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‘Any Alleged Discrimination Is Justified’: Justice Department Opposes Chelsea Manning Growing Her Hair

The Justice Department has moved to dismiss a lawsuit brought by Chelsea Manning against United States Army personnel at the military prison in Leavenworth, Kansas, for prohibiting her from growing her hair.

The department argues in a brief [PDF] submitted to the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia,  “Any alleged discrimination is justified as substantially related to important governmental interests.” These interests include “ensuring safety and security within a military prison environment.”

Manning is serving a thirty-five year prison sentence at Leavenworth. She was convicted of offenses stemming from her decision to provide WikiLeaks over a half million U.S. government documents, which exposed war crimes, diplomatic misconduct, and other instances of wrongdoing and questionable acts by U.S. officials.

She sued the Department of Defense (DOD) and several DOD/Army officials because they will not allow Manning to grow her hair longer than the two-inch regulation, which applies to males in military prisons. The ACLU contends prohibiting her from growing her hair violates her Eighth Amendment rights by not permitting her to wear a feminine hairstyle and her Fifth Amendment rights, by depriving her of equal protection.

“I believe that defining ourselves in our own terms and in our own languages is one of the most powerful and important rights that we have as human beings,” Manning declared, in response to the Justice Department’s move to dismiss her lawsuit. “Presenting myself in the gender that I am is about my right to exist. What the government is basically telling me is ‘you cannot exist,’ that ‘you are wrong,’ and that ‘you do not exist.’ What they are doing is taking away our right to exist.”

“I think this is the kind of situation that justifies all kinds of terrible things like ignorance, maltreatment, torture, murder, and genocide,” Manning boldly stated.

She added, “You do not know my gender better than I do. A doctor doesn’t know it better than me. My parents don’t know it better than me. No one experiences my gender in the way that I experience it. Gender presentation should reflect the person that you are. When you lose control of your gender presentation, you lose an important aspect of your identity and existence.”

The Justice Department maintained throughout its brief calling for dismissal that Manning “has not plausibly alleged that the defendants are actually aware that Manning’s treatment is inadequate and yet are deliberately indifferent to that need.” The officials are motivated by “significant” and “legitimate security, military, and penal concerns,” which preclude any court from ruling officials are “deliberately” indifferent.

Attorneys took issue with Manning’s comparisons to female inmates because she is not confined with female inmates. Manning is in a male facility, which has standards that do not apply to female inmates. It would pose a “significant security risk” and “undermine” Leavenworth’s “important military mission” to allow her to grow her hair longer.

The court, the Justice Department argued, must show “substantial deference to military and corrections’ judgments.” Leavenworth’s decision to discriminate against Manning and not allow her to grow her hair is “fully consistent with equal protection.”

This decision is “intertwined with preserving core prison security and military values,” which include “uniform treatment and good order and discipline.”

Also, government attorneys maintained Manning’s lawsuit was improper because she currently has not pursued claims of rights violations in a military court. She may raise these issues in a military court, as part of her appeal, but the federal court should not review her claims of discrimination.

Manning’s ACLU attorneys filed her lawsuit on October 5 [PDF]. They argued growing her hair was part of treating her serious medical condition, gender dysphoria, of which she has been receiving medically necessary treatment, including hormone therapy.

On August 27, 2014, Dr. Randi Ettner, who is an “expert in the diagnosis and treatment of gender dysphoria,” which Manning “retained,” made the recommendation after a clinical interview that Manning should be able to “express her female gender through growing her hair” and have access to “other grooming standards and cosmetics that female prisoners are permitted.” Hormone therapy was also recommended.

The military prison has already accepted that Manning should be able to wear female undergarments and “prescribed cosmetics.” It is unclear how this would not present a threat to the good order and discipline of the facility in the same manner the Justice Department argues growing her hair would.

In a letter exchange published at Shadowproof, Manning shared, “I can’t be myself. Every time I try to assert my existence or define myself on my own terms, I get beat up by the world. I’m really scarred, bloodied, and bruised at this point.”

Chase Strangio, Manning’s ACLU attorney, reacted, “The government is attempting to complicate and diminish Chelsea’s core constitutional rights to be treated equally and to be free from cruel and unusual punishment.”

“Chelsea’s demand is simple: that she be treated with her medically necessary treatment and like all other women in military custody. Her fight is central to the pursuit for justice for transgender people and for those who are incarcerated and we are honored to fight alongside her,” Strangio asserted.

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."