Thursday's announcement that Army Pfc. Chelsea Manning wants to live as a woman thrust the issue of treatment of transgender Americans into the national spotlight.
While there have been a handful of public figures who have publicly unveiled their gender change — Chaz Bono, the son of Cher and the late Rep. Sonny Bono (R-Calif.), sparked headlines in the midst of his transition from being Chastity Bono in 2009 — none have generated as much attention as Manning.
Manning's announcement, coming just a day after being sentenced to 35 years in military prison for giving classified documents to WikiLeaks, also comes at a moment when the treatment of transgender Americans in the workplace, schools and prison have become a more prominent part of the nation's political and legal debate.
The first person who became known in the U.S. for undergoing a sex change was Christine Jorgensen, a former G.I. whose case became public in 1952. In recent years, there have been a few Hollywood figures, local officials, sports figures and clergy members that have spoken publicly about their sex reassignment surgery, including former Navy SEAL Kristin Beck; the Rev. David Weekley, a United Methodist minister; Lana Wachowski, director of "The Matrix" and "V is for Vendetta"; former professional tennis player Renée Richards; and Laverne Cox, a transgender woman playing a transgender character on the new TV series "Orange is the New Black."
Amy Stone, a sociology and anthropology professor at Trinity University in San Antonio, Tex., said the impact of Manning's move is hard to predict because the decision to leak classified information to WikiLeaks was already controversial. But the fact that Manning is already familiar to most Americans could help promote greater acceptance of transgender individuals, she said.
"Whenever someone we know comes out as gay, lesbian or transgender, it impacts us differently than it does when we don’t know them at all," she said, adding, "There was a lot of invisibility around transgender issues in the past."
Civil rights activists have been pushing for greater protections for transgender individuals on both the state and national level in recent years. A bipartisan coalition launched a new campaign last month aimed at obtaining federal workplace protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity, while California Gov. Jerry Brown signed a law this month requiring the state's public schools to provide equal access to school facilities and activities based on a student’s gender identity.
Manning's decision also raises some immediate practical questions for the U.S. military, which must decide whether to house the private with other women and provide access to hormone therapy.
While the U.S Bureau of Prisons sent a memo in May 2011 to its wardens saying that all inmates seeking hormone replacement therapy “receive a current individualized assessment and evaluation,” it is unclear what the protocol is for military prisons In some state prisons, transgender inmates have been denied the right to be housed with their desired gender and given hormone therapy.
Peter Sprigg, a senior fellow for policy studies at the conservative Family Research Council, said he was relieved Army officials have indicated the military will not pay for Manning's hormone therapy treatment.
"We certainly would have considered it outrageous if taxpayers were stuck with the bill to deal with this," Sprigg said, adding that since the 1993 decision to allow gays to serve in the military did not apply to transgender individuals, "I would expect they would not recognize it while he is a military prisoner any more than they would recognize it during his service. He was convicted as Bradley Manning. He should continue to be treated as Bradley Manning not as Chelsea Manning."
Civil liberties and gay right groups said Thursday that military officials should respect Manning's wishes. Chase Strangio, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union's Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Transgender Project, noted that Manning has been designated with gender dysphoria, "in which a person's gender identity does not correspond to his or her assigned sex at birth."
"Public statements by military officials that the Army does not provide hormone therapy to treat gender dysphoria raise serious constitutional concerns," Strangio added. "Without the necessary treatment, gender dysphoria can cause severe psychological distress, including anxiety and suicide. When the government holds individuals in its custody, it must provide them with medically necessary care."
Stone said she was not surprised by Manning's announcement. Not only had Manning's lawyers raised the issue of gender identity during the trial, but two years ago, the National Transgender Discrimination Survey released findings that out of more than 6,450 transgender Americans surveyed, 20 percent had served in the military at some point. Of those individuals, 68 percent had switched from male to female.
As children, Stone said, male transgender individuals have "heavy pressure on them to show that they’re masculine," she said, and many end up enlisting in the military as a result.
Human Rights Campaign Vice President and chief foundation officer Jeff Krehely said in a statement that "Manning’s transition deserves to be treated with dignity and respect," adding that Americans should keep in mind that many transgender service members and veterans "serve and have served this nation with honor, distinction and great sacrifice. We must not forget or dishonor those individuals. Private Manning’s experience is not a proxy for any other transgender man or woman who wears the uniform of the United States.”