The Tough Road Ahead for Chelsea Manning


This morning, Army private Bradley Manning formally announced that she would be living the rest of her life as a woman named Chelsea, and would like to be referred to using female pronouns. This is an incredibly brave first step for anyone, but particularly for Manning, who is about to be sent to prison for the next 35 years for leaking classified documents. Manning says that she has thought of herself as a woman since she was a kid, but the military doesn’t see it that way. Manning will be sent to a men’s prison in Leavenworth, Kansas.

This is really not good for Manning. Our prison system is a clusterfuck of racism, sexual violence, abuse, and trauma. The clusterfuckedness is amplified if a prisoner exhibits any behavior or identifies in any way that deviates substantially from the “norm.” LGBT prisoners are significantly more likely to be targets of violence and sexual assault than other prisoners. It’s especially bad for transgender women (or, as I like to call them, women) who are housed in male facilities. A recent study out of California found that transgender women inmates in men’s prisons are thirteen times more likely to be victims of sexual assault. (By the way, if you think sexual violence in prison isn’t your problem, think again.) Many transgender prisoners end up being housed in solitary confinement, often with little to no contact with other human beings, for their own protection.

Ironically, prison officials cite “protection” as the main reason why transgender women can’t be housed at a women’s facility. It’s the same transphobic bullshit we’ve all heard before—”What about their penises?!?! It’s not safe!” Instead, prison officials would rather house transgender prisoners in facilities where, far from being the perpetrators of violence, they become victims of rape, assault, and even death.

But transgender inmates like CeCe McDonald, Michelle Kosilek, and Vanessa Adams are fighting back. After Adams sued the federal Bureau of Prisons, they agreed to provide treatment “to [prisoners] who believe they are the wrong gender.” Treatment may include counseling and hormone therapy. Although the new guidelines don’t explicitly provide for sex reassignment surgery, prisoners may receive the surgery if it’s deemed “medically necessary.” That’s a long shot, and no prisoner in the United States has ever received sex reassignment surgery behind bars. But given prison officials’ apparent belief that body parts alone determine gender, many transgender inmates feel that such a surgery is the only way to transfer to a (safer) women’s prison.

It’s not clear, though, whether previous legal victories will have much of an impact on Manning’s case. Manning is a military prisoner in a military facility, and those brutes basically just do whatever they want. Manning has already been subjected to “enhanced interrogation techniques,” and her treatment in custody has mirrored that of the detainees at Guantánamo Bay. Not only that, but the military has already announced that, although they provide psychiatric care for their inmates, they will not provide Manning with hormone therapy or surgery.

So, does Manning have any legal recourse here? Her attorney is confident he can compel the military to provide care to Manning while she’s incarcerated, but this will probably require a separate lawsuit. Manning will have to argue that the military is engaging in cruel and unusual punishment by denying her medical treatment—in this case, hormone therapy. Although prisons are generally required to provide adequate medical care to their inmates, even hormone therapy might be a tough sell on an institution that still refuses to allow transgender people to enlist and serve openly.

Whether you think of Manning’s decision to leak classified documents as heroic or treasonous, there is no doubt she faces a great deal of adversity ahead. She showed an immense amount of courage in her announcement this morning. What she needs now is support and medical care, not more idiotic posturing on the part of the military.

Meagan Hatcher-Mays is a recent graduate of Washington University Law School in Saint Louis. She does a significant amount of yelling on Twitter.

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