Late on Thursday night, Chelsea Manning – formerly known as Bradley – officially ‘came out’ as trans*. In a statement, Chelsea 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 hope that you will support me in this transition. I also request that, starting today, you refer to me by my new name and use the feminine pronoun (except in official mail to the confinement facility).”
As probably the most high-profile trans* person in the world now, Manning’s statement has opened up a discussion around gender and trans* issues like never before. Many have criticised the media for not treating Manning’s wishes with respect, with a particular target at those who continued to use the pronoun ‘he’ when referring her. This has lead to articles such as How Not to be a Dick to Chelsea Manning and How Not to React to the News that Bradley Manning is Transgender.
Manning’s coming out however provides us with a bigger opportunity – to tackle the structural discrimination and violence that people who do not fit within our gender and sex binaries continue to face.
Discrimination against gender and sex diverse people is rife in our community. The first is the obvious issue of legal discrimination. In Australia the ALP has slowly been making its way through this discrimination, in 2011 allowing trans* people to change their gender on their passport with only a medical certificate, and recently removing discrimination against trans* people from Medicare. But as the Beyond the Binary report in the ACT – one of our most progressive jurisdictions – showed, there is still discrimination against gender diverse people in a range of legislation (the ACT Government has committed to removing some of this discrimination). It is likely that this discrimination exists across the country.
Sex and gender diverse people also find serious issues when it comes to medical treatment. It is already clear that Manning will face significant difficulties in accessing gender reassignment whilst behind bars. In Australia, gender reassignment surgery is not fully covered by Medicare, leaving many struggling to afford the procedure. Medical treatment is also an issue for intersex people. A recent Senate Committee report for example found that intersex people are often forced or coerced into unnecessary surgery (please note that being trans* and being intersex is not the same, and the issues the two groups face are very different).
Violence against trans* people is still systematic in our community, part of an ongoing issue of violence targeted at the LGBTI community as a whole. The Transgender Anti-Violence Project (TAVP) has been set up directly to deal with this issue, and the problem is so bad that a ‘Transgender Day of Remembrance’ is held every year to remember those who have died due to violent attacks. Discrimination is also found heavily in the workplace, with research (from 2008) finding that approximately 9% of trans* people in Australia are unemployed – well above the national average.
These are just some of the issues that people who don’t fit into our regular gender and sex binaries in our communities face.
And you can see it played out in Manning’s case. Watching the reaction of her ‘coming out’ it became clear that her gender is not a new issue. Jack of Kemp for example tweeted on Thursday night:
“Those following the case were completely aware of the trans issue from the beginning. Not adding to the stress was humane and sensible.Indeed, it was entirely public domain and there clearly to see if one followed the case in detail. #Manning“
If you look at Manning’s statement it is clear that she has considered herself a woman for quite a long time. Yet, most of us did not see it, and Manning clearly did not feel comfortable enough to speak about it openly. As Jack of Kent said, the issue was not breached in order to avoid extra ‘stress’. And this points to the very structural issues here. Gender and sex discrimination is still largely on the edges of our society, with it still being extremely difficult to even broach the subject in public.
And this is the power of the gender binaries we have built in our world. The issue here is not whether someone calls Manning a ‘he’, but rather that we have defined our binaries so strongly that we insist on ‘he’ and ‘she’ in the first place. As Judith Butler said, all gender is performance, but it is one that we take seriously – and if you don’t perform it properly our society systematically discriminates against you.
And in many ways that could be the power of Manning coming out. Whether we agree with what she did or not, in leaking to Wikileaks Manning took on immense power structures in our society. In coming out as trans* Manning provides us with another opportunity to take on another very powerful structure – that of our gender binaries. Focusing on the odd use of the word ‘he’ however wont do that. To do so we must directly question these binaries in the first place and challenge the very structural discrimination trans*, intersex and other gender and sex diverse people in our society face.