In what is seen as a major breakthrough, convicted whistleblower Chelsea Manning has been allowed to undergo gender reassignment surgery by the US Army.
Assigned male at birth, the 28-year-old was convicted for espionage by a military court in 2013 for providing one of the largest databases of highly sensitive secret information to WikiLeaks regarding US operations in Iraq to whistleblower website, when she was a military intelligence analyst. At the time, she had been identifying as Bradley Manning, but soon after her conviction, she revealed that she identifies as a woman and took the name Chelsea Manning.
Currently serving a harsh 35-year sentence in a prison in the US state of Kansas, Manning will be the first trans person to undergo gender transition surgery when she finally does so, something that was recommended by her psychologist in April 2016, to treat her gender dysphoria, while in the US prison system.
Manning wasn’t permitted to have long hair, despite her psychologist’s recommendation, since she was placed in a male facility where long hair was considered a ‘security threat’. Prior to the approval for gender transition, Manning had resorted to a hunger strike which began in the second week of September, demanding that she receive her surgery.
Like other anti-secrecy figures like Edward Snowden and Julian Assange, Manning has occupied a rather polarising figure: one where she is hailed as a hero by some and a traitor by others. However, the hate she has received on account of her trans identity is something that cis-men like Assange and Snowden would ever have to go through.
Moreover, going through gender dysphoria while in prison is no easy life. The psychological trauma of this is already immense, but when placed in a highly binary-dependent space like a prison, keeping trans inmates has always posed a dilemma for most governments.
Trans inmates are on the receiving end of harassment, abuse and assault in prisons as a 2014 study revealed that more than 34% of trans inmates had undergone some degree of sexual assault during their time in jails/prisons. To put this figure in perspective, about 4% of non-trans prison/jail inmates reported incidents of sexual assault.
The hostile space has also accounted for nearly 60% of trans inmates attempting suicide while 4% of non-trans inmates attempted the same. A majority of the trans respondents had reported that they were refused medical care.
With more than 3200 trans inmates in the US alone, enforcement of guidelines haven’t particularly caught up. In 2012, the Department of Justice issued a new set of federal standards/guidelines that banned confinement of inmates based on sex, instead, based on gender identity. The only problem is that, these guidelines aren’t legally binding (due to the nature of US law and federal system) and need not be followed by jails across states because there is no threat of legal recourse. Not only does this place inmates in an unsafe position, but it also leads to severe mental health issues – something that Manning has admittedly been going through.
While it is still too early to say whether other trans inmates will receive similar approvals like Manning to undergo gender transition while in prison confinement, it is indeed notable that since her conviction is of a more severe degree and has garnered national and international headlines, the pressure is such on the US government to heed to requests.