Content note/ trigger warning for transphobia and sexual violence
Though many people in the media and online expressed surprise at Chelsea Manning’s announcement this week, a lot of us in the LGBT+ community have been aware that she is probably a trans woman for quite some time. Rumour was that she went by the name “Breanna”. Actually, Wired published speculation about Manning’s gender way back in 2010.
There has been some confusion over how to refer to Manning in conversation and articles, with many news outlets repeatedly using the wrong pronouns. Although before there was some confusion over her gender as her identity was being suppressed for various reasons, since Manning came out and asked for people to use female pronouns and refer to her by her real name, Chelsea, then that is what we should do. Using her former name should be avoided unless absolutely necessary.
Chelsea Manning faces a incredibly brutal totally out of proportion 35 year sentence. She will also have to serve it in a harsh prison system. Due to US policy, she will be in a men’s prison, where she will no doubt face abuse from other inmates as well as prison guards. Even if she spends her entire term in solitary confinement, she will still have to interact with the prison authorities. Even if she is segregated with other LGBT+ prisoners, tragically, this will not really protect her from abuse.
In 1994, a woman named Dee Farmer took prison warden Edward Brennan and other members of the prison administration to the Supreme Court of the United States. She had been repeatedly raped and beaten by her fellow inmates in a male prison and had contracted HIV as a result. Farmer argued that the administration should have known she was vulnerable to such abuse and put special protections in place. She won.
Despite this victory, the rape, sexual assault and abuse of trans people in US prisons remains extremely high. According to the US Department for Justice, a third of trans women are sexually assaulted while in prison. (In my view, the methodology of this study was poor and the figure is potentially higher.) Trans* women are thirteen times more likely to suffer sexual assault during incarceration than the average. Let’s not forget that abuse isn’t usually random, one-off incidents, but may happen over a long period of time, or may be part of a wider range of abuse.
On top of this abuse, if the experiences of other incarcerated trans women is anything to go by, there will be potential barriers to her accessing the medical assistance she requires for her transition. In the event of medical treatment being refused, she may take prison officials to court but is unlikely to win (according to a report by the National Center for Lesbian Rights, 2006).
Very briefly looking at trans* rights in Britain outside of prisons, it is clear that trans people are facing horrendous levels of discrimination and oppression. Trans teacher Lucy Meadows committed suicide in March 2013 after being hounded by the rightwing press. Trans* people were consistently erased from inclusion in the Same Sex Marriage Bill of England and Wales — most notably by LGB rights organisation Stonewall. Ironically, trans people played a huge role in the Stonewall rights the “liberal” charity is named after, but the charity is all too ready to ignore and even erase trans* rights discourse. The Same Sex Marriage Act makes it hard for trans people seeking divorce to gain recognition of their gender from their spouse, among other problems.
LGBT+ rights go way further than same-sex marriage. Just as our trans comrades have been there throughout struggles, from the Stonewall riots to Section 28, it’s the duty of cisgendered people in our community to be active supporters of the rights of trans people. And it’s the duty of socialists to support oppressed groups, including the trans* community.