“I Am Chelsea Manning”: On The Epidemic of Anti-Trans* Violence

Islan Nettles

“Sometimes you have to pay a heavy price for living in a free society.” – Chelsea Manning

Last Thursday, Private Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning has come out as a transgender woman. Yesterday, trans woman Islan Nettles died when beaten to death in yet another (alleged) anti-trans* hate crime. Overall, though the statistics have been hard to gather, 1 in 12 trans women will be murdered because of their identity. Worse still, 1 in 8 trans women of color are murdered, because of racism compounded with their trans identity. While our right to a free press certainly is at stake given Manning’s sentence, today I’d like to draw attention to the the epidemic of anti-trans* violence and hatred that has swept the nation and the world.

Chelsea Manning

Chelsea’s coming out letter was short, simple and straight to the point. “I am Chelsea Manning,” she wrote in a public, yet nevertheless personal, letter to the Guardian, detailing her self-identification as female and intention of starting her transition. Sadly, though not unexpectedly, the news clip reports that she “suffers” from a “gender identity disorder.” Even more, despite the message in her coming out letter, she is continually referred to “Bradley” and “he” throughout the video. Manning’s trans status actually has been public to an extent already, under the moniker of Breanna Manning, but little import was given to this knowledge until after Manning’s 35-year prison sentence. Many have thought her decision to release this information now untimely, an effort to garner sympathy, wholeheartedly unaware that trans* people must closet their identities since “gender identity disorder” is still treated as a mental illness within the military. (Oh, wait, so the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” doesn’t cover the T in LBGT?)

Chelsea’s curt letter reads:

“As I transition into this next phase of my life, I want everyone to know the real me. I am Chelsea Manning. I am a female. Given the way that I feel, and have felt since childhood, I want to begin hormone therapy as soon as possible. I hope that you will support me in this transition. I also request that, starting today, you refer to me by my new name and use the feminine pronoun (except in official mail to the confinement facility). I look forward to receiving letters from supporters and having the opportunity to write back.”

This case and the intense cis-sexist backlash that has ensued, evinces that far too few people are capable of speaking about trans* issues sensitively and ethically. Misgendering, biological essentialism and claims of the inauthenticity of trans* identities abound. Some articles, such as this one (charmingly titled, “No, Bradley Manning, you are not a woman”), blatantly disavows Manning’s claims, uses ‘he’ instead of ‘she’, refers to Manning as ‘Bradley’ instead of ‘Chelsea’, and incorrectly views the “lie” of their trans* identities as symptomatic of a “myopic obsession with the self.”

Jos Truitt at Feministing has already written a very thorough review of the major news media outlets’ (mal)treatment of trans* people, indicating that almost every news media outlet in the U.S. got it wrong. Even as Margaret Sullivan of the New York Times tries to call for an examination of the stylistics to be used for trans people, she uses the incorrect pronoun to describe Manning (though, such cis-sexism is not new for the NYT, which has previously published highly anti-trans*/insensitive articles.) The comments in response to these articles only further add salt to the opens wounds of trans people, adding insult to people who, many of which, are already targets of physical injury. This “scandal” has, for better or worse, initiated a wider dialogue on how she, as a trans woman, will be treated in an all-male prison.

Transgender man in the Stonewall Riots of 1969.

One of the worst examples of this is an “opinions” piece (read: bigotry) published by the Daily Beast. The author suggests that trans women have it easy and either find themselves a protective “husband” to keep them from harm or use their feminine sensibilities to profit off of prostitution. The article ends quite callously, though sadly unsurprisingly–“Chelsea Manning could become the queen bee.”

As if anyone actively desires to be coerced into prostitution or indebted sexual servitude. Cis women are not spoken of in such a manner when it comes to prisons and assault. Rarely are the issues of trans prisoners, particularly imprisoned women, brought to the spotlight nor is the physical and sexual violence they are disproportionately likely to experience; if they are, they are usually belittled as evidenced in the previous article. Thankfully, trans women have mobilized since this case has occasioned trans-sensitive critiques of prisoners’ treatment. Janet Mock has used this as an opportunity to begin waging the battle for trans-sensitive healthcare in prisons. Katie Halper writes about the troublesome experiences Chelsea will likely undergo in terms of hormone therapy and violence. The trans* woman of color that stars in Orange is the New Black, Laverne Cox, plays Sophia Burset, portraying the complex yet immense repercussions of being taken off of hormone therapy after she displays what they consider to be suicidal tendencies. If nothing else, hopefully, Manning’s letter will better the living conditions of trans people in prison.

Sophia Burset after being taken off of her hormones

Most of these articles either do not consider that she should be placed into a women’s prison or, more damagingly, only conceive of that possibility if she were somehow able to undergo reassignment surgery, which, given its expense in both time and money, is a classist presumption (surgery can cost anywhere from $7,000 to $24,000.) My hope is that this case sets a precedent for the treatment of trans* people in military prisons and their access to healthcare.

Additionally, many of these issues ignore the fact that biological sex and gender identity exist within a non-binary spectrum. Sex and gender do not exist in any either/or format of “male”/”man” and “female”/”woman”–chromosomes, genitalia, hormones and other factors of sex rarely if ever all produce “all-male” or “all-female” people. Fluidity and ambiguity are part and parcel to all of our sexes and genders.

Trans* people do not conform to the standards and norms for sex and gender. Since much of the debate on her trans* identity has been linked with the likelihood of her access to gender transition-oriented healthcare, much of it has propagated the notion that “authentic” trans* identities require surgical operation and medical transition, which goes against the existence of genderqueer and other gender nonconforming people and trans* people who do not desire surgery.

Recently, a wide variety of public figures have come out as trans*, perhaps in part due to its slow yet steady efforts towards acceptance or, at the very least, tolerance. Regardless, the backlash for this case indicates that transphobia, cis-sexism and trans-misogyny are all very alive and well in America. This country, like many others, still does not view trans* people as real, authentic, truthful, human. We still believe that trans* people’s bodies and identities are suited for public scrutiny. We believe, moreover, that we can somehow be the judges of the validity of our identities, instead of listening to us like you would any other human being. Trans* identity, here, has become the reason, the scapegoat, the third strike, for Manning’s lack of humanity.

More than ever, our feminisms need to be attuned to and inclusive of trans* and gender nonconforming people and the intense struggles they face simply because of who we are. We need to get past expanding the privileges of the most privileged, such as marriage equality legislation, and focus more attention on the most abjected communities in the world. We must begin the long battles of humanizing these communities, by listening to their voices and struggles, by representing them ethically, by giving them platforms to represent themselves, by fighting for legal protections for trans people, and by remembering that first and foremost that they, like we, are all human beings. “Who is Chelsea Manning” is a good way to start looking at who Chelsea is and to know the struggles she has overcome despite all of the adversity she has faced.

Sign the petition to pardon Chelsea Manning!


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