Chelsea Manning Shows We Don’t Understand Transgender Identity

Chelsea Manning leaked classified military documents. Yet her hair offended the U.S. military almost as much.

The effort military officials put into presenting her as male shows where we stand on transgender rights.

Manning’s release is a victory for transgender activists. But as we cheer her release we must remember that she leaves prison only to enter a world posing serious obstacles for transgender and gender-nonconforming people.

Deja Nicole Greenlaw, a trans activist who has covered trans issues for The Rainbow Times since 2008, was optimistic when she told BTRtoday “yeah, definitely” there is a place for gender fluidity in American society. “But not right now” she clarified. There are still mundane activities like going through a TSA body scanner or getting a passport that isolate those who aren’t cis, reinforcing their otherness.

We’ve witnessed the GOP targeting transgender women in the past several years with a myriad of “bathroom bills” that regulate where they are allowed to pee. But it’s not just restrooms. According to the National Center for Transgender Equality, trans bodies are interrogated in several ways when going through airport security, If a trans man binds his chest or wears a packer to affirm his gender identity, the extra layers and the prosthetics show on the body scanner. While TSA can’t ask him to remove either one, the agents are are allowed to do a full body pat-down. This means that a trans-man who chooses to present his gender in either way is potentially unable to avoid a full pat-down every time he flies.

Getting a passport is also more complex if you are trans or gender non-conforming. To change the gender on your ID, you need a doctor’s letter confirming your gender reassignment. To do so, you have to have undergone medical treatment that has been deemed “appropriate” treatment. You have to present your gender to the world in a way that cis people can understand.

To get gender reassignment treatment, good luck getting insurance. The Republican American Health Care Act stripped protections for trans people put in place by the Affordable Care Act. The AHCA allows providers to deny coverage to trans patients on the basis of their gender identity. The bill considered being trans a “preexisting condition.”

Even with insurance, trans people can be denied coverage for trans-specific healthcare, such as gender affirmation surgeries and hormone therapies. Chelsea Manning experienced this when she was routinely denied treatment for her gender dysphoria while in a military prison. Army officials refused her hormone therapy and even forbid her from growing her hair long.

This leads us to the most basic obstacle that trans and gender nonconforming people face: presenting a “normal” image of their gender identity. Heteronormative expectations dictate that Chelsea Manning should not have grown her hair out. Cis women don’t face the same expectations. A cis woman with a pixie cut may be considered less “feminine” by some but her gender identity isn’t called into question.

“We have to do a lot of head work, a lot of soul searching,” says Nicole Greenlaw. “The whole thing is about being who you are. It’s not about being a man or a woman.”