Manning unlocks his inner woman

Military prison is not the ideal place to change genders

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As if Bradley Manning didn't have a tough enough road ahead, now he wants to change gender identification while serving time in a military prison.

"I am Chelsea Manning," the convicted leaker said in a statement on Thursday. "I am a female. Given the way that I feel and have felt since childhood, I want to begin hormone therapy as soon as possible. I hope that you will support me in this transition.

"I also request that, starting today, you refer to me by my new name and use the feminine pronoun ... I look forward to receiving letters from supporters and having the opportunity to write back."

Manning, the former army private, was living as a male when, appalled by the secrets he was seeing, he released more than 700,000 classified documents to WikiLeaks. He was treated as a male for the three years he was awaiting trial in Fort Leavenworth -- where his jailers sometimes took all his clothes or put him in solitary confinement as if he were a threat to the guards or other inmates -- and at the trial that ended last week in a 35-year sentence. It was about half of what prosecutors wanted but much more than what anti-secrecy activists had hoped.

With time off for good behavior, the sentence could wind up being closer to seven years. But the judge is sending a warning to future Mannings and Edward Snowdens: We consider you a traitor, not a whistleblower. Cross us at your peril.

According to his statement, Manning is about to begin "a transition into the next phase of my life." The former soldier -- she was given a dishonorable discharge -- is not asking to be put in a women's prison, and the feds aren't about to do that anyway. But the desire to change genders must be powerful indeed, given that sexual minorities in prison are more likely to be targeted for rape.

So what is identity, anyway? Is it subjective or objective, assigned by oneself or by the perception of others? It won't be easy for Manning, already a troubled young person, to live as a woman if everyone is treating her as a man.

"I think the ultimate goal is to be comfortable in her skin, and to be the person that she's never had an opportunity to be," said her lawyer, David Coombs. His client, he said, waited for the trial to end before releasing the statement so it wouldn't "overshadow" the case.

For media outlets willing to grant Manning's request about gender reference, the most logical policy would use the one that applied during the time in question -- the male name and pronoun for the period up to and including his conviction, when he was living as a man, and then the female name and pronoun going forward.

This could mean using both genders in the same sentence, but should still work if the time frame is clear. For example, "Chelsea Manning, who was convicted of espionage as army Pvt. Bradley Manning and then changed his gender identification to female, is seeking to have her sentence commuted by President Obama. She is also asking to have hormone therapy while serving her time, and her lawyers say they will take legal action if the request is denied."

Speaking of which, good luck with that. If they wouldn't even give him his clothes, I doubt they'll be dispensing hormones.

For my own purposes, I'm just glad Manning picked a gender. It'll make covering the case much easier.

I say this because of a story I didn't write after the subject would not agree to the use of any pronouns. This person was born and grew up female but came to self-identify as genderless. Even after marrying.

Instead, the person wanted to be known by name only -- I'll use Jesse as a pseudonym.

Jesse wouldn't be interviewed for a proposed piece on living without any gender unless Jesse was referred to as Jesse in every instance. No use of "he" or "she" because Jesse didn't feel like either one and didn't see any reason to conform to the conventions of the English language

Which was certainly Jesse's prerogative, but a conundrum for me. The genderless pronouns in English simply would not work. "It" refers to inanimate objects, not people. "One" is neither male nor female, but only fits in certain contexts. "They" is plural.

I've long thought that we could use an all-purpose androgynous pronoun for humans so that users don't have to pick one when referring to unspecified persons. Once I slipped "s/he" into a story to avoid using the phrase "he or she," but the editor didn't like it because it's not an actual word. Maybe it should be.

But even that wouldn't have worked for Jesse, who claims to be neither. So I dropped the story rather than load it down with impenetrable verbiage such as -- and this is hypothetical because we never did the interview -- "Jesse said Jesse's friends and family knew that Jesse and Jesse's spouse were no different than any married couple. Jesse's co-workers, Jesse said, were used to Jesse's desire to be seen simply as Jesse, without gender. But the question of which bathroom to use required some discussion between Jesse, Jesse's co-workers and Jesse's boss."

Manning has picked a most inopportune moment and setting for announcing herself as transgendered, military prisons not being known for their supportive environments. But between the anti-secrecy advocates and other sexual minorities, she'll be getting lots of mail. Lord knows there will be plenty of time to answer it.

sallykalson

Sally Kalson is a columnist for the Post-Gazette (skalson@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1610).


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