Shortly after his sentence was delivered, the Army's Private Bradley Manning issued a public statement, explaining that he is in fact a woman, and wishes to be known as Chelsea. Manning hopes to begin "transitioning" from male to female right away, and even to receive hormone treatments -- in a military prison.
We have a lot of sympathy for the lives and challenges of transgendered people. It must be hard, unspeakably hard, to go through life feeling that you are in the wrong body. And if you are bold enough, or privileged enough, to actually do something about it, life doesn't get all that much easier. Both cross-dressers and transsexuals are often the objects of ridicule, discrimination and ultimately violence. We desperately wish that it were otherwise. Someday, it probably will be -- but that day is still far off.
And prison makes everything worse. Let's be blunt: prison is one of the places where a man is most likely to be raped. He doesn't have to be young and cute, but it helps; he doesn't have to be effeminate*, much less actually gay, but those things probably help too. We're just betting that a self-declared woman in a man's body, much less one with a super-high media profile, is going to be like candy to the depraved and violent.
So why the hell did Chelsea set herself up for this? The wisest course of action, by far, would be to gut it out for seven years (or however many it takes), seek parole, and then quietly transition when you are safely on the outside. Sure, it means denying your inmost self-understanding; but it could also save your life. So why declare now, on the eve of your imprisonment?
If Manning were to be imprisoned with women, of course, the likelihood of violence would be much lower. In that case, this public declaration might be a sort of self-protective Hail Mary pass, a last ditch effort to avoid the worst of what is coming. The problem is that the military, as perhaps you've heard, isn't really up to date on the whole gay thing, much less the transgendered one. (Honestly, they still haven't got the "no raping women" business down.) We've heard that there are state prisons in which TG inmates may be placed among other prisoners of their preferred sex, and given hormones and other medical interventions. If the Army provides this for Manning, however, it will mark a major (and we think improbable) change of policy.
Because of Manning's high profile, it is likely that there will be voices pushing hard for the Army to bend. Maybe that's the real point of the announcement: to make sure that there is a public movement keeping an eye on things, and encouraging the officials to make Manning's imprisonment no more wretched than it must be.
However, there is another side to all this, and one that we find quite dark indeed. Although a hero to some, Manning is also a criminal, convicted of extremely serious crimes against the US. Hostile observers, those already inclined to distrust the transgendered, will make a connection here. They are wrong, of course; being transgendered certainly does not lead to this sort of crime, any more than being gay led to the crimes of Anthony Blunt. But just as, in the deacdes after Blunt, it was harder to get a security clearance if you were gay, so it is entirely possible that Manning will harden the hostility of the armed services, if not the entire national security apparatus, toward transgendered people.
In other words, we are afraid for Manning's life and safety. But we are even more afraid that Manning will now manage to set back the cause of justice for transgendered people in America.
*What the hell does "effeminate" even mean? Can somebody tell us, please? Not lexically, but as a matter of practice. Does it mean a man is beardless? LIkes dresses? or just that he goes to the opera (which, by the way, we ourselves have occasionally done)? We still use the word, occasionally, but with less conviction each time. Sometimes we think it means something, and sometimes we don't.