WASHINGTON – “I am Chelsea Manning. I am a female.”
It was a declaration. It was riveting morning television. It was a teachable moment, in public statement form, after Bradley Manning, the U.S. Army private, was convicted on charges including espionage and theft. It was, due to the identity and background of the speaker . . . complicated?
“I’m a dad,” said Jay Brown, who is transgender and the director of foundation program strategies at the Human Rights Campaign. And as a parent, Brown said, he has learned “there are a lot of teachable moments that aren’t exactly the moments I would first choose to be educating on.”
But more importantly, he said, “Regardless of how she came to our attention, this is a moment to help us understand” the transgender experience.
Manning is introducing the general public to issues that rarely attain mainstream attention, such as the correct pronouns to use for a pre-operative transgender individual.
“What I first saw was her statement” requesting that the public now refer to Manning as the female ‘Chelsea,’ ” said Brown. He explained that his primary interest is whether Manning is afforded proper dignity in care in prison.
One of the complexities that arose with Manning’s declaration was how to talk about it, which news outlets grappled with during the day: ABCNews.com chose the feminine pronoun, the Christian Science Monitor stuck with “he” throughout its account and CNN.com sidestepped the issue altogether, referring only to “Manning.”
There were before-and-after aspects to the situation. Manning was a male while on assignment in Iraq but will be female for the duration of his 35-year prison sentence.
Transgender advocacy groups recommend using the pronoun preferred by the subject.
Kristin Beck is the former Christopher Beck, a U.S. Navy Seal Team 6 member who came out as transgender in 2011 and wrote a book, “Warrior Princess,” about the experience. Since then, she has become an advocate for equality in gender identity issues. When she learned that WikiLeaker Manning had also come out as transgender, she was furious.
“I’m fighting for equality, dignity and respect,” Beck said. “This person, Manning, is doing the opposite.” Beck’s fear is that because of Manning’s history, and the circumstances surrounding Manning’s statement, “Uniformed people are going to link gender identity to emotional stability, intellectual capacity and ego.”
Today, gay celebrities can out themselves to the American public and be met with barely a yawn but the pool of public transgender celebrities is considerably smaller.
Each one provides a new platform for discussion, a new opportunity for publicity and a new potential public face for an oft misunderstood movement. Which is why it can be problematic when the public face is itself slightly problematic.
“When I came out, an older public figure told me privately, ‘Remember, we’re still in the Jackie Robinson phase to the trans rights movement,’ ” said Jennifer Boylan, a college professor and author of the transition memoir “She’s Not There.” The fellow advocate gave Manning a piece of advice: “If you’re going to be a public figure, you have to be beyond reproach.”
Manning, who released a statement about being transgender after being sentenced to 35 years in prison, does not, to many, fit that description.
A 2011 study by the Williams Institute, a UCLA think tank dedicated to researching sex-related legal issues, estimated there are about 700,000 self-identified transgender adults in the United States — larger than the population of the District of Columbia.
But unlike partnered gay couples, who might be easily identifiable to observers, the most successful transgender transition stories are the ones the public is never aware of — individuals who live happy, uneventful, normal lives as husbands, wives, parents, neighbors. A transgender man may never be exposed as such to the public unless he is celebrity offspring — Chaz Bono — or unless he decides to use his still-functioning female reproductive organs to carry a child, as Thomas Beatie did three times.
The ultimate goal, advocates say, is for someone’s gender identity to be a nonissue in a news story, or for the pool of out trans people to grow large enough that an announcement like Manning’s is a drop in the bucket rather than a splash.