Thursday, April 10, 2014

Transgender prisoner Chelsea Manning, formerly Bradley Manning, has a hearing April 23 on her request to make the name change legal. Manning is the 26-year-old army private found guilty of leaking thousands of U.S. classified documents to WikiLeaks in 2010. After a highly publicized trial, Manning was found guilty July 30 on 20 counts, including espionage, theft and computer fraud. She has recently hired a new legal team to appeal her case, aiming to “significantly reduce” her 35-year sentence. For now, she continues to serve her time in a medium-security federal men's prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. “She reports that she has made friends at Fort Leavenworth, and only wishes to be able to live as herself,” according to the Chelsea Manning Report Network.

Manning came out as a transgender woman after sentencing. She has repeatedly offered to pay for hormone replacement therapy since incarceration so she can complete transitioning. The American Civil Liberties Union has recently joined Manning’s attorney, David Coombs, in advocating for hormone treatment. In September, the Army Medical Command said that Fort Leavenworth cannot provide such treatment.

Tentative legislative progress was made for working transgender persons last July when the Senate passed the Employment Non-Discrimination Act by 64 to 32.  The act, still awaiting a vote in the House, would ban discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people in the workplace. Although the bill is predicted to rally a majority of House representatives, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has asserted that the bill will not come to a vote within the remaining year.

TriQuarterly asked author Aaron Raz Link for his thoughts on the case and its reverberations.


The Manning case was a major national news story about an American soldier, state secrets, and war. These are core themes in many of our hero stories. The twist was that an American soldier gave away state secrets, not to enemy agents, but to the public. The motive was not profit or allegiance to a foreign government, but a soldier’s moral conviction that the way America is going to war is wrong. Writers about the case were clear it was a Big Story; they were divided as to whether Bradley Manning was the hero or the villain. Then Manning turned out to be transsexual, and the story disappeared.

There has been a new crop of stories about Chelsea Manning. These are human-interest features about a victim, or a crazy person. Both are familiar roles in which to cast a transsexual person. Both choices equally erase her choice, which is at the center of the news story: a soldier with access to damning state secrets consciously decides to reveal them.

We’re losing a public conversation about our responsibilities as Americans when what’s familiar, what’s legal, and what’s right don’t line up, for a—more or less—sympathetic sideshow.

As a man, I don’t know what it’s like to feel one is really a woman. I also can’t say what it’s like to be transsexual in the U.S. military. However, a recent study by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and the Williams Institute found 20 percent of Americans who are trans have served in the military, twice the service rate of non-trans people. I’ll leave it to women veterans (transsexual and not) to say whether they felt they had to either “man up” or disappear in order to serve in our nation’s armed forces. But as a transsexual man, I can speak to the question of secrets.

Trans people have always been on battlefronts, in war and at home, whether or not our stories are heard. You might say all transsexual people deal with “state secrets.” For many U.S. states and other institutions, people who change sex do not officially exist: a person can be male or female, but not one sex and then the other. (Gender identity is rarely state business, but physical sex emphatically is.) The proof we do exist is in documents requiring special stamps and clearances, past photographs of us that people strategically reveal or destroy, information we must carefully control to protect our lives and safety.

In most states transsexual people have no human rights. What is right, what is familiar, and what is legal are not the same for us as for others. A state I live in or drive through may decide my marriage is illegal or my children should be taken away. (We’re not allowed to adopt in any state.) If I court a partner, I may be jailed for fraud. My landlords can evict me or raise my rent if they find out I’m trans. Most employers will not hire a trans person (the same study found 53 percent of trans veterans were  denied civilian jobs due to bias; 54 percent were harassed at work, 36 percent fired, 9 percent physically assaulted, and 8 percent sexually assaulted at work), and a routine employment history or background check will reveal your past. Counselors who know often decide in advance you’re delusional. Doctors often won’t see you for a check-up or a cancer diagnosis. Insurance companies routinely refuse to pay for covered care. Police who know a person was attacked because they’re transsexual often won’t arrest the attacker. If I’m hit by a car, the paramedics who cut my clothes away may leave me to die in the street, no matter how de rigueur my underwear.

In most cities and towns in the United States it’s legal to refuse us access to public pools, hotels, apartment leases, home loans, emergency shelter, jobs, bathrooms, locker rooms, air travel, or even a hamburger at the lunch counter where non-transsexual people are served. I can’t quote statistics on how often these things happen, because agencies that gather statistics on discrimination and hate crimes do not count discrimination and hate crimes against us. This list comes from my own experience, legal cases, and several years working in a resource program for trans people.

Male Americans aged eighteen to twenty-five are required to register for military service, or be ineligible for federal student loans and government jobs. I am a male American, but did not become such until I was over twenty-five, so I need a special document, called a transsexual status information letter, to apply for a federal student loan or job. Someone could destroy that letter, someone could refuse to issue a replacement; now I can’t work for the government or go to college. (I think of the recent loss of the Voting Rights Act.) We must think very carefully about what confidential documents we hand to whom.

In Manning’s case, the response of the U.S. military to the news she’s transsexual was to explain there’s no need either to let her become physically female, or to deal with the assault risk to a very small male person named Chelsea in a men’s military prison. So the response of our military to the danger that U.S. military guards might attack an unarmed noncombatant is to deny that the problem exists. Which has been the story of the Manning case all along. The primary state secret Chelsea Manning revealed is that U.S. soldiers have been attacking unarmed noncombatants in Iraq and Afghanistan, and our military has focused its energy not on preventing or reducing the problem, but on hiding the evidence.

When anyone’s existence becomes a difficult fact, some will say the solution is for them to disappear. For Chelsea Manning, these are people who insist in print, broadcast, and online media that only a man named Bradley exists; who ensure that she has no access to the inexpensive pills that would make her visibly a woman; and who prefer that we avoid honest conversations about selective human rights abuses like prison rape. Transsexual people can be disappeared through parlor tricks of language and dirty tricks of law. But we are hardly the only ones whose lives literally depend on how people see us. (I think of those civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan, and at home, of Trayvon Martin.) We can be disappeared by the violence that comes from overt bigotry. But more often we are removed from society and from life by the weight of individual people’s daily, small decisions that we that we need to be watched, dealt with, our differences mean we are not quite right.

Manning revealed secrets she believed are doing us harm as a nation. Some might wish she had been further along in her process of thought. It might have made her less naïve. However, the current policies of our military actively prevented that progress. The Huffington Post reports she contacted a counselor about being trans as early as 2009, but an American soldier who is trans risks losing veteran’s benefits, receiving a dishonorable discharge, or facing criminal charges. Being known to be trans is grounds for discharge. Having “cross-dressed” is a crime, which makes transition illegal. Many of our allies let trans soldiers serve openly: the United Kingdom, Canada, Israel, Australia, and others.

So Manning knew our government’s current military prescription for a difficult fact is denial and dirty secrets, even when the results will fester and do us harm. And that it doesn’t have to be this way.

In a recent interview, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-OR, says of security politics, “The reality is that part of the reform agenda has to roll back this culture of misinformation. You had the head of the NSA [National Security Agency] go to a public meeting and say we don’t hold data on U.S. citizens. That’s one of the most false statements ever made about surveillance.” He could be talking about the experiences of transsexual people, who have been living in a culture of surveillance and misinformation for decades.


The most instructive thing about being a member of a disliked minority is that you may at any moment become a mirror for a whole society, a canary in a coalmine. Everyone has fears and fantasies about violence, but America gives young men in poverty, especially young black men, the burden of symbolizing violence for all of us. What happens to these men on the battlefields of Iraq or Detroit is therefore news about what is happening to all of us.

I think Americans tend to see transsexual people as symbols for illicit secrets. So many cases of discrimination I’ve seen involve the same vague but intense conviction that the trans person must be hiding something: a criminal interest, a hidden agenda, a double set of account books. I’ve also noticed that people reveal secrets—the particular secrets that shame them—to me. I do not know why people do these things, but they do. Certainly, every minority has its symbolic status; if I do an Internet search for the word transsexual, the zeitgeist returns terms like naughty and fetish. But I have seen the same pattern in too many contexts to think it is just about sex. After almost twenty years, I’ve come to think that for non-transsexual people, we evoke the distance between what human beings actually do, and what is comfortable to imagine.

Manning was assigned to military intelligence, the closet of America’s secrets. Transsexual people may be the bed of reeds to which non-transsexual people whisper secrets not safe to tell. It happens even when the person who confesses cannot consciously know that the listener is transsexual. Author Jan Morris has suggested people treat us rather like foreigners. Certainly, the deepest, most shameful secrets in the Manning case are not her own. The footage she leaked of a helicopter full of American soldiers in Baghdad killing a journalist, Reuters employees with cameras, and the bystanders who tried to save them is unbearable to watch. She had to see it, as we do. The men looking carefully at the landscape around them, the people holding something, the family stopping under fire to help wounded strangers instead of running away . . . there was something different about them. Someone saw that difference, thought the people were not quite right, and pulled a trigger.

Trans people bear the daily consequences of living in an America struggling with the question of what we must hide. I know from experience that discrimination is equally likely to come from people who define themselves as liberal or those who identify as conservative. Those who fear “the Patriarchy” or “the feminazis” are equally sure that because I am different from them, I am whoever their enemy is. As a trans person, you become very aware of how people treat their enemies. I note our government is increasingly treating all its citizens this way.

When the rules by which you’re expected to live do not function, you can’t follow those rules, whether you want to or not. You can’t participate in casual conversation, swapping tales of dates and college roommates, without violating the basic social code for what people do and don’t mention in casual conversation; you also can’t avoid casual conversation, for that would break the same social code. This is everyday life when you are transsexual. The only constant is that the rules regulating our lives do not function. We break the rules no matter what we do, because our existence itself breaks the rules.

People in such conditions must make individual choices, even in collective situations. As a transsexual person, you constantly consider what your responsibilities are as a human being, what’s the best choice you think you can make here for yourself and others, and what risks you are willing to take. I have been teaching in public institutions in America for twenty years, and I do not think Americans are stupid. I think we are very resourceful at using secrets to avoid looking at difficult facts. Trans people cannot afford this habit. Sometimes your presence, your life, is the difficult fact.

Democracy admits the presence and choices of all the people, no matter how difficult that task is. Learning to live without our blindfolds is a more demanding definition of eternal vigilance than policing borders. Regardless of whether you or I approve of Manning’s choices to reveal secrets, she was surely thinking more deeply about secrets, and our individual responsibilities, than most people are accustomed to doing. She knew that hiding a difficult fact does not make it go away, whether the secret is that a person is not really a man (though they may look like one), or that we are not really a democracy (though we may look like one).