As a transgender woman in prison Chelsea Manning is commencing the greatest struggle of her life

Chelsea Manning’s high public profile as a whistle blower may serve to shine a brighter light on the plight of transgender people incarcerated in our prisons.

Share

We are accustomed to thinking of transgender people in tragic terms. Yet, the reality of living as a transgender person is also always heroic. Tragedy and heroism are the twin sisters of transgender autobiography. And so it is again in the most recent case to capture our attention.

In the figure of Chelsea Manning, this link has been both dramatised and personified. After her conviction for non-espionage related offences under the Espionage Act 1917 (as Daniel Ellsberg reminds us, she was not convicted of espionage despite widespread mis-reporting to that effect),Chelsea Manning has gone public about her transgender identity, something she has been aware of since early childhood. As a transgender woman in a US military prison she is perhaps about to commence the greatest struggle of her life, one even outstripping her Herculean bout with the US military over WikiLeaks.

Even on the most optimistic assessment, barring a pardon, Manning is, according to her defence lawyer, David Coombes, likely to spend at least seven years incarcerated before the possibility of parole (she was sentenced to 35 years).This will, at least initially, be in a male prison as current US prison policy does not appear to accommodate transfer to a female prison until gender reassignment has been undertaken. This prospect contains considerable risks for Manning as it does for transgender prison inmates more generally.

Violence, including sexual violence, against incarcerated transgender people is rife. One recent study in California found that 59 per cent of transgender people reported being sexually assaulted in prison compared to 4 per cent of the prison population at large. These dangers often lead to transgender inmates being segregated or isolated for their own ‘protection.’ Accordingly, Manning’s prison sentence is more punitive than it might initially appear. It is punitive in terms of significantly increased risks to her physical well-being and because prison isolation is a form of psychological abuse. These potential, perhaps likely, encroachments on Manning’s human rights are a direct effect of the transphobic-homophobic culture that pervades penal institutions in the US and elsewhere. Moreover, the problem is not limited to other inmates. As lawyers at the Sylvia Riveria Law Project in New York note, “[a]ny deviance from norms can lead to violence at the hands of corrections officers .” Thus Chelsea Manning, like other transgender inmates, is perhaps likely to “experience a heightened level of gender policing.”

If all this wasn’t bad enough, there is a further punitive element at play in the case. Chelsea Manning has expressed her desire to commence hormone therapy (typically estrogen and anti-androgens) “as soon as possible.” In response to this decision, the US army, while emphasising its anti-discrimination policy credentials (which incidentally do not refer to gender identity as a protected category), have stated: “[t]he army does not provide hormone therapy or sex-reassignment surgery for gender identity disorder.”

It remains to be seen whether Fort Leavenworth military prison, where Manning is to be housed, will accede to her request, though it seems more likely that the matter will be resolved through the courts. The legal and policy position that the US military appear to have adopted is certainly inconsistent with the statement made by the World Professional Association of Transgender Health in 2008 that in appropriate and medically supervised cases, hormone administration and surgery are medically necessary. Moreover, it would seem that prisoners are entitled to adequate health care under the 8th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution as a number of courts have now ruled. That is to say, the denial of medically necessary care while in prison constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. Nevertheless, no U.S. prison inmate has so far received gender reassignment surgery.

This matter will, no doubt, drag on. Let us hope it has a positive outcome. If not pardon, then at least physical safety and satisfaction of necessary health care needs. If nothing else, Chelsea Manning’s high public profile as a whistle blower may serve to shine a brighter light on the plight of transgender people generally within our society and especially on those who find themselves incarcerated in our prisons.

It also serves to draw attention to what has been described by George R. Brown as "flight into hyper-masculinity". While transgender journeys are varied, one recognised way of attempting to resolve the conflict between being gender variant and life in a transphobic society is to enlist in the military or enter some other hyper-masculine occupation. Manning herself stated that she entered the army in order to “get rid of it,” a reference to her transgender feelings. Indeed, a recent study, to be published in a Harvard journal, found that the number of transgender people serving in the military and seeking to do so is likely to be twice the rate for the general population. Earlier this year Kirstin Beck became the first US Navy Seal to come out as transgender. While there are many proud LGBT people serving in the military, the significantly higher incidence of transgender military personnel might be viewed as a kind of litmus test as to where we are as a society in terms of how we value transgender people. In the final analysis, it is ironic and tragic, though of course also heroic, that Chelsea Manning has had to exchange one hypermasculine space (the army) for another (prison).

Alex Sharpe is Professor of Law at Keele University, UK

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Investigo: International Finance Analyst

£270 - £300 per annum: Investigo: An exciting opportunity to join an internati...

Recruitment Genius: CAD / CAM Ladies Cocktail & Eveningwear Gerber Grader

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

h2 Recruit Ltd: Field Sales Rep -Management Software - £45,000 OTE

£28000 - £30000 per annum + OTE £45,00 + pension: h2 Recruit Ltd: A great new ...

SThree: Associate Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + OTE: SThree: SThree are seeking Associate Recruitm...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Daily catch-up: stupid questions in opinion polls, in the House of Commons and in job interviews

John Rentoul
 

i Editor's Letter: The demise of a Sixties monster

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

Sarkozy returns

The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game
There's a Good Girl exhibition: How female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising

In pictures: There's a Good Girl exhibition

The new exhibition reveals how female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising
UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover - from advent calendars to doll's houses

UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover

It worked with cupcakes, doughnuts and macarons so no wonder someone decided to revamp the humble biscuit
Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

It's no surprise that the building game born in Sweden in 2009 and now played by millions, has imitators keen to construct their own mega money-spinner
The King's School is way ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology

Staying connected: The King's School

The school in Cambridgeshire is ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology. Richard Garner discovers how teachers and pupils stay connected
Christmas 2014: 23 best women's perfumes

Festively fragrant: the best women's perfumes

Give a loved one a luxe fragrance this year or treat yourself to a sensual pick-me-up
Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund: Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition

Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund

The Ox celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition
Billy Joe Saunders vs Chris Eubank Jnr: When two worlds collide

When two worlds collide

Traveller Billy Joe Saunders did not have a pampered public-school upbringing - unlike Saturday’s opponent Chris Eubank Jnr
Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

Putin’s far-right ambition

Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

Escape to Moominland

What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?