Bobby Joe Bracy, Jr./Contributing Writer
Chelsea Manning, formerly known as Bradley Manning, now wishes to be recognized as a woman, and, regrettably, there is still so much unawareness about what it means to be a transgender man or woman.
Michael Pearson, writing for CNN, posted an article about the news of Manning’s transition while repeatedly referring to her using the male pronoun “he.” CBS News , USA Today, Politico and the Wall Street Journal all made the same abusive error in their coverage about Manning’s public announcement—though that list is not exhaustive, it is exhausting.
When someone informs you of their gender identity, you have a duty to respect their gender identity as they choose to express it, just as you would expect them to respect yours. If your name is Bobby, even if people say “but you look like a Fred,” that doesn’t give them the right to call you “Fred” or even “Bobfred”. Similarly, no one has the right to refer to Chelsea using male pronouns when she has made it abundantly clear that she is not a man. To understand this, we need to forget everything we think we know about what it means to be a “man” or a “woman.” This is not about being “politically correct,” but about giving transgender men and women the same dignity and respect we must give to anyone we meet.
Yet, there still exists widespread stigmatization of transgender people as “freaky,” which prevents us from seeing them as human beings deserving of equal treatment. Reading any mainstream coverage of Manning’s transition is like walking through a minefield of transphobia.
And, contrary to what Dan Savage has told us, it gets worse. The reality is that Chelsea will face more abuse because of her gender identity since, as the Sylvia Rivera Law Project notes, “[n]ot only do transgender people in prison have problems accessing healthcare, but they experience a heightened level of gender policing…[a]ny deviance from norms can lead to violence at the hands of corrections officers or other people who are incarcerated.” Mis-gendering someone perpetuates that violence by reinforcing the notion that transgender women and men are less than human.
And it gets worse. Because transgender people are often denied access to hormone therapy, the denial of such treatment can lead to severe psychological distress, which causes crippling anxiety and, in many cases, suicide. The American Civil Liberties Union, in taking a stand for Chelsea, notes that “the official policy of the Federal Bureau of Prisons and most state agencies is to provide medically necessary care for the treatment of gender dysphoria [sic], and courts have consistently found that denying such care to prisoners based on blanket exclusions violates the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution.” So, denying access to healthcare necessities for transgender people is “cruel and unusual punishment,” which is explicitly prohibited by the U.S. Constitution.
Therefore, if we denigrate transgender folks by refusing to respect their true gender identities, we, too, become guilty of compounding that same cruel and unusual punishment. Despite existing constitutional protections of transgender people, there still lacks sufficient protections for transgender people in public and private places: since Florida is an “at-will” employment state, people can lose their jobs for almost any reason, like not conforming to your boss’s expectations of gender.
Years from now, we will wonder how a society could be so oppressive toward gender norms. I may not live to see that day, but I hope that we can help each other imagine it.
1. “Bradley Manning wants to live as a woman, be known as Chelsea,” CNN
2. “Bradley Manning: I want to live as a woman named Chelsea,” CBS News
3. “Manning wants to serve time as a woman, get therapy,” via USA Today
4. “Bradley Manning: ‘I am a female,'” via Politico
5. “Bradley Manning Seeks Gender Change,” via The Wall Street Journal
6. “Chelsea Manning and the realities for transgender and gender non-conforming people in prison, jails and detention centers,” via Sylvia Rivera Law Project
7. “ACLU Response to Chelsea Manning’s Disclosure of Gender Dysphoria,” via American Civil Liberties Union
Thank you for providing this much needed decency and perspective.