In July 2013, Chelsea Manning (previously known as Bradley Manning) was charged with espionage against the United States. Working as an intelligence analyst to an army base, Manning had access to confidential government documents, which she later transmitted to WikiLeaks — an organization devoted to publishing secret information for the purpose of informing the public. The case drew further interest when chat logs with the government were released and it became publicly known that Manning identified herself as a trans-woman. How will the circumstances of this situation — Manning being charged for violating the Espionage Act and identifying as a trans-woman — shape public perception not only of Manning, but of the transgender community as a whole?
This question is quickly complicated when we examine the structural elements of the case. Manning was sentenced to serve 35 years in a men’s prison, which leads us to question how her transition to female will be affected. This hot-button topic reflects the social anxieties surrounding gender and sexuality in twenty-first century America, and through the publicity of this case, we are forced to start a conversation about what it means to be transgender.
Before examining the public reception of Chelsea Manning identifying herself as a trans-woman, we must investigate how transgender men and women have been historically treated in prison. The primary concern for most inmates is securing their own safety, which is often achieved through violence and domination. This hyper-masculine subculture governs the social hierarchy within the prison walls and is often dictated by sexual violence, which means that an individual who identifies as a trans-woman is in astronomically more danger. In terms of a transgender population, Jennifer Levi, director of Transgender Rights Project for Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders of Corrections and Rehabilitation, calculated that 330 transgender inmates exist in a total population of 160,000 inmates in federal prisons. This means that transgender inmates only account for 0.2% of the incarcerated population. Many states fail to provide alternative facilities or accommodations due to the small population and the fact that it is not cost effective, which in turn contributes to the victimization of transgender inmates.
Secondly, when a social system relies on exhibiting hyper-masculinity for status, having female characteristics as a trans-woman instantly makes these individuals vulnerable to abuse. In “We Have Tolled the Bell for Him: An Analysis of the Prison Rape Elimination Act and California’s Compliance as It Applies to Transgender Inmates,” Karri Iyama estimates that trans-women inmates who exhibit female characteristics are “more vulnerable to sexual victimization at a rate of 13.4 times higher than the general population.” Most disturbing is the fact that little has been done to reduce this statistic. In fact, most states do not even provide policies that address transgender inmates, and therefore, staff members are left the responsibility to place inmates where they believe is best. The states that lack housing policies for transgender people rely on the individual’s genitals to dictate where an inmate should be placed. However, this is extremely problematic when an inmate identifies as transgender but has yet to receive surgery or hormone therapy before entering prison. Once in prison, those who identify as transgender will most likely not receive hormone therapy or reassignment surgery.
After Manning was brought to court, it was later leaked from chat logs with the government that she identifies as a trans-woman. Many questioned why Chelsea failed to bring up her struggle with gender identity during the trial, and after several interviews, she asserted that she did not want her statement about gender to “overshadow the case.” When asked about her gender identity, Manning stated, “As I transition into this next phase of my life, I want everyone to know the real me. I am Chelsea Manning. I am a female. Given the way I have felt since childhood, I want to begin hormone therapy as soon as possible.”
Although Manning wishes to receive hormone therapy to aid in her transition, Fort Leavenworth, the prison where Manning will serve her sentence, does not offer this therapy. The army has made it very clear that they do not provide hormone therapy for “Gender Identity Disorder”, which is the label that doctors gave to Manning’s ailment. Medically classifying transgender as a “disorder” implies that those who are transgender are mentally ill. However, using the definition provided by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-IV) could actually be beneficial for Manning’s case; by claiming that gender identity is a disorder, it would need to be treated as any other psychiatric disorder, which could obligate the military to pay for her hormone therapy. Thus, there should be no reason why Manning should be deprived hormone therapy while incarcerated, but the government’s resistance speaks to the social anxieties and discomfort we feel when discussing sexuality outside of the traditional realm.
Manning’s case has captured the attention of Americans nationwide. For many, this may be the first time they have learned about people who are transgender. This certainly presents an obstacle, especially when we examine how Mannings’s role as a whistleblower affects public reception of her transition. When examining the history of sexuality, there is a clear pattern in the way “others” have been treated. When deviations from the status quo occur, they are often met with much social resistance. This is extremely relevant to the case of Chelsea Manning, and more broadly, to all individuals identifying as transgender. In our culture, we typically find that societal resistance is rooted in religious beliefs, politics or social conservatism, and for many, it is simply the fear of the unknown. We must also recognize that every individual is a product of the environment in which he or she grew up. When we examine the belief system of American society, there are distinct ideological differences between older and younger generations, especially regarding social issues. We must take this into consideration when we examine how the public will receive Chelsea Manning, and who will be her primary opponents and supporters.
When Manning declared herself to be a trans-woman, she was catapulted further into the spotlight. The combination of Chelsea Manning as a whistleblower and as a transgender individual may arouse negative attitudes from those who were previously unfamiliar with the transgender community or who were against these individuals for religious or ideological reasons.
According to the American Sociological Association, “Even if students have some familiarity, it may only be drawn from scattered images of transgender people in popular culture- particularly form sensationalistic talk shows.” Regardless of public opinion surrounding the legality of the case, we must use Chelsea Manning’s situation as an opportunity to ignite national discussion about transgendered people both to educate society and as a way to challenge the crystallization of negative stereotypes and assumptions. Using Manning’s case as a platform for discussion, we must work towards developing a deeper cultural understanding of what it means to be transgender, re-examine the American prison system and perhaps most importantly, aim to change the negative treatment of prisoners that exists in our society. •