Health Editor, Hannah Overton, like many, is happy about Manning’s commutation, but makes it clear her struggle has just begun….
A monumental victory
On the 17th of January, human rights groups rejoiced as Barack Obama, in his final days in office, commuted the sentence of the prisoner of conscience Chelsea Manning. The famed fact-leaker who worked in conjunction with (or, depending on your beliefs, was cruelly used by) the infamous Julian Assange, will be released on the 17th May, a victory not just for anti-war activists but for trans activists too.
Chelsea was an intelligence analyst for the US army when she leaked confidential information to Wikileaks. She was ratted out by Adrian Lamo, a fellow “hacker”, and arrested. Chelsea’s opponents state that her leaks, which included the names of confidential informants in Afghanistan, led to innumerable deaths. Supporters claim the corruption made evident in released diplomatic cables kick-started the Arab spring and toppled dictatorships. My view is that, though the leaks should have been better redacted in order to minimise lives put at risk, this was the responsibility of Wikileaks and writers at The Guardian, not Chelsea herself. Furthermore, I believe citizens should have a right to know when their army is murdering journalists and wounding children with happy abandon but I do not think this should mean that there should be no secrets in governments.
Chelsea was sentenced to 35 years in prison. This, after she had already served nearly a year under “Prevention of Injury Status”, a status supposedly designed to prevent suicide but which is in fact an unconscionable mix of solitary confinement (see my article here on the damage this horrendous punishment causes) and constant surveillance. Chelsea was issued contradictory instructions and punished for not following them. Orwellian much? She was allowed to sleep only in boxer shorts and when she joked with the guards that if she had wanted to harm herself she could do so with just the shorts, they were taken from her. She remained naked for 9 days until her lawyer successfully fought for her right to sleep in clothes. How carelessly faceless governments deprive their citizens of dignity, reducing them to court battles over their right to wear clothes.
These conditions were so horrific even US politicians were raising an outcry. But worse was yet to come.
To be a dick or to not be a dick?
For Chelsea had not yet transitioned. She was still living as Bradley Manning, a man, as she had always done in her still short life. But the day after her sentencing, her lawyer released a statement that included the statement “I am Chelsea Manning. I am female.” She requested that her new name and female pronouns should be used when referring to her. Predictably, many news organisations did not adhere to this request. Fox news lead a segment on Chelsea heralded by the song “Dude Looks Like a Lady” and described her request as “political correctness gone mad”. CNN, a supposedly serious news organisation, continued to refer to her as “he”, while a contributor made a joke about her being raped in prison. Classy. Inside prison, words were the least of Chelsea’s worries. Forced to remain in a male facility and, despite assurances from the army that they were providing her with “treatment”, Chelsea filed a lawsuit in September 2014 against Secretary of Defence Hagel stating that she had “been denied access to medically necessary treatment” in regards to her gender identity disorder. Chelsea was not alone. In a microcosm, she was fighting a battle that had been waging for many years, reaching back to the Stonewall Riots and beyond.
To be Trans in America
Bathrooms. That was the hill the American Republicans chose to die on when it came to trans rights. Whether or not transgendered people could use the bathroom of the gender they identified with. A study from the American Williams Institute states that trans people are routinely harassed and sometimes even asked to show gender identity cards when they attempt to use the bathroom. Republicans claimed that “perverts”, posing as trans women would attempt to gain access to women’s bathrooms in order to commit crimes. Such instances are vanishingly rare compared to the 70% of trans people who experience harassment with regards to using the bathroom.
But the baffling debate around public toilets is merely the tip of the iceberg when it comes to trans rights in the US. Though Obama enacted an executive order prohibiting discrimination against transgendered employees of the government and its contractors, no federal law exists preventing the firing of a person simply for being transgendered.
With regards to healthcare, although courts have repeatedly ruled that gender dysphoria is a “serious medical need” that may require treatment, public and private health insurance companies continued to deny many transgender people access to gender reassigning surgery and hormones. However, in the past few years, greater legal clarification of a clause in the Affordable Care Act, (dubbed Obamacare), which saw the outlawing of sex discrimination to include discrimination against trans people.
The future, however, looks bleak. Many transgender people believe that President Trump will weaken the federal protections for LGBT+ people. He has also vowed to repeal Obamacare, destroying the access to gender confirmation surgery for low-income transgendered people. This is why, in the months after her release, Chelsea Manning may have to fight her hardest battle yet.
The Battle ensues
In 2016, 6 years after her first public appearance as a woman, Chelsea was granted the right to gender confirmation surgery by the US Army, a first for an inmate. Had the surgery been carried out before the end of her sentence, Chelsea would have left prison a freer woman than she entered it. However, the US army has now stated that because of the commutation of her sentence, Chelsea will lose access to transgendered health care army benefits. With the possible destruction of Obamacare, there will be no funding for her to gain access to this desperately wanted and life-changing procedure. The surgery and aftercare costs thousands of dollars, as do the hormones that allow transgendered people to live their true lives. Chelsea will have access to none of this.
Her struggle to live as a prisoner is almost over. Her struggle to live as a transwoman in Trump’s America, is just beginning.