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“Empowering, So Brave”: Trans Activists Praise Chelsea Manning, Raise Fears over Prison Conditions

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One day after a military judge handed down a 35-year sentence for leaking classified U.S. files to WikiLeaks, Bradley Manning announced a gender transition to female under the name Chelsea Manning. “As I transition into this next phase of my life, I want everyone to know the real me,” Manning said. “I am Chelsea Manning. I am a female. Given the way that I feel, and have felt since childhood, I want to begin hormone therapy as soon as possible. I hope that you will support me in this transition.” The announcement has raised many issues about how Manning will be treated in military prison, whether she will have access to hormone therapy and broader issues about transgender rights. We’re joined by two guests: Lauren McNamara, a transgender activist in Florida who became an online confidant of Manning in 2009 and later testified at the military trial; and Chase Strangio, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union’s Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Transgender Project.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to the case of Chelsea Manning, the Army whistleblower known to the world up until yesterday as Bradley Manning. One day after a military judge handed down a 35-year sentence, Manning announced plans live as a woman under the name Chelsea Manning. Manning said, “As I transition into this next phase of my life, I want everyone to know the real me. I am Chelsea Manning. I am a female. Given the way that I feel, and have felt since childhood, I want to begin hormone therapy as soon as possible. I also request that, starting today, you refer to me by my new name and use [the feminine] pronoun.”

The announcement has raised many issues about how Manning will be treated in military prison, whether she will have access to hormone therapy and broader issues about transgender rights. A spokeswoman at Fort Leavenworth said treatment for transgender prisoners does not extend beyond psychiatric care. Kimberly Lewis said, quote, “The Army does not provide hormone therapy or sex-reassignment surgery for gender identity disorder.”

To talk more about Chelsea Manning’s decision and its significance, we’re joined by two guests. In Orlando, we’re joined by Lauren McNamara, a transgender activist in Florida and online confidant of Private Manning. In 2009, McNamara and Manning spent about 15 hours chatting with each other online over the course of six months after Manning came across McNamara’s YouTube channel. McNamara later testified at Manning’s trial. She recently wrote a blog post called the “The Humanity of Private Manning.” And we’re joined by Chase Strangio, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union’s Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Transgender Project.

Lauren and Chase, we welcome you both to Democracy Now! Let’s begin with Lauren. So you have known Chelsea when she was Bradley. Talk about how you first got in touch, Lauren, and the relationship that you had online.

LAUREN McNAMARA: Well, she first got in touch with me in February of 2009 after viewing my videos on YouTube. She contacted me first, and we spoke over AOL Instant Messenger for a period of several months. She was mostly interested in my videos about politics, religion, LGBT issues, and she felt we shared a similar mindset on these issues. And so, we spoke at length about that. She opened up to me about her history, her dealings with her family, her troubles in school, and her decision to join the military and her role as an intelligence analyst. And we spoke at length about that job and how she enjoyed it and how it was working out for her.

AMY GOODMAN: Lauren McNamara, I wanted to turn to excerpts from Instant Messenger chats between you and Manning from 2009. At the time, you used the Internet handle “ZJ,” while Manning went by “bradass87.” Manning writes, “uhhm… I’m politically active, even more so after enlisting… living under “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” will certainly do that.” You reply, “Yeah, I can’t say I’d ever enlist, for that reason in particular.”

Elsewhere, Manning writes, “being around my platoon for 24 hours a day… it took them awhile, but they started figuring me out, making fun of me, mocking me, harassing me, heating up with one or two physical attacks… which i fended off just fine, but it was scary … damn, i just read that… what the hell did i put myself through.” You reply, “yeah, I doubt I’d ever join the military.”

In another part, Manning writes, “don’t mean to sound overdramatic, but I’m quite lonely.” You respond by typing “aww,” and Manning quickly replies by saying, “I’m okay.”

So, you knew Chelsea when Chelsea was Bradley and was involved with a man in a gay relationship. Is that right, Lauren?


AMY GOODMAN: And what did he—at that time, what did Chelsea talk to you about when it came to what she was doing at that point? Did you have any idea what was happening—the release of the documents, for example? And what did you testify at the trial, the court-martial of Bradley Manning?

LAUREN McNAMARA: At the time, when we spoke, there was no indication that she was planning any sort of leaks of classified material. And that happened after our chats, several months after that. At the time when she spoke about her role as an intelligence analyst, this was something that she was proud of, and it was a job that she enjoyed and took pride in. She often spoke about how she wanted to do her best and compile the best information, to provide it to soldiers working in the field, and hopefully reduce conflict around the world. As she said at one point in our conversations, she wanted to make sure that everyone got home safely to their families, both the soldiers and the local nationals in the countries where the military is operating.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about your own story, Lauren, how you made the transition?

LAUREN McNAMARA: Yes. I started transitioning—well, at least in 2011 or so was when I started identifying as a woman openly. And in 2012, I started treatment. And so, I’ve been doing that for a while now. And so, I feel that Chelsea and I have followed somewhat similar courses in that regard over the past few years, even though we’ve had obviously very different experiences due to everything that she’s been through.

AMY GOODMAN: Chase Strangio, you’re a staff attorney with the ACLU. Can you talk about what Chelsea will now face? I mean, this very serious issue, Fort Leavenworth is a prison for men.

CHASE STRANGIO: Yeah, and I think what we learned yesterday from Chelsea was a few very important things. She has asked that she be referred to as Chelsea, that we use female pronouns when referring to her, and she has stated publicly that as part of her treatment for her diagnosed gender dysphoria, she will be seeking hormone therapy. And that’s what we heard from her yesterday.

The Army responded with a statement that they absolutely do not provide hormone therapy or sex reassignment surgeries related to gender transition for purposes of treating gender dysphoria. The position taken by the Army has been a position taken by other corrections agencies at the state and federal level, and has been found by all leading medical and mental health associations, including the National Commission on Correctional Health Care, as well as the majority of federal courts to have reached this issue, to be both inconsistent with medical recommendations and unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment. So, there’s a lot of concern about the Army’s statement yesterday. That is an unconstitutional policy that has been struck down in other contexts, and we expect that that would be something that will change, because absolutely it is not consistent with the medicine or the law on this issue.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Chelsea Manning’s attorney, David Coombs, says he will sue.

CHASE STRANGIO: He has stated publicly that he will do whatever it takes, and takes the position that he hopes that Fort Leavenworth will change its position, in part because we know from the other fights of transgender women, especially in prison, who have fought this issue for decades, that courts have found that it is an unconstitutional violation of the Eighth Amendment to withhold medically necessary treatment for gender dysphoria, which includes hormone therapy and multiple types of surgeries related to gender transition.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain what you mean by “gender dysphoria.”

CHASE STRANGIO: Gender dysphoria is a recognized mental health condition and a serious medical condition. It is in the DSM-5. It was previously known as “gender identity disorder,” or GID, which is what the Army referred to it as yesterday. It is a condition that has clear set of treatment protocols, including hormone therapy and surgery related to transition, in some cases. These are not experimental treatments. These are not new treatments. These are vital, life-saving treatments for transgender individuals. So the care that Chelsea Manning has mentioned yesterday, asking that she be provided with hormone therapy, is not something that is new. It is a recognized part of the very clearly established treatment protocols for this condition, which is recognized by all major medical and mental health associations.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you tell us your story, your transitioning from woman to man?

CHASE STRANGIO: I am someone who identifies as transgender. And as a transgender person, hearing from Chelsea Manning yesterday is especially, you know, empowering. I think it is so brave to come out. We’ve heard from a lot of people lately in the media about their stories. CeCe McDonald, who’s presently incarcerated, has put out a blog that I really recommend that people reference and look to, just to hear from transwomen who are presently incarcerated about their experience.

AMY GOODMAN: Very briefly, tell her story, CeCe’s story.

CHASE STRANGIO: CeCe McDonald is a transwoman. She was defending herself in Minnesota after she was targeted for racist and very transphobic incidents. CeCe is a black transwoman. She was convicted of manslaughter and is now serving time in Minnesota state prison. She is someone who has spoken out about the treatment of transgender individuals in detention. She has told her story.

In addition to CeCe’s story, we’ve heard a lot from Janet Mock. Janet Mock is another leader in the transgender community, a transwoman of color who yesterday issued an incredible statement about the struggles of transgender individuals to access healthcare both in and out of detention and how vitally life-saving this healthcare is for transpeople.

AMY GOODMAN: Lauren McNamara, you create YouTube videos under the name “Zinnia Jones: Secular Trans Feminist.” Private Manning had been a fan of your videos, and reached out to you online hoping you would be someone in whom he could confide. I want to go to a clip of a video you made around the time you were corresponding with Manning. This clip is from February 25th, 2009. It’s entitled, “I Told My Family I’m Gay.”

LAUREN McNAMARA: It’s so strange that I have no problem telling the entire Internet that I’m gay, but I couldn’t even tell my own family. To me, that is just ridiculous. So I decided to fix this whole situation. I had to. My conscience pretty much required it. I mean, I’m going to be 20 years old this year, and I can’t keep this a secret forever. I shouldn’t have to. If I can be honest with myself and with you, then I should be honest with my family, too.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Lauren McDonald [sic] in 2009. Lauren, what would you say—Lauren McNamara, sorry—what would you say to Chelsea today?

LAUREN McNAMARA: I would say that I just hope she receives any treatment she needs. I hope she is released as soon as possible. I know that she’s a very strong person, and she will do whatever it takes to survive while serving out her term. I want her to know that, out here, we support her, and we will do everything we can to fight for her.

AMY GOODMAN: And your assessment of what will happen to Chelsea right now? The fact that she’s going to Fort Leavenworth, which is a male prison, there are no women there as prisoners. Lauren?

LAUREN McNAMARA: Well, this puts her at an incredible risk of assault, rape, all sorts of violence that are often already present in all-male prisons. And to think that you would put a woman into the midst of all that, just for purely anatomical reasons, is absolutely absurd and dangerous and completely irresponsible and contrary to any sensible ethic.

AMY GOODMAN: What about this? What about this, Chase, the issue of where she should be incarcerated?

CHASE STRANGIO: Well, I think, like with the medical care issue, unfortunately, what we’ve seen in all our correctional systems is that placements of transgender individuals are not based on the safety and an individual assessment of where the individual transperson would be most safely housed. We see policies across the board that house people based on their assigned sex at birth, and this is one of the many reasons that transgender individuals face significant amount of violence while incarcerated. As with Chelsea’s healthcare, which is the thing that she specifically referenced yesterday, this is something that prisons have an obligation to make an individualized assessment about. We’ve seen, with recent regulations and standards from the Department of Justice, with the Prison Rape Elimination Act, that there are serious concerns about the vulnerability of transgender individuals and that individualized placements based on the safety and medical needs of those individuals is how these policies and practices should be done.

AMY GOODMAN: Where is the discussion on trans issues? How has it changed in the last 24 hours, given the amount of attention Chelsea Manning is getting?

CHASE STRANGIO: I think that, again, going back to how brave it is for someone who has been in the public eye for so long—I remember early in the case she said how hard it was going to be for her to see so many pictures of herself with a masculine gender expression. And yesterday, she was so brave. She came out. She said, “I am a woman.” I think what this does for the trans community is gives us another person to stand behind and mobilize with, and that we’re—have an opportunity to really look at the issues facing the trans community, look at transpeople who are incarcerated, some of the most vulnerable members of the LGBT community at large. And I think—and what I hope is that we take this opportunity to stand not only behind Chelsea Manning, but also the many other transgender men and women who are in our prisons, and that we have an opportunity to do that today.

AMY GOODMAN: I’d like to end with each of you giving your advice to the media about how to cover this issue. Chase, let’s begin with you.

CHASE STRANGIO: We heard from Chelsea yesterday that she be referred to as Chelsea and with female pronouns. It is vitally important, just as a matter of respect, that she be referred to as Chelsea, that reports about her transition accurately refer to her as Chelsea and with feminine pronouns. That is something that she specifically asked for. That is important to her mental health. And when talking about this story, I think that we want everyone to know how this healthcare that Chelsea Manning has requested is not cosmetic, it is not experimental, it is something that has been in—widely accepted, both by medical associations and federal courts who have considered this.

AMY GOODMAN: And Lauren McNamara in Orlando?

LAUREN McNAMARA: The media needs to respect her just as they would respect any woman. They need to respect this treatment just as they would respect any medically necessary treatment. There is not an other side of this, from a scientific or medical perspective. There is not dissent here. There is not a debate here. And anyone who acts as though this is not legitimate, as if this is not real, as if this is not a medical necessity, is simply uninformed and should not have a place in any discussion over this.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you both for being with us, Chase Strangio, staff attorney with the ACLU’s Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Transgender Project, and Lauren McNamara, transgender activist and online confidant of Private Manning. She testified at Manning’s trial. This is Democracy Now! We’ll be back in a minute.

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