THE BLOG
08/19/2013 12:20 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

The Closet and Bradley Manning

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The recent publication of some of Bradley Manning's personal emails and photos about his gender dysphoria, including admissions from his psychiatrist during the sentencing phase of his trial for espionage, once again raise the issue of the "closet" and the pathology created within it.

For purposes of discussion, let's posit that Manning's story is generally true; it is neither a ruse to evoke compassion pre-sentencing nor an attempt by the prosecution to damage the LGBT community by disparaging Manning. And let's accept on face value that being trans had nothing directly to do with the actions that brought about his conviction. Those acts are related to his idealism, or to his personality and character defects, or both, however you choose to view his leaking classified documents.

So what does it say about the state of LGBT acceptance in the small towns of America?
Manning's therapist related that his client joined the military in an attempt to overcome his gender dysphoria. He was not the first -- recent public figures such as Diane Schroer and Kristin Beck come to mind -- nor will he be the last. Many others have joined relatively macho professions or attempted risky behaviors, such as reaching the summit of Mt. Everest for the first time on Coronation Day in 1953. Their purpose was a form of self-administered reparative therapy.

This self-repair can be cloaked in a religious vestment, as was my experience, or it can be completely secular in nature, but the key point lies in the attempt to cure oneself of the feelings, the profoundly intimate knowledge that you're female, even though everyone else perceives you as male, or vice versa. The process usually proceeds for years, often decades, before the erosion of one's resistance to the truth has been completed and you're left with nothing but the raw truth. At that point, should you reach it, you either engage with your truth or take your life. Some people never get to that point and are able to run and hide forever; others come up short in childhood or adolescence. The majority have made it to adulthood, with all the trappings that that involves, before the executive decision must be confronted. As an aside, my motivation for my advocacy is to prevent those decades from being lived with a mask, at best, or fraudulently, at worst, by today's generation of trans children. To allow children to be who they are, with their lives ahead of them.

The waste generated by the closet is primarily personal: the waste of a life lived inauthentically. Gay persons know this just as well as others who've pretended to be someone they really aren't. It's remarkable how universal the closet is, and how familiar the experience. I know people whose fathers wanted them in the family business so badly that they gave up on their dreams to become teachers, and others whose parents wanted them to become doctors when all they wanted was to write or paint. The years pass, you get tired of fighting the familial and social pressures ("the voices around you kept shouting their bad advice"), and before you know it you've convinced yourself that you're right where you belong, or worse, right where you deserve to be.

Then there is the closet of failed personal relationships. A trans person lying to herself often ends up lying to her spouse, children, parents, friends and family. Same for gay men and women pretending to be straight. That's no longer common, but it used to be. Even today, in the orthodox community in Israel, a progressive "solution" to the problem of homosexuality is to marry off gay men to lesbian women. That passes for progressive in that cultural context.

And even when you hook up with a person of appropriate gender identity or sexual orientation for your particular desires, you may end up in an abusive relationship because you never learned how to love or be loved. Decades of the closet had taken their toll. The only "love" you understand is abuse, and your self-worth is so damaged that you believe that it's your fault, that it has always been your fault. That is not an unfamiliar situation for closeted trans persons: living in a state of confusion in a harsh, abusive world that bullies you into believing that you're the sick one, that you're to blame, that you should bear the guilt for the way your brain works. After all, God doesn't make mistakes, as my rabbis told me, and as a Southern Baptist preacher recently told the readers of The Washington Post in his discussion of "the transgender question." As if there were such a thing as "the transgender question." Reminiscent of "On the Jewish Question," the fellow knows not how offensive he is.

Today, with Bradley Manning, we have history repeating itself. For decades gay men were hounded as potential security leaks. Clearly, being a member of such a despised category of people made one susceptible to blackmail and extortion and could possibly drive one to betray one's country to prevent exposure of such an awful secret. That added pressure only drove people more deeply into the closet. It's taken 40-plus years of the gay rights movement to open up that closet and reduce the threat of exposure as a security risk. History, though, repeats itself as tragedy, with Manning caught in a trap of idealism, narcissism, confusion and fear. Did that all lead to the leaking of classified documents? We may never know, but we do know that he should have had access to medical help for his gender dysphoria so that he would never have driven himself into military service for the wrong reasons in the first place. Providing for open and honorable trans military service, as is already the situation in the militaries of Britain, Australia, Israel, and other allies, will go a long way toward preventing such mistakes.

Just as coming out has helped the gay community, it is now helping the trans community, in an accelerating manner, even when the public stories are not the most laudable. Liberation is meant to reduce the social stressors on groups bearing special burdens and obstacles to success so that their members are free to live like everyone else, to succeed or fail, to the best of their unencumbered abilities. We're getting there, the goal being to not have history repeat itself again, this time as farce.

Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You can also visit The Trevor Project or call them at 1-866-488-7386.