Trigger warning: The following article discusses rape, sexual assault, and transphobic violence
Chelsea Manning, the whistleblower who released evidence of US war crimes to WikiLeaks, has announced that she identifies as a woman. “Given the way I feel and have felt since childhood, I want to begin hormone therapy as soon as possible,” she wrote in a statement.
But the US Army, which will be incarcerating the whistleblower throughout her 35 year sentence, has shown no interest in respecting her gender identity. Manning will be caged with men throughout her sentence. Furthermore, Army spokesman George Wright has stated that “The Army does not provide hormone therapy or sex-reassignment surgery for gender-identity disorder.”
Denying Manning hormone treatment and other transgender health care could have serious consequences for her. As the ACLU explained in a recent statement:
Gender dysphoria is a serious medical condition in which a person’s gender identity does not correspond to his or her assigned sex at birth, and hormone therapy is part of the accepted standards of care for this condition. Without the necessary treatment, gender dysphoria can cause severe psychological distress, including anxiety and suicide.
Denying Ms. Manning this care would violate the state’s own laws. As the ACLU notes, “courts have consistently found that denying such care to prisoners based on blanket exclusions violates the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution.”
But denial of medical treatment is certainly not the only abuse that transgender inmates like Manning face in American prisons. A 2007 study of California prisons found that “[s]exual assault is 13 times more prevalent among transgender inmates, with 59 percent reporting being sexually assaulted.”
These sexual assaults are often committed by guards, whose power over prisoners shields them from accountability. When prisoners assault transgender inmates, they are often aided and abetted by guards, who force trans* women into prostitution. Gabriel Arkles of the Sylvia Rivera Law Project testified at a Department of Justice hearing that “In these systems, corrections officers bring transgender women to the cell of male inmates and lock them in for the male inmate to have sex with.”
Victoria Law also notes that in some male prisons, “officers practice ‘V-Coding’–placing transgender and transsexual women in cells with sexually aggressive men.”
Because of this pervasive violence, transgender inmates are often placed in solitary confinement, ostensibly for their “protection.” Yet solitary confinement is internationally recognized as a form of torture.
Before her trial, Manning was held in solitary for months on end, treatment that UN special rapporteur on torture Juan Mendez concluded “constitutes at a minimum cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment in violation of article 16 of the convention against torture.”
When asked why Manning’s gender identity justified placing her in solitary, Marine Corps Master Sgt. Craig Blenis answered “that’s not normal, sir.” Years before she even came out publicly, Chelsea Manning was tortured by the United States government for her gender identity.
Manning’s attorney, David Coombs, remains optimistic. He does not fear for Ms. Manning’s safety in prison, because “Everyone that’s in a military prison is a first-time offender. These are soldiers who have done something wrong, have gone to prison and are really just trying to do their time and then get out.”
I hope that Mr. Coombs is correct. But given the military’s violence, authoritarianism, cultural conservatism, and abysmal record on sexual violence issues, I fear that Chelsea Manning may face brutal violence and abuse throughout her sentence.
Even if the state does not torture or brutalize Ms. Manning while she is incarcerated, it’s worth remembering that she should not be incarcerated or punished at all. Instead, she should be commended. Having witnessed atrocities, Chelsea Manning released the evidence to the public, hoping to help end the carnage. She exposed evidence of murder, torture, rape, and numerous other crimes. Her courageous actions warrant gratitude and respect, not bigotry and state violence.
Thank you, Chelsea Manning.