Bradley Manning Coming Out as Transby Trans-Kin on 10/07/13
Chelsea Elizabeth Manning (aka Bradley) is a US soldier recently convicted of releasing secret documents and sentenced to 35 years in prison. Before going to prison, Bradley (as he was known during the trial) came out as transgender asking that he be called Chelsea, treated as a woman while in prison, and receive hormones and sex reassignment surgery.
As an ally of the transgender community and co-editor of Trans-Kin: A Guide for Family and Friends of Transgender People, I am frequently asked whether Chelsea's coming out was a good thing or a bad thing for the transgender community. I have struggled with this question myself; here are my preliminary thoughts that I hope will spark more conversation among significant others, family members, friends and allies (SOFFAs), as well as trans people themselves.
I would say, first, that when anyone chooses to come out as transgender it is rarely the "right" time. SOFFA might ask the trans person to wait until they are no longer married, or when Grandpa dies, or when the school system is ready to receive their trans youth. Transitioning, in my opinion, is a very personal decision, while still impacted by their social network. So it might have been better for Chelsea to have begun her transition sooner or later, but she made the decision that was best for her.
Given that, we can assess what Chelsea's coming out so publicly means for the entire transgender community.
It is not too surprising that male-to-female (M2F) transgender people go into the military, in order to (they hope) suppress their femaleness. Recently in an interview with Anderson Cooper, a Navy SEAL, Kristin (Chris) Beck, revealed that she was born in the wrong body. Chris, as others presumably do, joined the military in order to eliminate his transgender nature. Chris' comrades said that he always volunteered for the most dangerous assignments and was always successful. However, he was unable to deny his femaleness, so shortly after leaving the SEALs, Kristin transitioned and wrote a book about her experiences, entitled Warrior Princess: A U.S. Navy SEAL's Journey to Coming Out Transgender.
We, as members of the transgender community, can understand and honor Chelsea's decision to be a soldier. We will probably disagree, however, about whether she should have released the largest disclosure of state secrets in US history, but we can agree that mostly that decision has been denigrated by the military, by her government, and most of the American public. I think that this disparagement will color the attitudes of the larger society toward transgender people in general and make the assumption that her transgender status somehow affected her decision to release the documents. In this sense, I am sorry that an opportunity for consciousness raising has become derailed.