Shortly after Bradley Manning was sentenced to 35 years in prison for passing classified documents to WikiLeaks in one of the biggest security breaches in recent history, he announced that he was transgendered. He then made two requests: One, he wants to be called Chelsea and referred to with feminine pronouns, and, two, she wants her gender reassignment process to begin while she serves out her sentence in a federal prison. Suffice to say, it's an interesting time to be Chelsea Manning — and the news organizations covering her story.
In recent years, the mainstream media has been generally willing to switch up names and pronouns to support those people courageous enough to publicly undergo gender reassignment (see Chaz Bono). Of course, the mainstream is typically more inclusive to the LGBT community than other outlets. I expect that when it comes to outlets like CNN or The New York Times, we'll be hearing less about Bradley and more about Chelsea in the weeks to come.
However, we're still a country divided, and in no place will this division be more evident than in the world of right-wing media. The Fox News website, for example, took an interesting approach. It didn't use pronouns at all when referencing Chelsea Manning. In the numerous reports on the site, she was called either "Manning" or "the soldier."
But now onto more important questions, namely, should Manning's transition be allowed to begin while she serves her time in prison? And, if so, who's going to foot the bill?
Surprisingly, there appears to be a legal precedent concerning these matters. In 2012, a federal judge in Massachusetts ruled that forcing an inmate to continue life as a male, instead of providing him with gender-reassignment surgery, constituted cruel and unusual punishment. As a result of the ruling, the state was required to pay for the surgery, but so far the appeal process has put a stop to any medical procedures.
So what is the cost? Here in the States, a male-to-female gender reassignment surgery can range from $7,000-$30,000. One can imagine that, on a prison budget, the $7,000 ticket would ring closer to true. Another option is the less invasive and less expensive use of hormone therapy, which will shut down Manning's testosterone production and jump-start estrogen production.
An added complication to all this is the fact that Leavenworth, the prison where Manning will be housed, is an all-male facility. If Manning was to stay at the federal prison, she would have to be kept away from the rest of the population while she transitions. And if that happens, American taxpayers would most likely have to foot the bill for the additional cost of doing so.
I tend to agree with that federal judge. Forcing someone to live in a body that's foreign to them is cruel. The fact that Manning is a convicted felon doesn't change that, but I can think of better ways to fund one's gender reassignment surgery than committing treason and subsequently asking the government to pay for it.
Gender identity issues are serious, though, and they are real. Here in South Carolina, we recently learned of a child, a ward of the state as an infant, who was born with both male and female genitalia. The state made a choice and surgically removed the baby's male parts; now the child presents and lives as a male, and his adopted parents are suing the state. In that case it seems clear we should shoulder the burden of allowing that child to live in a body that works for him.
In the case of Chelsea Manning, however, I just don't know. Whatever's decided, Chelsea Manning has a rough road ahead of her. Gender reassignment is a hard enough path even for those not in the spotlight. But for someone as notorious as Manning, it's bound to be hell.