Friday, August 23, 2013

Chelsea Manning - A Brave Heroine

What an interesting day. 

Bradley Manning, a 23 year old US army private,  having just been sentenced to 35 years for leaking 700,000 military documents to WikiLeaks, promptly announces that she is female and now wishes to be known as Chelsea, specifically requesting that in future she is referred to by female pronouns.

This is how the Washington Times reported that information
“I am Chelsea Manning. I am female,” he wrote. “Given the way I feel and have felt since childhood, I want to begin hormone therapy as soon as possible.

 “I also request that, starting today, you refer to me by my new name and use the feminine pronoun,” he said. “I look forward to receiving letters from supporters and having the opportunity to write back.”
To be fair it was not just the Washington Times - the BBC got it wrong as did most of the US media reports I have read.

Personally I was a little surprised at the news - I know how badly US prisons have treated trans people in the past and I wondered how she was going to cope. Within hours Department of Defense spokeswoman Catherine T. Wilkinson told ABC News that "there is no mechanism in place for the U.S. military to provide hormone therapy or gender-reassignment surgery for inmates."

So she will serve her sentence in Fort Leavenworth, an all male military prison with a decidedly poor reputation for their treatment of gay and trans prisoners. I have delivered Transgender Awareness Training in a number of UK prisons and I know that trans people frequently get raped.

Here in the UK however we do provide access to gender reassignment treatment. Trans people are allowed to wear female clothing while in a male prison, they can have hormone treatment and even gender reassignment surgery. If they qualify for a Gender Recognition Certificate - then they will be transferred to a female prison, no matter what the crime.  This was established in a House of Lords decision a few years ago.

The US had no such policies - that is until last week. In reading the latest reports a came across this really interesting article in the Atlantic.  Although first passed by congress in 2003 the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) was enforced for the first time week, requiring every state in the US to demonstrate compliance with the new set of federal regulations.

My research indicated that trans prisoners have a very high suicide rate, and that at least a third were subjected to sexual violence.  Most trans people have needed to adopt one of two strategies to avoid being regularly gang raped. Strategy one is to "get married" to a prison godfather. That affords them full protection in exchange for them undertaking their duties as a wife.
Strategy two is prostitution - usually with the same prison godfather now as their pimp allowing both to become prison rich.

That all said I was surprised to learn from a former prison inmate that not all gay and trans prisoners are sexually assaulted. Apparently a small and very effeminate gay man was assaulted on one occasion by a huge beast of a man. A day later the beast of a man had a 10 gallon container of boiling fat poured over his head and was never seen again.  The gay man was never assaulted again - by anyone.

But this may all be a thing of the past.  The new regulations mean that every case now has to be considered on its own merits and a decision made on the safest way for someone to be incarcerated. The fact that Chelsea still has a male body will not exclude her from that treatment - which will be about time.

The most shocking thing I read about Chelsea manning is the way she was treated before the trial.  Over 1000 days in prison, and a substantial amount of that time in solitary confinement. This report in the Daily Beast makes depressing reading. In Quantico, Virginia she was held for nine months in solitary, and unheard of length of time, deprived of sleep and clothing and ritually humiliated on the grounds that she was a suicide risk.

Chelsea leaked the documents to WikiLeaks because she was uncomfortable with the way she saw the US army treating people in Iraq and Afghanistan.  WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange believes that it was Chelsea Mannings leaked reports and videos more than anything else that brought and end to the war in Iraq - which is why she is seen by so many as a hero.  Ironically, once arrested she was then subjected to the very same type of treatment that had prompted her actions in the first place. 

I have been quite shocked by what I have read today. Chelsea joined the army to try to suppress her female gender identity.  It didn't work - and so many of us have tried that approach and failed. It also seems that the announcement today was not much of a surprise.  Chelsea had told her bosses in 2010 but was viewed as gay then at a time when she was not permitted to be openly gay.

I am pretty sure that this is not going to go away. There are countless advocacy groups with a strong interest in keeping this alive whether it is to promote trans and gay rights or human rights.  I suspect that we will never forget Chelsea Manning, a brave young soldier who took on the might of the US military - and despite everything is still fighting.

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