August 22, 2013 at 1:13 pm EDT | by Lou Chibbaro Jr.
Will Manning case harm effort to lift trans military ban?
(Photo by Diane Perlman)

(Photo by Diane Perlman)

One day after a military judge sentenced then-U.S. Army private Bradley Manning to 35 years in prison for leaking classified documents to Wikileaks, the 25-year-old soldier released a statement through her attorney coming out as transgender.

“As I transition into this next phase of my life, I want everyone to know the real me,” Manning said. “I am Chelsea Manning. I am a female.”

Manning’s dramatic announcement was first disclosed on NBC’s “The Today Show” early Thursday morning by her lead defense attorney, David Coombs, who said Chelsea Manning will request from prison authorities permission to undergo hormone therapy.

If prison officials don’t agree to Manning’s request, “then I’m going to do everything in my power to make sure they are forced to do so,” Coombs said.

Manning’s sentencing and declaration that she is a transgender woman follows a protracted trial that transgender activists fear has set back their quest to persuade the military to lift its ban on transgender service members.

The sentence came one week after Manning’s attorneys argued that Manning’s decision to leak more than 700,000 classified military and diplomatic documents along with video footage of battlefield scenes was due, in part, to the stress Manning was experiencing over her gender identity.

Earlier in the trial, the defense disclosed that Manning – who initially identified as a gay man – had been quietly struggling over whether she was a transgender woman.

Last week, defense attorneys released a photo of Manning dressed as a woman with a blond wig. Her attorney presented as a witness a military therapist who testified that Manning emailed him the photo along with a letter describing her gender identity as a “problem.”

“You put him in that kind of hyper-masculine environment, if you will, with little support and few coping skills, the pressure would have been difficult to say the least,” the Associated Press quoted the therapist, Capt. Michael Worsley, as saying in his testimony last week at the sentencing phase of Manning’s court martial. “It would have been incredible.”

Two prominent transgender activists who have served in the military before transitioning from male to female told the Washington Blade — just before Manning disclosed she’s transgender — that a large number of closeted transgender service members currently are performing their duties flawlessly while experiencing some of the same pressures related to their gender identity that Manning might have experienced.

The future of transgender military service

“Our view is Manning’s gender identity — no matter what it is — does not justify what he did,” Brynn Tannehill, a transgender woman and former Lt. Commander in the Navy, told the Blade prior to Manning’s Thursday announcement. She currently serves as spokesperson for the Trans Chapter of SPART*A, a group representing mostly active duty LGBT service members.

“If Bradley Manning is transgender and if he struggles over this, we can empathize over that,” Tannehill told the Blade in a telephone interview Tuesday night. “But we do not believe it should excuse what he did.”

Tannehill added, “We know many trans military people with highly distinguished careers. So the argument that being transgender made him do this is patently false.”

Tannehill and transgender advocate Autumn Sandeen, who transitioned from male to female after retiring from the Navy, said the negative publicity surrounding Manning’s personal struggle with her gender identity is overshadowing the overwhelming majority of service members grappling with their gender identity who quietly do their jobs well.

The two noted that as many as 120 closeted transgender service members affiliated with the SPART*A group can’t come out as positive role models because they would be subject to discharge under a military regulation that strictly prohibits “transsexualism” and “gender transformation” within the military.

“In my last four years in the Navy I was grappling with gender identity and yet I did my job,” said Sandeen, who lives in San Diego.

Among other things, Sandeen said she had access to classified information while serving on a ship. She says she and other transgender people she knows had similar access to classified information never mishandled or released such information.

“[Manning] will be used as an example of why transgender people shouldn’t serve in the military,” she said.

Sandeen said the transgender people she knows, both civilians and military members, are divided over whether what Manning did was good or bad for the country, just as other Americans are divided over the issue.

Chelsea Manning and Wikileaks

In July Manning was found not guilty of aiding the enemy, the most serious charge filed against her. But the military judge, Army Col. Denise Lind, found her guilty of nearly all of the other charges filed against her, including six counts of violating the U.S. Espionage Act.

Manning’s supporters say the information she leaked to the whistleblower group Wikileaks shined a spotlight on flawed U.S. policies and military practices in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars that would not otherwise have been brought to the attention of the American public.

Government prosecutors argued that Manning’s actions placed U.S. troops in jeopardy by revealing classified information that terrorists and other enemies could use against U.S. military and civil personnel stationed overseas.

“Personally, if Manning comes out as transgender I will be someone who owns him, but owns him as a person who did wrong,” Sandeen told the Blade the day prior to Manning’s announcement that she was transitioning. “We have to take the good with the bad.”

Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, told the Blade on Thursday following Manning’s announcement that she’s a transgender woman that the Manning case was a “temporary blip” in the ongoing efforts to obtain equal rights for transgender people.

“In the long run, this won’t have an impact on the LGBT rights movement,” Mara said. “With thousands of transgender people coming out, we are moving ahead on the education front concerning transgender equality.”

Keisling criticized a statement released by the Army on Thursday that Manning most likely would not be allowed to obtain hormone treatment to facilitate her gender transition while serving time in an Army prison in Fort Leavenworth, Kan.

“That’s not going to be the final word,” she said. “You can’t deny health care to prisoners. That’s unconstitutional because it amounts to cruel and unusual punishment.”

Keisling was referring to the prevailing views of the medical and mental health professions, including the American Medical Association, that being transgender is a medical condition that requires various means of treatment, including hormone therapy, to facilitate a healthy transition from one gender to another.

Lou Chibbaro Jr. has reported on the LGBT civil rights movement and the LGBT community for more than 30 years, beginning as a freelance writer and later as a staff reporter and currently as Senior News Reporter for the Washington Blade. He has chronicled LGBT-related developments as they have touched on a wide range of social, religious, and governmental institutions, including the White House, Congress, the U.S. Supreme Court, the military, local and national law enforcement agencies and the Catholic Church. Chibbaro has reported on LGBT issues and LGBT participation in local and national elections since 1976. He has covered the AIDS epidemic since it first surfaced in the early 1980s. Follow Lou

  • As noted in this article, activists who are fighting for LGBT rights in the military believe that Manning is setting back the cause:

    Tannehill added, “We know many trans military people with highly distinguished careers. So the argument that being transgender made him do this is patently false.”.

    “In my last four years in the Navy I was grappling with gender identity and yet I did my job,” said Sandeen, who lives in San Diego…..

    “[Manning] will be used as an example of why transgender people shouldn’t serve in the military,” she said….

    These people are committed to helping LGBT people in the military, and I defer to their judgment on this matter.

  • Sorry…after 24 yrs in the military and dealing with all sorts of people…I think the lifting the ban on gays is a good thing (since they were always there anyway), but TG people just won’t be accepted. I’m just speaking the truth as I think it will be.

    Those that served with honor and then transitioned after they were out is NOT the same thing.

  • It certainly could make trans persons look bad in that regard, but I think it can go either way. Ignorant people could conflate the issues, but in the end, must reasonable people will be able to separate them, even if they dislike trans people. I certainly don't see Manning's trans issue as being a cause of releasing secrete videos of the military executing civilians. I think most people would see classified war crimes as unjust regardless of their identity.

  • I’ve kept out of the trans political scene for a long time because of the ugliness and careerism of many trans (mis)leaders.

    I have to say, the blind nationalism of the people quoted in this article only serve to reinforce my feelings that the so-called trans leadership has no sense of right or wrong, only a sense of political expediency.

    I wish Sylvia was still with us. Sylvia could never be pulled in by nationalistic claptrap. She knew the US gov was an enemy of working people and minorities.

  • Autumn Sandeen knows how utterly disrespectful and hurtful it is to call a trans-woman ‘he’. Only a trans person would really understand this. Autumn is a trans ‘leader’.

  • Of course Manning being trans does not justify nor if you believe her a heroine lionize what she did. This would be like saying her being Catholic had such a bearing.

    The fact that in many ways we now realize the extent that we live under the constant surveillance of the state and that this surveillance is completely without restraint and outside of what we understand to be the normal system of checks and balances is due in no small part to two people. That actions of the military have been taken against civilians in contravention of the Geneva Convention that protects our troops and undermines our service members should actually give spoke persons for these organizations some pause. The Continental Congress – before we were actually a country – passed a law on July 30, 1778 placing a duty upon upon militia men to report such fraud and misconduct and provided them with protection. A whistle blower act. Manning did not report this misconduct by our government to Congress. Manning will have to pay for that act of conscience. And pay dearly. Manning was subjected to confinement that was clearly torture under the Geneva Convention.

    That some spoke persons can find no scintilla of nobility and service in that is discouraging. Most Americans are appalled by the actions of their government – even if they are uncomfortable with those who revealed them. That they misgengender Manning in statements is really rather sad for a spokesperson from an lgbt organization. I hope they correct their statements. Surely it’s something they experienced themselves. Or will shortly.

    It’s hard to deny that well over half of the civilian population disagrees with the the unbounded intrusion into our privacy by the government that has been disclosed.

    This may be one of those times when having a background not shared by the majority of the electorate is a hindrance in understanding the issues that are of importance to us. Just a suggestion that if someone has has such electoral aspirations – they may need to stretch themselves a bit. Be able to address inner city school issues, failing pension systems, health care, abortion, work equity. Most of us think about security issues very, very infrequently.

    We live elsewhere everyday. You’ve lived elsewhere everyday for a very long time. We’re kinda sick of people peering into our letters, prodding our body parts and telling us we need to hide under our beds. If the government has nothing to hide they shouldn’t mind the citizens looking at it.

    Oh – and I really do beg to differ with the blip comment. Ms. Manning will have a large effect on health care in the prison system going forward.

  • Life is not always convenient to activism. Deal with it.

  • To even think that the actions of one Transgender identifying individual should reflect badly on every other Transgender person, whether in the Military or holding a security clearance, or just being themselves, is like profiling the Straight, White Male population and blaming them for the fact that just about every known spy, every person convicted or suspected of espionage, OK let's add to this pile just about every ruthless Dictator and serial killer happen to be presumed staight white males. Therefore, following that logic, every straight white male should be suspected of spying, espionage, or massive criminal acts.

  • Even worse is that the two ex-military trans activists they interview repeatedly misgender her, nice touch, that.

  • Angie Reid It's possible that the interviews were done before they'd had the chance to read her coming-out letter. Before that (through the trial), Chelsea Manning had actually requested that people use the old name & pronouns. I don't know Brynn Tannehill, but it doesn't seem to me to be characteristic of Autumn to deliberately do that, even if she's angry about what Manning's on trial for.

  • Manning is a traitor and as a tax paying gay member of society I do not want my tax dollars going to pay for any of this traitors expenses other than a 6 x 8 cell for 35years.

    • Good for you! Though I fail to see how either your being gay is relevant – nor how Manning’s being trans should change the level of care from any other condition the AMA states is medicly necessary.

      I’d also suggest that for one to be a traitor – one actually needs to collaborate with an enemy. Manning did not. He did release some pretty bad stuff about us killing civilians and torturing people. I suppose if you consider American citizens having knowledge of this somehow being to the enemies – you propably would find agreement.

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