Civil Liberties

What Does Chelsea Manning's Gender Have to Do With You?

There's no good reason to be upset about people's efforts to control their sense of identity


A picture of then-Bradley Manning dressed as a woman used as evidence during trial.
Source: U.S. Army

After being sentenced to 35 years at Fort Leavenworth for leaking hundreds of thousands of classified documents to WikiLeaks, Pfc. Bradley Manning quickly announced a deeply personal decision that moved the debate away from whether the soldier was a hero or a traitor. Manning now wanted to go by the name Chelsea, to be referred to with female pronouns, and to make the transition to living life as a woman.

For those who followed Manning's story closely, the request may not have come as much of a surprise. Manning spoke about her gender identity issues in conversations with a counselor and a supervisor at around the same time she was downloading the information she would end up passing along to WikiLeaks.

Discussions of sex and gender issues seem to turn people into armchair psychologists and biology experts. Researchers aren't exactly sure what causes homosexuality, but that doesn't stop others from being confident they know. Ask somebody at the supermarket and they may answer with the certainty of a solution to a simple math problem.

Manning's announcement caused some immediate disbelief. Rod Dreher weighed in at The American Conservative:

I presume Bradley Manning still has a penis and male chromosomes. He is not a female simply because he says he is. Though I very much doubt that the military will give him the female hormones he has requested for his prison stay, Manning may have the operation one day, but for now, he is still a he. I don't see why feeling pity for Manning's psychological suffering requires us to play along with his hallucination.

At the National Review Online, Kevin D. Williamson was similarly blunt:

Dennis Avner [popularly known as "Cat Man"] was not a tiger, and Bradley Manning is not a woman. Mr. Manning, who upon his sentencing for his role in the WikiLeaks case announced that he desires to live out his days as a woman called Chelsea, is what he is, and no amount of pronoun play, psychotherapeutic doublespeak, or wishful thinking can make it otherwise.

Case closed!

The simplicity of the statement illuminates the intent of critics to wash their hands of the whole thing. They're interested in resolving the complex issue of gender in as simple a manner as sexual orientation was once discussed. People of the same sex cannot reproduce; therefore it's unnatural. Similarly, either God or genetics (or both) grants us a sex. This is an immutable component of our physiology. The end.

But as we learn more about the world around us, we know that this isn't true. Homosexuality is rife in the animal kingdom, documented in the book Biological Exuberance: Animal Homosexuality and Natural Diversity. There was a time – just a decade or two ago – that many people thought there were no homosexual animals, and therefore human homosexuality was a form of deviance. They were wrong. Now we all know about the gay penguins.

The animal kingdom is also rife with gender-bending. It's actually in the DNA of some species. For any social conservative worried about exposing children to transgendered behavior, be grateful Finding Nemo wasn't scientifically accurate. Clownfish change from male to female in order to breed. Simply the existence of human hermaphrodites should at least give folks pause when declaring Manning is obviously a man even if she goes by Chelsea now. Why is Dreher presuming the content of Manning's chromosomes? How would he know?

The bigger question is "Why should it matter to any of us if Bradley Manning becomes Chelsea Manning?" Why should there be resistance to referring to Chelsea as a woman? What does it mean to any of us at all if Manning puts on a blond wig and starts taking hormones? A letter from a reader that Dreher quotes gives some insight:

Forget the sex side of this; what about the journalism angle? What else am I allowed to dictate? If Al Gore wants to come on and be referred to as "President Gore," do they comply with that? If Anthony Weiner insists on being called, "the entirely wholesome and family positive Anthony Weiner," do they do that?

I mean, these are all statements that color how people view these people. You can check and see if Gore was ever president. Even if you disagree with the Supreme Court case giving the presidency to Bush, Gore was never president. Maybe that's unfair, but it's still not true that he was ever president.

Seriously. Let's say that I am arrested for sneaking into a women's restroom and ogling women. This gets reported in the news. I tell the reporter that I don't understand this charge because I am a woman. The reporter agrees to do this. Well, the news no longer makes sense. It's, "Woman arrested for using women's restroom."

It always seems to come down to women's restrooms. The undercurrent of opposition to acknowledging transgendered identities seems to revolve around the idea that they're just tricking us in order to do something bad, to violate us in some way. What exactly is there to ogle in a women's restroom anyway? If a person is peeping into a stall trying to catch a look, it's a crime irrespective of the gender of the perpetrator. What about lesbians? What if a lesbian ogles women in the restroom? Should we make them use the men's room? But what if the men ogle them? It's all so confusing.

Those scary bathrooms also contributed to California Assemblyman Tim Donnelly's decision to yank one of his sons from public school. California recently passed a law allowing transgendered school students to participate in activities and use facilities based on their declared gender, not necessarily based on whether they have an innie or an outie:

Donnelly told The Associated Press on Friday that his 13- and 16-year-old sons, who attend Rim of the World Unified School District in the San Bernardino Mountains, were "horrified" to learn they might have to share a restroom with female students.

He is pulling one son out of middle school, while another son is uncertain if he will return to his public high school. The decision is one that his family already had been discussing before the bill was approved.

Of all the reasons to yank his kids from California's terrible public schools, this was the final straw. If anything, these fears of what trangendered folks might be up to justifies the exposure to help eliminate some absurd ideas about them. Bosom Buddies was not a reality show. What is the actual real-world risk of people attempting to abuse the recognition of transgendered people to commit fraud? It's likely not zero, but it's probably less likely than getting into a car crash, and we're still letting those things all over the place.

Transgendered economist Deirdre N. McCloskey (whose memoir was excerpted in the pages of Reason in 1999) came to Manning's support at The New Republic:

How strong is Chelsea Manning's longing? Here's how strong. In 1995, when I first decided to transition, I expected to lose everything—my scholarly career, my job at the University of Iowa, my beloved birth family, my beloved friends, my beloved marriage family. Everything. Yet from that day in August 1995 when I finally twigged, I was willing to give it all up. As it worked out, I lost only my marriage family—my former wife and my children haven't spoken to me since 1995, and I've not met my three grandchildren, sufficient punishment perhaps. In other words, it's not a whim, or a fashion.

Though gender choice is not the same as being homosexual, gender crossers and gays have the same critics. Our friends the homophobes think that people "become" gay, probably because the clothes and the parties are better. The trans-phobes who clot up the commentaries on the Manning story have a similar theory. You bloody queer. You traitor. Rot in hell, or in this case, the men's side of the prison. They don't want anyone to have a free choice if it is an unusual choice or if they don't understand it or it freaks them out. Like the old laws against blacks and whites marrying, my harmless gender change is to be subject to your notion of what is acceptable: no hormones, no nose job, no Orange is the New Black prison.

The fear is that if there isn't enough pushback on Manning's choice (note that Dreher might possibly, maybe, consider granting Manning her gender identity if she actually goes through with surgery), then people will feel comfortable with changing genders at a whim. It's the common conservative fear that too much freedom of individual identity will kick the struts out from society's foundation and leave us casting about not knowing how to interact with each other in a way they can recognize. And so there has to be something bad about transgendered people, culturally. There has to be some sort of a threat somehow, that we'll all end up dressed like the people of Panem in The Hunger Games. There has to be a slippery slope somewhere.

But what if there isn't? Even as acceptance of homosexual relationships has improved, the percentage of adults who self-identify as gay has not notably increased. More young people are willing to self-identify as gay these days, but that could be more of an indication of cultural shift and comfort than an actual change in the number of gays and lesbians. Most gays have no interest in uprooting or demolishing society as we know it—they just don't want to hide from it.

So why assume that accepting Manning for who she says she is would have an impact on anybody other than Manning and those who are closest to her? As long as we're not on the hook for what she needs for her treatment (and she's said she'll pay for it herself) there's no reason to get worked up about this transition. There is no evidence she's engaging in any sort of fraud, nor any reason to deny her control of her own identity.