Day 6

Chelsea Manning reacts to end of U.S. military trans ban

As the Pentagon announces it will begin transitioning towards accepting transgender people into the ranks of the U.S. military, we speak with the lawyer for the forces' most controversial transgender prisoner -- Chelsea Manning.
Then and Now -- Chelsea Manning (U.S. Army, AP / U.S. Army via AFP -- Getty Images)

The Pentagon is changing. This week, U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter made it official: the forces will move towards accepting transgender people into its ranks. Secretary Carter has now started a process that he says will pave the way to lifting the existing ban.

Back in 2010, a young U.S.-army intelligence officer named Bradley Manning might have never imagined this day would come. At the time the woman known today as Chelsea Manning was busy with other matters: Manning was famously leaking thousands of secret U.S. military documents to WikiLeaks. Fast-forward to July 2013, Manning is convicted of espionage by a military tribunal, dishonourably discharged, and sentenced to 35 years in prison.

Chase Strangio, one of Chelsea Manning's lawyers (ACLU)

But on the day after the sentencing, Manning announces she is Chelsea -- no longer Bradley -- and that she will begin to transition into the woman she feels she's been since childhood.

Chelsea Manning's lawyer, Chase Strangio, tells Day 6 that while the Pentagon's announcement is a step in the right direction, much more needs to happen before someone like Chelsea Manning feels welcome and supported.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

You just got off the phone with Chelsea Manning a short time ago. What was her reaction to the Pentagon's announcement?

She was excited to hear about the development, welcome news from her perspective. Although she does have some concerns that it won't actually result in the full inclusion of transgender troops in the United States military.

And why is that? What is her big concern?

She pointed to two main things. The first is that while the announcement clearly opens the door to military service in the future, it didn't necessarily at this moment change the policy except in so far as it is elevating the level of review for currently serving transgender troops to be discharged. But it will require a six-month study for each service branch so it's not totally clear how that will roll out and what will happen to the estimated more than 15,000 currently serving transgender troops. And then the other thing is that from Chelsea's perspective, and she has said this in other contexts before, she thinks it's important that the military not just use the language of diversity and inclusion but meaningfully engage with the trans community to make sure that inclusion and integration is actually meaningful in that trans people will be able to have combat jobs, have special ops positions, serve consistently with their gender identity, wear a uniform consistent with their gender identity and have access to the medical care that they need while they're serving.

Will this potentially mean anything for Chelsea Manning in her daily life in a military prison?

The more that society understands and take seriously transgender people that will affect her because right now she is still fighting to be treated in a manner consistent with her transgender identity, consistent with her identity as a woman. And so to the extent that this signals a change in military understanding of trans people hopefully that will positively impact her lawsuit against the Department of Defense that military officials are failing to fully treat her gender dysphoria. In terms of what it means in her day to day life beyond her fight for health care she continues to be a prisoner and so I think the confines of Leavenworth and the reality of prison life are very different for Chelsea than they are for the troops that are actively serving not in confinement.

Do you think the publicity around her case had anything to do with the Pentagon's move?

My personal feeling is that Chelsea did have a role in this change, that she pushed the issue because she was so vocal, because she drew attention to the reality of trans service members in the fight for trans people.

Do you think she thinks that? That she takes any satisfaction, any pride in this decision?

Chelsea is a very humble person so I don't think that her sense of this narrative really includes her necessarily. I think she believes that there have been lots of trans people for a long time fighting for change and that ultimately it was a combination of many factors. I don't think she takes responsibility necessarily.

The ban of course has not been lifted yet. You've alluded to Chelsea's fights within the prison. I'm wondering though what it's like for a trans person like her to be in a military prison like Fort Leavenworth with this ban still in effect?

Being in prison is incredibly challenging for anyone and it's particularly challenging for a transgender woman at a men's facility. Chelsea is a very resilient person, who has a very positive attitude and tries to approach each day with optimism and she gets support from people on the outside which helps. But I think she continues to navigate the fact that she is not able to grow her hair for example and that's something that is incredibly important for her. And while she has been able to gain access to health treatment she could only do that through a lawsuit and she continues to be denied things that are integral to her identity.

Does it put her safety at risk?

Because she is in a cell by herself, she is in general population, she's not isolated. Prison is not safe for anyone but Chelsea has felt as safe as possible in a prison setting and I think when you look at the conditions in Leavenworth as compared to the Federal Bureau of Prisons she is far safer at Leavenworth than she would ever be in a federal or state facility.

You said she has gained access through her legal fight to medical treatments to doctors but are there limits to that? Is there more that she needs medically than she's getting?

Right now the main thing that she's continuing to fight for and the lawsuit is fighting for is the ability to grow her hair. And as she undergoes hormone therapy and other outward expressions of her gender to be stuck with the repeated shaving of her head is deeply traumatizing and something that is causing ongoing distress and will be something that she continues to fight.

What is the prison's argument as to why she can't grow her hair?

The prison's argument is essentially based on security. It's that it would be a security risk for her to have longer hair. Not just because of the long hair itself but also because it would disrupt the prison community because other people would also want to grow their hair.

So the Pentagon is launching this study, it's aimed at actually effecting change. But the question is whether the culture of the U.S. military is ready for this kind of change?

Chelsea has said if there's strong leadership from the top even if people don't like the change that they will fall in line and that the military has problems with sexual assault and problems with the full integration of female troops. So I think that there's a lot of work to be done but there are currently 15,000 transgender troops serving. So it's not really a matter of whether or not the military culture can accept them, because they already are, it's whether or not the institution is going to take the leadership and make the changes that need to happen.

You yourself are transgender. I'm curious about what you think in terms of how the changes at the Pentagon might affect attitudes more broadly in the U.S. and elsewhere?

I think that the more we have the government recognizing that transgender people have legitimate identities for who we are that we're going to see continued changes in public support and understanding for the trans community. But I do think there are limits to that. So while it is a definite reason to be optimistic and to celebrate it certainly is not itself going to be enough to make the transformative changes that we really need to see.