According to a Pentagon official, the US Defense Department is considering a request from imprisoned whistleblower Chelsea Manning to move her from a male military brig to a civilian prison to enable her to go through hormone therapy as part of her M-to-F transition.
Manning revealed her decision to live as, and be identified as, female the day after a military judge handed her a 35-year jail sentence. The timing was a significant reflection on the dehumanizing process that Manning had been subjected to during a protracted court martial process.
As I commented at the time, the fact that Manning's gender identity was publicly held in a state of indeterminacy during the trial and pre-trial illustrated how far removed the persecuted whistleblower was from the most basic liberties afforded free humans — the freedom to live as the gender with which one identifies. I wrote around the time of Manning's conviction for Salon.com:
Largely up until the sentencing portion, Manning qua human being, with desires and personal struggles, has not much come into the equation. The court (and media) have focused on Manning qua traitor, or qua torture victim, qua hero and other broad categories and roles relating to military judicial processing and media storytelling.
Manning as a person — and this is the true horror of the whistle-blower’s ordeal — has remained a strictly unknown quantity. Removed from society, kept regularly for 23 hours straight in a darkened cell, isolated, permitted only to speak publicly through the complicated, highly attenuated lens of courtroom testimony.
Now almost the opposite, but equally problematic, focus is at play: The Department of Defense appears to be recognizing (or edging towards recognizing) Manning's personal needs. We must not let such gestures distract from the fact that we are, at base, talking about a caged body, incarcerated for revealing high stakes, establishment-shaming truths.
While Manning was eventually able to publicly assert her gender identity and chosen name, the constraints of military "justice" have continued to de facto punish Chelsea as Bradley — held in a men's military prison and denied hormone therapy. The DoD's consideration of moving Manning to a civilian prison is a sad recognition that the military establishment has no room for trans individuals.
Manning may be granted her request to transition into a body with which she can identify, but that will still be a caged body at a site of state violence.
While Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel this week argued that the military ban on trans individuals should be lifted, the current status quo archaically maintains that transsexuals are suffering from a psychosexual disorder, involving deviant sexual practices. Even the DSM-5 — that problematic dictionary of pathologies — last year replaced "gender identity disorder" with the slightly preferable, less derogatory "gender dysphoria." (It's worth noting that reports from news establishments, including The Associated Press, today still referred to Manning's trans status as a "gender disorder," which performs the rhetorical violence of normalizing cis gendered individuals and problematizing everyone else.)
Manning, who has been denied clemency, may well not receive her request to leave military confinement and gain access to hormone therapy — it's only a consideration at this point. Refusing Manning's desire to live as a woman strikes me as cruel and unusual at best. However, even if moved to a civilian facility, it's unclear whether the whistleblower would remain among a male inmate population.
And, above all, should the DoD move Manning to a civilian facility, the department still would be deserving of no praise. Manning's punishment for bringing to light US war crimes remains grave and unjust. Manning may be granted her request to transition into a body with which she can identify, but that will still be a caged body at a site of state violence.
We must not forget that the Pentagon's considerations about whether to move Manning to a civilian prison appear to reflect a concern for the prisoner's personhood. This belies the fact that the US government has stripped from the whistleblower the ability to live as a free person in any way.
Follow Natasha Lennard on Twitter: @natashalennard
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