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Chelsea Manning: Why Now?

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You've all heard about Chelsea Manning by now.

After her sentencing, she announced that she is living as a woman and asked that she be addressed by her new name and referenced with female pronouns.

I've heard more than a few people wonder, "Why now?"

That's what people asked me when I "came out" and started my transition. In fact, just about every trans person with whom I've spoken has heard the same question

It doesn't matter whether you're 19, 27, 45 (as I was) or 64 (as one member of one of my support groups was) when you decide to begin a life that is truly yours. If you're young, people think you should wait and "think it over." If you transfer in middle age, as I did, people wonder why you didn't start when you were younger. Or, they think you're going through a "midlife crisis" and that you're starting your gender transition instead of buying a red convertible and taking up with a blonde half your age. And,if you're older, people wonder why you're bothering at all.

As the French are fond of saying, the heart has its own needs and desires. It doesn't follow timetables or the dictates of society. For many of us, including me and Chelsea Manning, the discordance between the gender identity we intuitively feel and the one our doctors, parents, schools, churches and communities proscribe for us becomes apparent at an early age. Many of us don't yet have the vocabulary to express it (I experienced my conflict even before I knew the words "boy" and "girl"), while others, if they have the words, don't know how to make it make sense to anybody else, or whether anyone will understand, let alone sympathise with, them.

So, in various ways, we try to suppress, abandon or destroy what we are. I liken my experience to experience to binding and gagging someone, tying concrete blocks to her neck and tossing her off the George Washington Bridge. As any contract killer or police investigator can tell you, such a body will inevitably rise to the surface when it's full of gases, not on someone else's schedule. That's why killers usually flee as quickly as possible after disposing the body.

Somehow mine survived.

To extend the metaphor, not only did Justine survive the attempts I made, in my male identity, to destroy her; she called me up, if you will, early in my adulthood. And, in essence, I said, "I'll call you right back." About two decades later, I picked up the phone, if you will, and the voice on the other end intoned, "Me again."

Now, as I do not know Chelsea Manning and am therefore not privy to her thoughts and feelings, I can't tell you exactly how she came to terms with her gender identity. But it came to the fore, as it inevitably does. For many trans people, whatever and whomever we're suppressing becomes more insistent when we're under stress. The stresses can be external, as they undoubtedly were for then-Bradley while in Iraq with the Army, or they can be an accumulation of frustrations, failures in relationships and wells of unshed tears.

One thing I will say for Chelsea: In at least one way, she handled her gender identity issues more nobly than I dealt with mine. Although she mentioned her struggle at the time she was arrested, she didn't use it in an attempt to curry favor with those who were judging, prosecuting and sentencing her. In waiting until her sentence was rendered before announcing her intention to live as she believes she was meant to live, she signaled that she was not blaming her leaking of documents (whatever one thinks of such an action) on her internal struggles or even on the harassment she experienced while in uniform. And she has never expressed any ill will toward those who harassed her or otherwise made her life -- whether before or after she donned the uniform, or the wig and lipstick -- more difficult than it should have been.

The way I see it, Chelsea Manning announced her intent to live authentically simply because she could no longer prevent herself from doing so. Every trans person who has made the transition (at least, every one with whom I've spoken) has had such a moment. Chelsea's came when it did; there probably was nothing she could do about it. All she can do now is (please indulge me in a few clichés) to live in the moment, look ahead and move forward, whatever that will mean for her. And all anyone else can do is to hope and help that she will find herself in the conditions that will, if not nurture, at least not suffocate, her newly-born self.

For Chelsea Manning, the moment came. And it is now.