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The tragedy of Chelsea Manning

One day after being sentenced to 35 years in prison for espionage in the largest breach of classified documents in the nation's history, U.S. soldier Bradley Manning made a request of all of us: to stop calling him Brad, and start calling her Chelsea.

"As I transition into this next phase of my life, I want everyone to know the real me. I am Chelsea Manning. I am a female," Manning said in a public statement Thursday. "Given the way that I feel, and have felt since childhood, I want to begin hormone therapy as soon as possible."

As I see it, Manning's statement coming out as transgender is brave, but also tragic.

The tragedy is rooted in Manning's humanity, and the lack of humanity in others: It is not that Brad now identifies as Chelsea, but that military policymakers wouldn't have respected the decision even if Manning hadn't leaked a thing.

If Chelsea's intended transition had reached enough ears, superior officers probably would have "separated" Manning out of the military. It wouldn't have taken a court martial.

The "Don't ask, don't tell" restrictions keeping gay and lesbian service members in the closet may be gone, but transgender soldiers still can't be themselves without facing a possible forced exit from the armed forces.

The military's medical code includes regulations that can prevent or end a transgender person's service.

This means ignorance will forever cloud one of the most important espionage cases in history.

If the Army had supported Manning years ago, when he first made it known he was dealing with the pain that gender nonconformity can bring in our heteronormative society, would he have leaked 700,000 files, diplomatic cables and videos to Wikileaks?

We don't know.

If the Army didn't have a discriminatory policy allowing young soldiers to be kicked out of military service for "transsexualism" and "gender transformation," would there be a talented and happy junior Army analyst today named Chelsea Manning, a star among her peers for having the computer skills the military is desperate for?

Or would there be an Army analyst Chelsea Manning heading to prison?

We won't ever know, and that's the point.

Transgender soldiers exist, and the military is doing itself and this country a disservice by refusing to acknowledge and accept them among its ranks.

"We have no idea what Chelsea's life would have been like if she had transitioned earlier," said Masen Davis, executive director of the Transgender Law Center in California, in an interview. 

According to a study by the Williams Institute released this month, some 20 percent of nearly 6,500 transgender and gender nonconforming people surveyed had served in the military. Among transgender women, like Chelsea Manning, 29 percent had served.

That's a rate double the general population.

Among transgender individuals who have served in the military, it's certainly not the case that the military's discrimination always or even routinely resulted in their acting out or breaking orders, especially in the way Manning did.

"There are many transgender people who are in the military, who are transgender vets, who have served honorably and with distinction," Davis said.

But 9 percent of those surveyed did report being discharged for being transgender or gender nonconforming, and the discrimination certainly seemed to play a role in Manning's life.

Bradley Manning was kept on the job without extra support even after he'd sent a picture of himself in a blonde wig, labeling it his "problem," in a clear plea for help to a supervisor.

Manning's attorneys brought in mental health experts to testify that he was under "severe emotional distress" during his deployment in Iraq and had been diagnosed with "gender identity disorder."

Colleagues of Manning's reported in court witnessing several emotional outbursts.

Manning was confused, vulnerable, and had asked for help even though he knew it could have him kicked out of the military, and supervisors ignored it.

Bradley Manning was valued enough as an analyst that they didn't want to lose him, but helping him may very well have led to his revealing his struggles with gender nonconformity -- which, because of the military's policies on transgender soldiers, would likely have ended the private's career as a military analyst in its own way.

It seems clear that military officers let Bradley Manning remain emotionally unstable while handling classified information requiring a security clearance in part because they didn't want to lose a talented analyst to their own discriminatory policy.

That's ludicrous.

Why aren't we a country where a young private can freely and openly determine what sort of gender expression makes him or her the most productive, happy soldier possible?

Wouldn't that serve to benefit the military, its mission and its members?

Because we're not, we end up with tragedies like that of Chelsea Manning.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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