When I came out as trans back in 2003, an older person in the LGBT movement offered this advice: “You have to comport yourself with unimpeachable dignity. Carry your head high, and above all, don’t ever let people see you cry.” By this she meant that trans issues were still so new to the American consciousness that any trans woman in the public eye had to behave in a manner above reproach. Lots of people wouldn’t call Manning “above reproach,” though; as a spokesperson she sets a very complicated example.
I’ve been deeply conflicted about the Manning story from the beginning. I opposed the Iraq war, and I believe Manning’s actions helped shed necessary light on the true nature of that awful enterprise. At the same time, she did break a solemn oath. I’m truly sorry I can’t be more all-or-nothing on this, but as we say among “our people”: Reject the binary.
The news of Manning’s transition was the first time in the case when, for me, ambivalence fell away. “Don’t cry. Be happy. It’s fine,” Manning said after the sentencing. “This is just a stage in my life. I am moving forward.” Those were the words of a person with something more important on her mind than the forthcoming years in Leavenworth.
I first came out as trans in circumstances considerably more private than the “Today” show, but still, when I heard Manning’s lawyer say on morning television that his client was Chelsea Manning and was female, I knew what was coming. The announcement was greeted with the kind of thunderstruck shock usually reserved for volcano eruptions.
It’s hard to imagine people having this kind of response if Manning had, for instance, come out as gay. Many straight Americans now pride themselves on how far they’ve come in accepting the humanity of gay men and lesbians. But transgender issues remain harder for cisgender people to get their minds around. (Cisgender being to transgender what straight is to gay.) Perhaps it’s because our numbers are smaller. Or perhaps it’s because the dilemma at the heart of transgender experience demands more imagination of strangers in order to understand; straight people know what it means to love another soul, but to imagine what it must be like to be fundamentally miswired for the body that soul is in — well, that’s a taller order.
Or, as I like to say sometimes: “It’s not who you want to go to bed with; it’s who you want to go to bed as.”
Manning is eligible for parole in seven years, and I am hoping that by then, someone coming out as trans will seem as dull and mundane as coming out as gay has become in some places. At the very least, I hope that by that time trans people are able to serve openly in the military, something that they cannot do at present in spite of the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” By 2020, I hope that being trans will be seen not as something scandalous, but instead as one more way of being human. I long for the day that Chelsea and I might even seem relatively boring.
It’s going to be a long road. Officials at Leavenworth have already announced their lack of interest in providing Manning with hormones or access to sexual reassignment surgery. David Coombs, Manning’s attorney, has said he’s going to do what he can to change this policy, and I hope that happens. Denying trans people access to treatment adds another level of punishment to an already harsh sentence.
In a statement to the court, Manning said in reference to the leaking of all those classified documents, “I only wanted to help people” by shedding light on the truth about our wars. She also said, “I will serve my time knowing that sometimes you have to pay a heavy price to live in a free society.”
One thing Manning can do between now and 2020 is to help change the way Americans think about trans men and women. By comporting herself with dignity and accepting responsibility for her actions, she can show that a trans woman is a human being capable of reinvention and redemption. I hope that by the time she’s out, the price that transgender Americans have to pay for living in a free society is not quite so heavy.
Jennifer Finney Boylan is professor of English at Colby College in Maine and the author of “She’s Not There: A Life in Two Genders” and “Stuck in the Middle with You: Parenthood in Three Genders.” She is also a member of the board of directors of GLAAD.