On Tuesday afternoon, the Obama administration announced that the president was commuting Chelsea Manning's sentence to time served. After seven years of brutal imprisonment, in which the Army only allowed the transgender inmate to better align her appearance with her gender identity after lawsuits and a hunger strike, she will finally be free in May.
Though it is impossible to know President Barack Obama's true reasons for granting her commutation, the decision cements his and his administration's legacy as an unlikely champion for the rights of transgender Americans. It's hard to forget that Obama failed to support marriage equality during his 2008 campaign (what some say was a calculated political maneuver). But while his "evolution" on that issue synched up with an increasingly tolerant view of gays and lesbians among the American people, few expected his administration to institute an even more aggressive platform for transgender rights later in his presidency.
The first—and perhaps most significant—pro-trans policy put into place by the Obama administration came in 2010, when the State Department changed their rules about changing one's gender marker on US passports. Previously, genital reassignment surgery was required in order to make that change, but new language on the rule eased that restriction, simply stating that a doctor's letter alleging one had undergone "appropriate clinical treatment for gender transition" was now necessary. This opened the door for thousands of trans people to obtain proper legal identification that represented their gender identity, even in states with more restrictive gender change rules.
While Time may have declared 2014 to be the "transgender tipping point," it's really taken until the last year for trans rights to come into sharp political debate. In his 2015 State of the Union address, Obama became the first president ever to mention transgender people, a milestone that represented the beginning of what's become a far-reaching legal and political fight.
For example, the American healthcare system is often a nightmare for trans people seeking the medical treatment they need; in the 2015 US Transgender Survey, a national poll of transgender Americans conducted by the National Center for Transgender Equality, one in four respondents reported being denied hormone replacement therapy by their insurance providers while 55 percent were denied coverage for transition-related surgery.
In response to such rampant discrimination, the Department of Health and Human Services finalized wording on the Nondiscrimination in Health Programs and Activities section of the Affordable Care Act in May, banning discrimination on the basis of gender identity. As a result, insurance companies are now unable to deny coverage to trans beneficiaries—for example, as a trans woman, my insurance provider can't stop me from seeking a prostate exam on the basis that I am a woman. Previously, they would have been allowed to decide they weren't required to cover the exam, because women don't have prostates. A federal judge issued an injunction against the regulation on New Year's Eve, a move that's now being appealed. (In all likelihood, such insidious attempts to discriminate against transgender Americans will only ramp up under Donald Trump.)
Genital reassignment surgery has been covered under Medicare since 2014—a decision that amplified access to such surgery across the board, because many private insurers model their coverage after Medicare standards. Simultaneously, that coverage expands the marketplace for such surgery, increasing the need for surgeons and facilities offering these lifesaving operations.
But despite all this progress, the past year has marked a bitter political fight for the rights of transgender Americans; in 2015 and 2016, right-wing politicians put forth "bathroom bills" in over 23 states nationwide. The bills have found little legislative traction thus far, with the very notable exception of North Carolina's HB2. The Department of Justice filed suit in response, taking the state of North Carolina to court over the law; that lawsuit is currently pending, but Attorney General Loretta Lynch gave a moving speech in defense of the rights of transgender Americans in May, an unforgettable moment for those who lobby on behalf of their community.
There have been other reasons for hope. Obama himself appointed the first trans White House LGBT Liason last March, and in May, the Department of Education issued non-binding guidance for the accommodation of trans schoolchildren.
Throughout this, Chelsea Manning was always the thorn stuck in Obama's side. Every time this administration forged a new victory for trans Americans, Manning's name would inevitably come up as a sticking point; her sentence was outlandish relative to the crime committed, and her treatment at Fort Leavenworth was especially cruel. Not only was she housed in a men's prison, but she was forced to fight fierce legal battles throughout her seven years of time served to earn the right to express her gender. She was made to follow male military grooming standards and denied permission to grow out her hair, denied transition healthcare, and held in solitary confinement for attempting suicide as a result (a practice the UN classifies as torture). She became America's highest-profile transgender inmate, and her treatment was a perfect example of the ways the US prison system abuses trans inmates. While the progressive victories for trans rights made by Obama's administration are highly commendable, the treatment of Manning stood in stark contrast.
One can only hope that future reforms will prevent such cruel treatment of incarcerated trans people, but that's putting a lot of faith in the new Republican administration. What is more likely, is that trans people are about to play legal and political defense for many years to come.
There remain many legitimate criticisms for how Obama's administration has handled trans rights. Obama himself famously dismissed a Latina trans woman protester from a White House press event who was calling attention to the practice of deporting undocumented trans people back to hostile foreign countries. It's also important to note that the progress made under Obama has come in the form of executive action, which Trump can now undo, rather than laws passed by Congress. If Obama had made trans rights a priority before the Democrats lost their control of Congress in 2010, maybe trans-friendly legislation could have been enacted. Instead, beginning next week, Obama's entire trans legacy is now under threat of vanishing.
While Obama may have been the first presidential champion of trans rights, his legacy on these issues, like the rest of his accomplishments, may soon be wiped out. At least we'll always have Chelsea. I hope she has a long and happy life as a free woman ahead.
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