Chelsea Manning puts transgender issues in the spotlight


chelsea manning“I am Chelsea Manning. I am a female.”

It was a declaration. It was riveting morning television. It was a teachable moment, in public-statement form, after Manning, the Army private, was convicted on charges including theft and espionage. It was, due to the identity and background of the speaker . . . complicated?

“I’m a dad,” says Jay Brown, who is transgender and the director of foundation program strategies at the Human Rights Campaign. And as a parent, Brown says, he has learned “there are a lot of teachable moments that aren’t exactly the moments I would first choose to be educating on.” But more importantly, he says, “Regardless of how she came to our attention, this is a moment to help us understand” the transgender experience.

For here Manning is, thrust in the spotlight and introducing the general public to issues that rarely attain mainstream attention, such as the correct pronouns to use for a pre-operative transgender individual.

“What I first saw was her statement” requesting that the public now refer to Manning as the female “Chelsea,” says Brown. He explains that his primary interest is whether Manning is afforded proper dignity in care in prison. But, Brown says, the story that referenced Manning’s desire to be known as a woman referred to Manning later as male.

Yes, one of the complexities that arose with Manning’s declaration was how to talk about it, which news outlets grappled with during the day: chose the feminine pronoun, the Christian Science Monitor stuck with “he” throughout its account and avoided the issue, referring only to “Manning.” There were before-and-after aspects to the situation: Manning was a male while on assignment in Iraq but will be female for the duration of the prison sentence. (Transgender advocacy groups recommend using the pronoun preferred by the subject.)

But some of the complexities that arose with Manning’s announcement had less to do with the grammar of gender identity and more to do with Manning as an individual.

Kristin Beck is the former Christopher Beck, a Navy Seal Team 6 member who came out as transgender in 2011 and wrote a book, “Warrior Princess,” about the experience. Since then, she has become an advocate for equality in gender identity issues. When she learned that WikiLeaker Manning had also come out as transgender, she was furious.

“I’m fighting for equality, dignity and respect,” Beck says in a telephone interview on her way to speak at the LGBT Bar Association’s annual conference in San Francisco. “This person, Manning, is doing the opposite.”

Beck’s fear? Because of Manning’s history, and the circumstances surrounding Manning’s statement, “Uniformed people are going to link gender identity to emotional stability, intellectual capacity and ego.”

Today, gay celebrities can out themselves to the American public and be met with barely a yawn — heartthrob Wentworth Miller did so Wednesday, in the context of declining an invitation to a Russian film festival — but the pool of public transgender celebrities is considerably smaller. Each one provides a new platform for discussion, a new opportunity for publicity and a new potential public face for an oft misunderstood movement. Which is why it can be problematic when the public face is itself slightly problematic.

“When I came out, an older public figure told me privately, ‘Remember, we’re still in the Jackie Robinson phase to the trans rights movement,’ ” says Jennifer Boylan, a college professor and author of the transition memoir, “She’s Not There.” The fellow advocate gave her a piece of advice: “If you’re going to be a public figure, you have to be beyond reproach.”

Manning, who released a statement about being transgender after being sentenced to 35 years in prison, does not, to many, represent that description.

A 2011 study by the Williams Institute, a UCLA think tank dedicated to researching lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender legal issues, estimated about 700,000 self-identified transgender adults in the United States — larger than the population of Washington, D.C. But unlike partnered gay couples, who might be easily identifiable to observers, the most successful transgender transition stories are the ones the public is never aware of — individuals who live happy, uneventful, normal lives as husbands, wives, parents, neighbors. A transgender man may never be exposed as such to the public unless he is celebrity offspring — Chaz Bono — or unless he decides to use his still-functioning female reproductive organs to carry a child, as Thomas Beatie did three times.

Or — unfortunately, Boylan says — when the individual in question is at the center of controversy: not just Manning, but people such as Susan Stanton, a Florida city manager fired from her job after she disclosed she was pursuing sex reassignment surgery, or even Renee Richards, the professional tennis player and transgender pioneer who was enmeshed in a court case questioning her eligibility to play as a woman.

“It’s awkward when our public figures are the ones who are in trouble,” Boylan says, whether that trouble is related to their gender identity or not.

In recent years, the number of visible trans role models has expanded: Lana Wachowski, half of the sibling duo who directed the “Matrix” series; model and reality television star Isis King; and performer Alexis Arquette. In April of this year, DC Comics introduced its first transgender character, Alysia Yeoh, as Batgirl’s new roommate.

And the ultimate goal, advocates say, is for someone’s gender identity to be a non-issue in a news story, or for the pool of out trans people to grow large enough that an announcement like Manning’s is a drop in the bucket rather than a splash.

“It’s hard to write a story about someone like me,” Brown says. “I have a wife and two kids, and I live in the suburbs and I’m kind of boring.”

Washington Post