Blindsided By a Name --Chelsea Manning

4 years ago

A storm raged, a private little tempest that sprouted over this town during my homeward commute, sparing everything outside a six-mile wide bubble. My short rush from car to home soaked me. Once inside, coping with soggy clothing and not yet motivated to change, I parked in front of my computer and found a message on whether I wished to write on Chelsea Manning.

Chelsea Manning? Who is she? Should I know? I never expected the actual answer. At first glance, I assumed her a soldier finding a different kind of courage, what it takes to say ‘I am a ______’ (insert gender), and challenge an autocratic, patriarchal organisation. Then I read her story.

Huh? Chelsea Manning is… OMG. Even we transsexuals snapped our necks back for a second look at the news, disbelieving. How our view of something can change in a scant nine hours.

I came to this story with some scepticism, wondering whether Chelsea struggled with gender prior to her legal issues [being sentenced to jail for 35 years for sharing more than 200,000 pages of classified documents with Wikileaks]. I found this has been a lifelong issue for Chelsea, not some ‘get out of jail circumstances free’ ploy. The Army released a photo (not included, simply because republishing it has a spectacle sort of feel to it) of Chelsea as Chelsea, from an undated earlier time. Wikipedia claims the Army planned to discharge her in 2010 for gender dysphoria. This should end any claims she is transitioning because of her sentence.

Prisoners and gender dysphoria spark two issues for me. I was a prisoner not so long ago. I spent the time in a male prison camp because the BOP assigns pre-operative transsexuals based on what they see between legs. It didn’t matter I had transitioned 6 years before. It didn’t matter I’m an avowed feminist and lesbian. At least it was a safe environment. I doubt Leavenworth will be a safe environment for Chelsea, not one bit like the fence-less environment where I served my time.

Image Credit: Ladycliff

I fear she faces spending her sentence in solitary confinement 23 hours a day, the prison way of protecting someone. I did it for three days (mandatory on the way in due to testing for tuberculosis). A year? Seven years or however long she will actually serve? Ugh.

When Michelle Kosilek transitioned, it was after incarceration for strangling her wife. I’m still on the fence in regards to her case, skeptical in some ways because she did something heinous and she transitioned in prison rather than before. IMO, Chelsea is a far better candidate. Some regard her as a hero. Many will support her quest. I will.

Chelsea didn’t murder anyone. She leaked documents. She made a choice based on her moral compass, and that is wholly different from Kosilek (or me). My transition was a slow and painful process, semi-completed five years before my indictment. The issue (wire fraud) grew out of a personal meltdown that was a direct result of my transition.

If I had to guess, 75% of this country wants nothing to do with state-funded sex reassignment surgery (a term I dislike, but I’ll save that argument for another time) or provision of hormones. When a prisoner demands these things, the reaction from the public is overwhelming and harsh.

The Army has already balked at providing hormones to Chelsea. The military has its own justice track, but I’ve a feeling this is going to mirror our civilian courts before it is settled. The United States Bureau of Prisons provided Spironolactone and Estradiol to me throughout my 21 months as its guest. Expect her to receive hormones. Expect new stories when the ruling comes down. Expect there to be a strong negative reaction.

Chelsea will be isolated from public opinion in prison, somewhat. Still, I worry. She’s dealing with severe conflict, both from the hard slam of a 35-year sentence and her internal struggle. Coming out is euphoric and liberating, and tonight feels as if it was her version of a counter-punch. But highs evaporate and a great big low looms ahead of her. I faced prison a stronger person, after years of rebuilding my life from the mess it had become by 2003. She’s had no such chance to find and be herself. She’s beyond vulnerable.

Because of this story, some will mock the transsexual community, but the long-term trend is for us to gain ground. There’s no reason why trans-folk can’t serve as soldiers. There’s no longer reason to exclude coverage in health policies. There’s no reason why we can’t remove from society the misjudgements and barriers so we can reduce the damage, too often suicide or reckless behaviour.

What she did and who she is are separate issues in one way, but the two intertwined with her announcement. We as a country have judged her, but now we scrutinize our justice system. Will we see to it prisons address the medical needs of prisoners, or will we be one more country violating rights with inhumane treatment?

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