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Exclusive: Chelsea Manning says she's shocked her gender reassignment surgery was approved

"Why is it a security risk to have long hair?” Manning said. “I feel like they’re not respecting me as a woman.”
(via US Army)

Chelsea Manning said she's "shocked" that her doctor's recommendation of gender-reassignment surgery was approved by the US Army.

"This is a big deal," Manning said in response to emailed questions from VICE News. Manning dictated her answers by phone to a volunteer who manages her Twitter page. "For my whole life I have fought for dignity, respect, and adequate medical care," she said from prison in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.


Knowing that she'll be able to transition while serving her 35-year sentence in military prison, she added, is a "huge weight off my shoulders."

After receiving the news, the imprisoned ex-army intelligence analyst and whistleblower ended the hunger strike she began five days ago to demand treatment for her gender dysphoria. The surgery was recommended to her in April.

"As hopeful as I am that the surgery will move forward, I know it won't move forward instantaneously," Manning said. "I anticipate I will see a surgeon. I know it won't happen overnight. I just don't want it to take years. Until then, I must live with the humiliation and pain." Manning's lawyer confirmed that she received and personally responded to VICE News's questions.

No transgender inmate in any US state or federal prison facility has ever had gender reassignment surgery. The army's decision to comply with the medical recommendations of Manning's doctor signals a concession to a long battle between Manning and her lawyers, and the state.

Manning was taken into custody in 2010 and later convicted of espionage, among other charges, for leaking thousands of sensitive military documents and material to Wikileaks, including the "Iraq War Logs" and a video showing a US airstrike on Baghdad. She's currently serving a 35-year sentence in the United States Disciplinary Barracks in Fort Leavenworth.

According to a gender dysphoria treatment plan recommended by her doctor, Manning should be able to express her preferred gender identity, by doing things like growing her hair long. But because she is being held in a facility for male inmates, Manning has been forced to keep her hair short.


"I wonder: Why is it a security risk to have long hair?" Manning said. "I feel like they're not respecting me as a woman."

Earlier this summer, Manning attempted to take her own life. Chase Strangio, a staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union's LGBT and AIDS Project who has been handling Manning's legal challenges, told VICE News that the suicide attempt was related to the lack of progress with regards to her condition and doctor's recommendations. The US Army had seemingly "lost the recommendation in some sort of administrative black hole," Strangio said. "That was a big reason for her escalating mental health deterioration."

The Army later announced that it was investigating Manning's attempted suicide as potential misconduct. If substantiated, Manning could face indefinite solitary confinement, be moved to maximum security or be given additional time on her sentence. The disciplinary board hearing to discuss misconduct charges is scheduled for September 20.

The looming date of the hearing somewhat overshadowed the good news Manning received this week.

"It's hard to focus," Manning said. "The charges are related to my suicide attempt. The irony being I fell apart because I wasn't getting treatment. In less than a week, I could be thrown into solitary confinement."

Advocacy group Fight for the Future is circulating an online petition to keep Manning out of solitary confinement.


According to a 2014 survey carried out by UCLA, 41 percent of transgender respondents had attempted suicide, compared to 4.6 percent of the overall US population. More than two-thirds of the trans respondents who had attempted suicide say they were refused the medical care they needed.

Manning's victory on Wednesday doesn't necessarily mean she'll be getting the operation any time soon, as evidenced by the case of Shiloh Quine, a transgender inmate who made history last year when California settled a lawsuit and agreed to pay for her gender-affirming surgery.

Quine, who has been serving a life sentence for the last 35 years, is still waiting for the surgery.

After Quine's settlement, California became the first state (and remains the only state) to change its policy to say that transgender inmates should be permitted to receive gender-reassignment surgery following a doctor's recommendations. Strangio said that while the two cases set no legal precedents, Manning and Quine's victories could help lawyers argue similar cases in the future.

The Bureau of Justice Statistics estimated in 2012 that there were 3,200 transgender inmates in state and federal prisons. The federal government released guidelines in March saying that prisons should consider an inmate's' gender identity and safety concerns, rather than just their biological sex, when deciding where to house them. While the guidelines are not legally binding, they do spell out the federal government's position on housing transgender inmates.

"There are many of us who are unable to speak for ourselves," Manning said. "We will keep fighting these battles and try to be treated properly and recognized for who we are."