading a successful life, and that gives younger trans people a bit of hope – well, I’m delighted about that.”
Images: Osh Gantly/Twitter