In July, Army Pfc. Bradley Manning, who had passed along classified information to WikiLeaks, was convicted of violating the Espionage Act. When sentenced in mid-August to 35 years in prison, the private issued a public statement that had nothing to do with the sentence or the crime but that nevertheless caught the attention of the country.
“As I transition into this next phase of my life, I want everyone to know the real me,” that statement read. “I am Chelsea Manning. I am female.”
With four words —“I am Chelsea Manning” — Manning positioned the national spotlight onto the nation’s transgender community, the oft-forgotten “T” in “LGBT” (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) and what remains one of America’s most marginalized and neglected minority groups, even as the country makes significant strides in recognizing the rights of gay and lesbian citizens.
According to the Williams Institute, there are approximately 700,000 transgender individuals in the United States, but this statistic is unlikely to capture the full number of people who have expressed or self-diagnosed an incongruity between the gender they feel and the gender they were born. Even as gays and lesbians have won the right to marry in 13 states and the District and, this summer, to have the federal government treat those marriages as equal to heterosexual ones, transgender people are still ostracized and stigmatized. They can be refused crucial medical treatments without sufficient justification, and they (like gays) are not protected by federal law from discrimination in the workplace.
The situation for transgender people in the military is especially fraught. While the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” has allowed gays and lesbians to serve openly in uniform, that is not the case for transgender individuals, who are typically discharged if they express their identities. The military also relies on an antiquated understanding of what it means to be transgender and, at least at Fort Leavenworth, where Manning is likely to be incarcerated, will not provide the hormone therapy doctors may recommend for individuals with gender dysphoria.
As public understanding evolves on this issue, logistical questions and complications will arise, especially as more transgender people come out of the shadows. Shifts in tolerance invariably take time. But the bottom line isn’t complicated: All Americans are entitled to live in dignity.