Clearly Bradley Manning has created a stir by asking to be referred to as Chelsea Manning from now on. I believe that a person is entitled to being referred to anyway they want and so for the rest of this column I will refer to Manning as she or her.
That doesn't change the fact that there is going to be a debate over whether she helped or hurt the cause of the transgender community (the term transgender being defined in the Oxford dictionary as an adjective "denoting or relating to a person whose self-identity does not conform unambiguously to conventional notions of male or female gender") to be more understood and accepted.
The transgender community has spent many years trying to get people to understand them and to accept that changing ones gender identification is not something people do lightly but rather do so to be able to live their lives being true to who they are. Monica Hesse wrote in the Washington Post that Kristin Beck, the former Christopher Beck, a Navy Seal Team 6 member "who came out as transgender in 2011 and wrote a book, Warrior Princess," said that when "she learned that WikiLeaker Manning had also come out as transgender, she was furious. 'I'm fighting for equality, dignity and respect... this person, Manning, is doing the opposite.'"
Clearly there are mixed feelings even in the transgender community about Manning so it is not surprising that the general population is totally conflicted about her. While Manning has her defenders, she is a convicted criminal who many believe stole and leaked information that hurt her country. Manning admitted what she did and actually apologized for it at her trial and accepted that she will be punished for it.
The public is being asked by Manning to not only accept that she is transgender but that we collectively pay for her hormone treatments while she is incarcerated. For many that is too big a pill to swallow. I have heard comments from people to the effect, "He committed his crimes as a man, so let him serve his time as a man and then he can do what he wants after he is released from prison." Without an understanding of what it means to be transgender, that seems to be a very rational position. But then, is it rational to insist that someone not be able to be who they feel they are for possibly the next 35 years of their life, and is the national good served by that?
If we accept that gender dysphoria, with which Manning was diagnosed while in the army before he was arrested, is a medical condition, then we need to look at it the same way as if Manning were diagnosed with cancer in prison and was entitled to treatment. The treatment for this diagnosis is hormone replacement therapy (hrt) and physicians say that it can cost up to $400 a month. The next step after this therapy could be surgery with associated costs of up to $19,150 according to the Philadelphia Center for Transgender Surgery as reported in the Washington Post. Not all transgender persons want to go through surgery. But the fight over what Chelsea Manning is entitled to will continue to be in the news for years to come and the transgender community will have to deal with not only explaining to the public what it means to be transgender but the possibility of having Manning as a poster woman for the movement. Many believe that would be very unfortunate.
There are many people better equipped to help the general public not only understand what it means to be transgender but why one must be allowed to live their life and be respected for whom they are. This includes people like Chaz Bono, Kristin Beck, Jay Brown of the Human Rights Campaign and the very impressive Mara Keisling, Executive Director of the National Center for Transgender Equality. They and others will be faced with trying to turn the publicity about Chelsea Manning into something positive, and it won't be easy.
Members of the LGBT community themselves have fought over the issue of whether we turn down any legislation moving toward equality that doesn't include the transgender community. This fight has gone on in the Congress over the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) and in state and local legislatures as well. So adding Manning to the discussion may not be helpful in these fights. I can foresee some conservative members of Congress using Manning as the reason to not vote for inclusive legislation. That would be sad for the entire LGBT community. So whether we refer to Manning as 'he or she' is only the tip of the iceberg as we continue the fight for full equality.