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In Precedent For Transgender Prisoners, Chelsea Manning To Receive Gender Reassignment Surgery

The United States Army agreed to provide Chelsea Manning access to gender reassignment surgery days after she launched a hunger strike to force the military to provide the medical treatment she needs.

If the Army follows through, Manning will likely set a precedent that could be hugely positive for thousands of other transgender prisoners.

“I am unendingly relieved that the military is finally doing the right thing,” Manning declared in a statement to attorneys. “This is all that I wanted—for them to let me be me.”

“But it is hard not to wonder why it has taken so long. Also, why were such drastic measures needed? The surgery was recommended back in April 2016.”

Manning hopes this sets a precedent for thousands of trans people to receive the treatment they need.

Shadowproof exchanged letters with Manning in November 2015. She described the struggle to be herself in prison.

“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.”

“It is a relief to hear that the government has finally agreed to move forward with providing Chelsea with the health care that she is legally entitled to and is medically needed,” Chase Strangio, Manning’s attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union, stated. “We hope that they will act to provide this care without delay in order to ensure that her suffering does not continue.”

However, the military has yet to relent and allow Manning, who is confined at Fort Leavenworth, to follow female grooming standards by growing her hair out.

Manning also is still charged with administrative offenses related to a suicide attempt in July, an outrage which has led supporters to accuse the military of punishing her for surviving the attempt.

The Army charged Manning with resisting a force cell team, the prohibited use of property, and conduct that threatens the good order and discipline of the prison. The resisting charge was brought against her, even though she was unconscious when she was removed from her cell.

In a lawsuit brought against the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, and other military officials by the ACLU, Manning alleged the refusal allow her to follow female grooming standards because “she is transgender, gender non-conforming, and was assigned the sex of male at birth,” is unconstitutional.

Manning, who was first diagnosed with gender dysphoria or gender identity disorder in May 2010, met with Dr. Randi Ettner in August 2014. Ettner recommended Manning be allowed to “express her female gender through growing her hair and having access to other grooming standards and cosmetics that female prisoners are permitted.” She also recommended hormone therapy for Manning.

Additionally, Ettner acknowledged Manning was under “significant distress” and at “high risk for serious medical consequences, including self-castration and suicide, if the medically necessary treatment was not promptly provided.”

The Army knew Manning might potentially attempt suicide years before she followed through in July. They still denied her treatment. Instead of taking responsibility, the Army insists on punishing Manning with a draconian administrative process that has added to already severe distress.

As Manning made clear when she launched her hunger strike, “I need help. I needed help earlier this year. I was driven to suicide by the lack of care for my gender dysphoria that I have been desperate for. I didn’t get any. I still haven’t gotten any.”

“I have asked for help time and time again for six years and through five separate confinement locations. My request has only been ignored, delayed, mocked, given trinkets and lip service by the prison, the military, and this administration.”

In February 2015, the lawsuit filed by the ACLU pushed the military to permit Manning to receive hormone therapy for gender dysphoria. But following the suicide attempt, Strangio was especially concerned about the lack of mental health treatment available at Leavenworth, including whether a doctor would even be around for Manning.

Strangio emphasized, “It was the government’s refusal to provide her with the necessary care that led her to attempt suicide earlier this year, and it was all the more troubling when she became subject to an investigation and possible punishment in connection with the suicide attempt. We hope that the government recognizes that charging Chelsea with the crime of being denied essential health care is outrageous and drops those charges.”

Supporters have renewed efforts to convince the military to drop the administrative charges against Manning. A video featuring Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg and R.E.M. singer Michael Stipe was produced as part of a concerted campaign.

“Instead of giving her the treatment she needs, the government is now threatening her with indefinite solitary confinement. This is unjustifiable. It is unfair, and it needs to be stopped.”

Manning could potentially find herself in solitary confinement indefinitely if she is found guilty of the administrative charges. According to Strangio, she may also lose access to the phone and law library, which are “things that connect her to her supporters.” And the Army could choose to extend the time before Manning is eligible for parole.

A little over three years ago, Manning was convicted of several offenses. The charges stemmed from her decision to provide WikiLeaks with over a half million U.S. government documents and a video of an Apache helicopter attack in Baghdad, widely known as the “Collateral Murder” video. She exposed war crimes, diplomatic misconduct, and other instances of wrongdoing and questionable acts by U.S. officials. She is serving a 35-year sentence.

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

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