Firstly, let me make you aware that I write this as a cisgendered woman. Since my trans peers have talked about these things, but aren’t being listened to adequately enough (or, some of them don’t want to be public with their opinion), I’m going to do the best I can to convey what I have interpreted from what they’ve taught me. If you’re a trans person who sees a mistake, here, please let me know.
Back when the investigation was ongoing, some statements that Chelsea Manning had made in a chat with someone had indicated that she felt she was a woman. She conveyed ideas that are pretty much right in-line with what many trans people go through and this conversation was later presented to all of the world, without her consent. As a result, many people felt that she should be recognized for who she is, but others pointed out that she hadn’t consented to the publication of that information and that her privacy should be respected. Thus, she was referred to by her legal name until she came out and made it known that she is Chelsea.
Chelsea Manning (formerly known as Bradly Manning) has caused several debates about sex and gender issues by doing nothing more than letting her identity be known. Before I jump into that, though, I’d like to direct your attention to that thing I just did at the start of the previous sentence. See how I started with her identity, and then followed it up with a clarification, for those who weren’t aware? That’s how news organizations handle identity changes, usually. That’s how most people are instructed to address it properly – at least, that’s how I was instructed to do it in journalism, and it makes a lot of sense. But, in the news’ attempt to talk about Chelsea’s announcement, not only have most news sources not complied with her wishes, even those who have complied have identified her by the wrong name before clarifying.
I’m aware that this might sound nitpicky, for most people, so I’m going to explain with some examples. Imagine a different scenario in which someone changes their name. Say, Dick June and Jane Bug get married. In many situations, this results in a name-change. Imagine that Dick is a public figure in the sciences and has an established identity that is known worldwide. Then, imagine that he saves the world through the engineering of a plant that can filter some greenhouse gasses out of the air and replace it with oxygen. Next, imagine the headlines. Typically, when referring to a situation like that, a news source would state the person’s changed name, and then follow it up with a reference to the old name. This happens out of respect for Dick’s decision to marry Jane and to change his name to Richard Bug.
In another example, you might be able to better see why there’s more to it than just respect of a name change. In legal cases where people use aliases, sometimes the aliases are used in order to protect a person. Sometimes, the court has to go through the aliases for various reasons, as a way to let the jury know the context under which something has happened. If there’s a victim who has used an alias, it is sometimes necessary to convey the gravity of a situation by disclosing these identities to the jury, but to lend some respect to the victim’s preferences about how they should be addressed. If the victim has undergone a name change that has to be mentioned in the case (this isn’t exactly common, but it can happen), the court is likely to use the current legal name, and then clarify with a reference to the previous one. You might see something like this happen in domestic abuse cases, where people who get divorced will change their name back to their maiden name. Again, it isn’t necessarily common, but it happens.
Those topics being out of the way, I’d actually like to discuss something that I keep seeing discussed as a result of Manning’s request to have hormone therapy and treatment. The big debate is over who should pay for it and for those concerned about the government paying for it. As one person complained (to paraphrase), if the government pays for it depends on how you see the surgery. Is it a cosmetic surgery or a necessary one? This person seemed to be implying that this was up for debate, somehow, which I think is unfair to the trans community and pretty much counter to what has been learned about trans people. Basically, the transgender brain is like the cisgender brain of the sex they identify with. In other words, a transgender woman typically has a woman’s brain, but is born into a man’s body. Since the brain is what makes us, us, it is a rational response to make the body match the brain in order to help the individual be more healthy. In cosmetic surgery, the goal is to match an appearance that you just happen to find appealing, for you. In transitional surgery, a transgender person is just trying to make their body match their brain. It is less like a cosmetic approach and more like giving a prosthetic leg to someone who has lost a leg, because they can function better with two legs.
There was a trend in movies and TV, for a while, to show what it might be like for a man to experience life as a woman. Most of these movies intended to speak on the experiences of women who are still living in a World where their genitals determine how well they are treated by those around them. The movies frequently contained jokes about how women are treated during sex, during flirtation and even things like clothing design. There were also themes that led to the main character questioning women’s motivations for things (often as a stupid joke about high heels or make-up). But, these movies often had another theme that largely got overlooked. The main character always wanted to return to the gender that they identified with. Those characters always wanted their body to match their brain, and when their body didn’t match their brain, they couldn’t function. That’s actually the reason those stories were attractive to so many people! So, it isn’t as if our culture has failed to recognize that a man brain should rightfully have a man body and that a woman brain should rightfully have a woman’s body. Instead, it is that our culture has been conditioned to believe that human development is so perfect that these things only happen in magical movies, and not in real life. But, that’s not true. Studies have shown that the thing that was once mocked in pop culture as a ridiculous scenario, in movies, is an actual reality for many, many people, only these people never even had the experience of having the body that matched their brain. Instead, they’ve had an entire lifetime of being in the wrong body, and it isn’t funny.
Chelsea Manning is likely to be detained for several years, and at 26, she’s reaching a time where it is more difficult for a person to transition. When it comes to treatment for trans people, the timing of transitioning is critical. Basically, the sooner, the better. The more time passes, the more difficult it is for the body to adapt to the changes that are likely to take place. Those changes are pretty dramatic, because the individual goes through a kind of second puberty as their body adapts to the change in hormones. As a treatment for a problem, it doesn’t make sense that insurance companies in the United States refuse to pay for transitioning. It makes even less sense when one realizes that trans people who don’t get to transition seem to have worse circumstances than those who get to transition. While the data is tough to come by, many people who have transitioned report less depression, more opportunities and they just tend to function better. Problems facing transgender people include things like a high rate of homelessness, rejection, depression and an increased risk of being attacked and sexually assaulted. These things are expensive for us to deal with, and even for insurance companies to deal with. Though, I find it icky that people might think an economic approach is more meaningful as an argument than an approach of reducing suffering, I know some people often lack compassion and prefer the pocketbook approach. It is likely economically healthier to ensure that trans people get proper treatment for their transition.
So, not only do I think that Chelsea’s care should be paid for, I feel that way because I feel all transitions should be paid for. We need to get rid of this idea that our ideas about how other people should be is allowed to interfere with the well-being and happiness of others.