Bradley Manning certainly picked a difficult time to tell the world that he has always wanted to live as a woman. Convicted of leaking 700,000 documents to Wikileaks, Manning -- who went by the name Bradley -- was sentenced to serve 35 years at Fort Leavenworth Prison, a military prison in Kansas. A spokeswoman for the facility told the Today Show that "the Army does not provide hormone therapy or sex-reassignment surgery for gender identity disorder." She now faces at least seven years in federal prison before she is eligible for parole.
One day after the judge pronounced her sentence, Bradley shocked the world by disclosing that she had been living in the wrong body. "I am Chelsea Manning. I am female," the private wrote in a statement. "Given the way that I feel, and have felt since childhood, I want to begin hormone therapy as soon as possible. I hope that you will support me in this transition." In her statement to the Today Show Chelsea Manning thanked her supporters and said:
As I transition into this next phase of my life, I want everyone to know the real me. I am Chelsea Manning... I hope that you will support me in this transition. I also request that, starting today, you refer to me by my new name and use the feminine pronoun (except in official mail to the confinement facility). I look forward to receiving letters from supporters and having the opportunity to write back.
Aside from shock, the first response has been predictable. First, the media questioned when or if they should use the pronoun "she" to describe Private Manning's sentence and request for hormone therapy. Double XX, a feminist section of Slate Magazine, immediately said that all media should use female pronouns. The New York Times managed to write an entire story without using a single pronoun.
Next, attorneys debated whether she has a constitutional right to hormone therapy and reassignment therapy as a prisoner. During her trial for leaking government documents -- the greatest number in American history -- Manning was described as suffering from gender identity disorder. One psychologist testified that she had a "difficult time adjusting to the 'hypermasculine environment of a combat zone." Manning's attorney believes -- or says he believes -- that President Obama will pardon Manning. He will also appeal Manning's request for hormone therapy, arguing that there are precedents for other prisoners receiving such medical care. The American Civil Liberties Union similarly states that it is her constitutional right to seek corrective medical care, but that is not the position of prison officials right now.
Finally, the media began to dig deeper and explore the danger and isolation that Chelsea Manning will face in prison. If placed in a men's prison, which is likely, her life will be in danger and solitary confinement will almost certainly be necessary to protect her from rape or worse. Slate's Double XX article noted that:
As a trans woman living in a men's prison, Manning will not only be denied hormone therapy. She will also face an elevated risk of harassment and sexual assault behind bars from both fellow inmates and members of staff. One 2006 study of California prisons found that trans women housed in men's prisons are 13 times as likely to be sexually abused than other prisoners. That year, 59 percent of transgender women in the system were abused. And Just Detention International, an organization dedicated to ending sexual abuse behind bars, notes that once "targeted for abuse, the majority of transgender survivors are subjected to repeated sexual assaults."
Even if she were placed in a women's prison, she would also face taunts -- and perhaps violence -- that a transgender woman experiences in a prison filled with inmates who make sharpened instruments and frequently express hatred for a man who has decided to live as woman.
In a newly released Netflix-produced television series titled Orange Is the New Black, which recounts the experiences of women prisoners, one of the inmates is a former husband who has had hormone therapy and reassignment surgery. The other women circle her warily, sometimes taunting her, often supporting her. When she can no longer buy hormones, she suffers hot flashes and grows a beard. To get the hormones she need, she ingests a toy so that she can be declared a medical emergency.
The fact is, all institutions are based on a binary system of gender identification. You are either a woman or a man. Bathrooms are for either women or men. So are prisons. Yet years of research and political activism have repeatedly revealed the broad continuum along which women and men find their identity. The idea of gender fluidity, however, is not institutionalized in prisons, and you don't have the choice where you serve your sentence.
In the case of Chelsea Manning, the situation is particularly complicated. She has been court-martialed, sentenced to a military prison, and officials are scoffing at the idea that Chelsea Manning will go to prison as a woman. The transgendered community is still relative new and invisible within the United States. No longer relegated to the streets as prostitutes, many are employed as the women or men they have chosen to be. Chelsea Manning, however, did not come out when she could have chosen hormone therapy and reassignment surgery. As a convicted and imprisoned felon, moreover, she is at the mercy of officials who view her as unpatriotic for giving documents to America's enemies.
The average American does not read feminist books about the "gender fluidity" that undergraduates study -- and sometimes live -- at their universities. They don't know any transgendered individuals and when they see them, they view them freaks, not as people born into the wrong body. Many liberal supporters, therefore, worry that transgendered men and women will be tarnished by Manning's actions. During the McCarthy era, homosexuals were hunted down because of fears they were communists or could be blackmailed into giving secrets to the Soviet Union.
Now some people in the lesbian, gay, and transgendered community fear that social conservatives will argue that people like Chelsea Manning -- unable or unwilling to come out -- will instead turn into leakers of government documents or spies. Some social conservatives, disgusted by her leaks to Wikileaks, already view her as a freak who is "a mentally ill deviant waging a "war on reality."
It is too soon to know how Chelsea Manning will fare in prison and whether her request for hormone therapy and surgical therapy will be approved. Nor has she received the same support given Edward Snowden. She remained in isolation in prison, unable to explain why she leaked government documents. And yet, her justifications for her actions are similar to his. In a statement released after her sentencing, Chelsea Manning explained how much she loved her country, but that she could not tolerate the means used to fight the "war on terror":
It was not until I was in Iraq and reading secret military reports on a daily basis that I started to question the morality of what we were doing. It was at this time I realized in our efforts to meet this risk posed to us by the enemy, we have forgotten our humanity. We consciously elected to devalue human life both in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Whatever her future, one thing is clear: Chelsea Manning has made a great sacrifice by informing the world of this country's hypocrisy and hidden crimes. Now, she may gain the admiration and political support that some Americans have expressed for Edward Snowden. She has also made more people aware of the plight and feelings of transgendered persons than all the political activism did during the last four last decades. Her future, however, is endangered by what will be viewed as her unpatriotic act and her "freakish" life as a transgender woman.
Ruth Rosen, a former columnist for the Los Angeles Times and San Francisco Chronicle, is Professor Emerita of history at the University of Calfiornia, a
regular contribute to openDemocracy.net and many other online magazines. She is the author ofThe World Split Open: How the Modern Women's Movement Changed America. Follow Ruth Rosen at www.ruthrosen.org and at twitter @Ruth_Rosen