Less than a day after being sentenced to 35 years in prison for passing classified U.S. documents to WikiLeaks, Army private Bradley Manning has a huge, if not exactly surprisingly, announcement: “I am Chelsea Manning. I am female,” the 25-year-old wrote in a statement to Today. “Given the way that I feel, and have felt since childhood, I want to begin hormone therapy as soon as possible. I hope that you will support me in this transition. I also request that, starting today, you refer to me by my new name and use the feminine pronoun.”
But the transition has colored much of Manning’s life for many years and factors heavily into how she became one of the most notable leakers in American history. Even if much of the world is only now paying attention to Manning’s gender-questioning, it’s always been a part of her story.
Manning’s full letter is titled “The Next Stage of My Life” and has notes of relief, her trial and sentencing finally complete after three years. “As I transition into this next phase of my life,” Manning wrote, “I want everyone to know the real me.”
Manning was wrestling with her sexual orientation while serving in Iraq and when she got involved with WikiLeaks. As reported by Steve Fishman in a July 2011 issue of New York, “Among fellow soldiers, Manning had to conceal the basic facts of his sexual orientation. On the web, he was proudly out and joined a ‘Repeal Don’t Ask Don’t Tell’ group. He’d even begun to explore switching his gender, chatting with a counselor about the steps a person takes to transition from male to female.”
In November 2009, Manning “made contact on the web with a gender counselor back in the States.” The counselor told Fishman, “Bradley felt he was female. He was very solid on that.”
Quickly, their conversation shifted to the practicalities: How does someone transition from male to female? “He really wanted to do surgery,” the counselor recalled. “He was mostly afraid of being alone, being ostracized or somehow weird.” To the counselor, it was clear Manning was in crisis. “I feel like a monster,” he’d typed on his computer several times. The statement referred partly to his gender struggles but more to his job. He’d taken an oath not to divulge this type of information. But then it spilled out. He told the counselor about a targeting mission gone bad in Basra.
Manning’s personal and professional life in crisis, November 2009 was also the month she started working with Julian Assange and WikiLeaks. Manning’s online friendship with the hacker Adrian Lamo, who would eventually turn her in, was also based partly on sexuality and gender. Of Lamo, Fishman wrote: “He was a celebrity in the hacker circles with which Manning identified, and he’d worked on a task force for gay, lesbian, and transgender youth. He’s bisexual. And then, Lamo, like Manning, lived the most vivid parts of life online.”
In one chat with Lamo, Manning wrote, “i wouldn’t mind going to prison for the rest of my life, or being executed so much, if it wasn’t for the possibility of having pictures of me … plastered all over the world press … as [a] boy.”
Manning’s defense team also cited her gender identity disorder, or gender dysphoria, which combined with various mental health issues, resulted in “severe emotional distress at the time of the alleged offenses.” Manning had hoped the military would solve her gender questions, but it only complicated them.
Now, facing at least seven years in prison before she’s eligible for parole, Manning will encounter more hurdles. While federal courts have ruled that refusing sex-change operations for inmates constitutes cruel and unusual punishment, a spokesperson for Ft. Leavenworth, where Manning is likely to serve time, told Courthouse News, “The Army does not provide hormone therapy or sex-reassignment surgery for gender identity disorder.”
“I don’t think people understand what hormone-replacement therapy does,” said Lauren McNamara, a transgender woman who testified for Manning’s defense. “This is something that’s the best anti-depressant, anti-anxiety drug I have ever been on. Denying people access to this treatment just because they’re in prison is simply inhumane.” While Manning has taken a big step, her struggle is far from over.