Being Chelsea: Bradley Manning’s new world

Hero or traitor? Anarchist or patriot? The debates about Bradley Manning, the U.S. soldier who leaked a mountain of classified cables to WikiLeaks, have made way for the latest question: male or female?

U.S. soldier sentenced to 35 years in WikiLeaks case transitions to a new identity

A photo, left, that Bradley Manning emailed to his therapist while he was in the army shows him in a wig and lipstick. After receiving a 35-year prison term for sending classified information to WikiLeaks, Manning said that he would like to live as a woman and be called Chelsea. (U.S. Army/Associated Press, Gary Cameron/Reuters)

Hero or traitor? Anarchist or patriot?

The debates that continue to swirl around Bradley Manning, the American soldier who leaked hundreds of thousands of classified cables to WikiLeaks, include a new one: male or female?

Manning's defence team claimed the military overlooked his compromised mental health, and ultimately allowed an unfit soldier to serve in Iraq. Confusion over his gender identity, they said, added mental and emotional stress on a troubled youth who was already prone to outbursts.

In Manning's first statement after being sentenced to 35 years in prison after a Fort Meade, Md., hearing, he told the world of his identity disorder in a statement aired on NBC.

"I am Chelsea Manning. I am a female," Manning wrote, asking that people refer to him with female pronouns.

Some wondered whether anyone is obliged to refer to Manning as female since he has neither begun hormone therapy nor legally changed his name.

Michelle Josef, a Toronto-based Canadian musician who has undergone gender transition, told CBC’s The Current that Manning has the right to determine his own identity, regardless of a legal name change that could potentially take more than a year. 

"It’s her private business and if this is something that she feels is important then that should be respected," Josef said.

Does a new identity need a new body?

People change names for a variety of reasons, Josef said, noting Cassius Clay became Muhammad Ali and the Apostle Paul once was called Saul. She said that the significance of Manning’s new name is his ownership of a new identity.

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Dr. Marci Bowers, a transgender person who performs gender re-assignment surgery, told CBC over Skype from San Mateo, Calif., that Manning’s identity is linked more to gender expression than genitalia.

"Surgery itself is just an icing on the cake for people normally," said Bowers, dismissing the idea that hormone replacement therapy or surgery should precede Manning’s new identity.

Manning may not have the opportunity to express his gender at the Fort Leavenworth military prison. Prison spokesman George Marcec said earlier this week the former soldier would not be allowed to wear a wig or a bra.

Rory Olwyn, a Toronto-based high-school teacher and trans-man, told CBC it is the responsibility of the cisgendered — the term used by some for people whose gender identity matches their assigned sex — to make an adjustment.

"I really trust the public," Olwyn said."I really trust that they’ll get it."