Bradley Manning, who has been sentenced to 35 years in prison for leaking government and military documents, announced Thursday intentions to live as a woman, requesting that she now be identified as Chelsea and with female pronouns. She provided the following statement on “the next stage of my life”:
I want to thank everybody who has supported me over the last three years. Throughout this long ordeal, your letters of support and encouragement have helped keep me strong. I am forever indebted to those who wrote to me, made a donation to my defense fund, or came to watch a portion of the trial. I would especially like to thank Courage to Resist and the Bradley Manning Support Network for their tireless efforts in raising awareness for my case and providing for my legal representation.
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 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. 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.
Manning’s lawyer, David Coombs, explained to The Today Show that she didn’t want her identity to distract from the trial. She will not ask to live in a female prison, but she does hope to begin hormone therapy while serving out her sentence. Unfortunately, Fort Leavenworth has stipulated that it does not provide hormone therapy or sex-reassignment surgery to inmates, but Coombs is prepared to fight for her right to access hormone therapy.
This announcement provides an important opportunity for understanding and respecting transgender identities. According to the Williams Institute, an estimated 0.3 percent of the population, around 700,000 people, identifies as a gender other than what they were assigned at birth. Manning’s circumstances may be extraordinary, but her identity less-so.
Anchors on the morning shows continued to refer to Manning with male pronouns when discussing this announcement, even despite her explicit request to respect her new identity. Even Today‘s Savannah Guthrie struggled during the interview with the change — “her/him” — despite her clear efforts to acknowledge the transition. The GLAAD reference guide specifically calls on journalists to use a trans person’s chosen name and pronouns.
Abuse could be a real concern for Manning while transitioning in a men’s prison. A study of transgender discrimination found that 16 percent of trans people who had been to prison experienced physical assault and 15 percent reported experiencing sexual assault.
Leavenworth does provide psychiatric care, and so an important determination will need to be made about whether Manning’s gender transition is medically necessary. This was the case for Michelle Kosilek, an inmate in Massachusetts, who successfully sued but continues to fight for the right for sex-reassignment surgery as prescribed by her prison doctors. Not providing the recommended care for a trans inmate could arguably be considered cruel or unusual punishment.
It’s important to note that Manning might not seek surgery. Guthrie asked Coombs many questions about surgery, but it’s not necessarily a defining experience for all trans people’s transitions. It’s a decision Manning might make later in her treatment, but it may not be the only or even most important aspect of her transition. To reject Chelsea Manning’s identity or deny her the proper care could spark entirely new debates about whether or not she is being subjected to inhumane treatment during her incarceration.