Flora Renz
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Filed in Opinions
on July 31, 2013

Bradley Manning and the Reality of Being Trans in Prison

Flora Renz reflects on the sobering case of Bradley Manning, gender identity, and the harsh reality of being trans in the prison system.

Bradley Manning

Bradley Manning (as suggested by the Bradley Manning Support Network I will refer to Manning using male pronouns in line with his presentation in the media and in the communications with his lawyer. However, I do not intend for this to be a judgment about his gender identity) has just been found guilty of several counts of theft and espionage. Although the judge found him not guilty of the more serious charge of “aiding the enemy”, which could potentially have meant a death sentence, this nevertheless means that Manning is likely to spend the majority of his life in prison. This certainly raises some worrisome questions about the consequences facing any potential whistle-blowers who dare to question their governments. However, it also raises another question which has received little or no media attention so far: what about Manning’s gender identity?

Essentially as it stands we do not know if Bradley Manning would self identify as a woman or as trans. However, some blogs suggested early on in the trial that Manning clearly struggled with issues around gender and sexuality at the time when he was leaking the classified material. They mainly supported this claim by reference to the chat transcripts of the conversation between Manning and the hacker Lamo. Those transcripts seem to show fairly clearly that Manning was considering how to transition and was deeply unhappy with his identity at the time. We simply have no way of knowing how Manning self-identifies now as his contact with the public has been so severely restricted by the military. Nevertheless, his case raises important issues facing trans people, or those who do not fully identify with their birth sex, when they come into contact with the prison system.

Anybody who has been watching Orange Is the New Black recently (if you haven’t; what the hell is wrong with you?! Also: Spoilers!) probably already has more awareness about the way the penal system treats trans people than the majority of the general public. In Orange Is the New Black the totally amazing Laverne Cox portrays Sophia Burset, a trans woman who is imprisoned for credit card fraud. One episode specifically focuses on her struggle to retain access to her hormones after the prison makes cuts to healthcare provision. While in the show Sophia’s fight against officials, who could at best be described as uninformed about trans issues, is clearly a chance for Sophia to grow as a character and as a person, in reality this is a very real issue facing trans people today in prisons all across the world.

The Sylvia Rivera Law Project recently published a very sobering report on the realities of trans women in prison. I would highly recommend having some pictures of happy animals ready before you start reading it. Although the report is specifically about the US prison system most of it applies just as much to prisons in the UK. In general, inmates are assigned to facilities based on their birth sex, irrespective of their own personal wishes or a diagnosis of gender dysphoria or gender identity disorder. The only potential exception to this are trans people who have undergone genital surgery. This means someone can identify as a woman and present as a woman and still end up in a men’s prison. It really goes without saying that this puts trans people at an increased risk of violence, harassment and sexual assault. This also suggests that despite being fictional, Sophia Burset is actually a fairly accurate case study of a trans woman in prison. Because she transitioned before she was arrested she ends up in a women’s prison, but is nevertheless subject to harassment by the guards based on her status as a trans woman.

The prison system is also extremely hostile to those who may want to transition while incarcerated. As a general rule only those trans people who were already taking hormones will be given access to them. The idea is that the prison is only responsible for “maintaining” hormone levels and not changing them. Obviously this also saves the system a great deal of money on medical treatments and is supposedly for the safety of inmates as officials are well aware of their failings when it comes to guaranteeing the safety of inmates. The end result is that someone with a lengthy prison sentence (which in Manning’s case seems to be essentially a life sentence at this point) is effectively denied any possibility to express their own gender identity if this differs from what it says on their birth certificate.

Considering that courts in several countries have declared that it is a fundamental violation of a person’s dignity to deny them a chance to legally and medically change their gender identity, this would suggest that once you go to prison you no longer have any say in regards to your own gender. Although there are those who argue that once you go to prison you cannot expect to have human rights (if you want an example of this just google prisoners’ voting rights and check out the more conservative corners of the internet for full on, foaming at the mouth outrage) I think that as a species we need to accept that being in prison, potentially for the rest of your life, is probably punishment enough. In practice this means that it really will not matter whether Manning identifies as trans. The prison system will treat him as man, consequences be damned.

If you want more information about this I would recommend having a look at the Sylvia Rivera Law Project and Dean Spade’s excellent website which also features video’s of some of his lectures, for those of us less inclined to read endless academic articles.


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