Liberally yours: Chelsea Manning deserves her rights

Thom Hartmann Host, the Thom Hartmann Program
Font Size:

Liberally Yours is a regular Daily Caller column featuring Thom Hartmann in conversation with libertarians and conservatives. This week he’s joined by TheDC’s opinion editor J. Arthur Bloom, to discuss Bradley Manning’s announced name and gender change. Here’s Thom:

Private Chelsea Manning — born Bradley Manning — has announced that she wants to live her life as woman. In a letter read live this morning on the TODAY show, just one day after she was sentenced to 35 years in military prison, Manning asked all news outlets to use female pronouns when talking about her. She wrote: “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.”

Manning’s lawyer, David Coombs, says that he hopes the U.S. military will offer his client the hormone therapy she has requested. As of yet, the military has declined. Spokesperson Kimberly Lewis told NBC News that “the army does not provide hormone therapy or sex-reassignment surgery for gender identity disorder.” This is wrong morally, medically, and logically. Manning is in the military’s care now and it should grant her request for hormone therapy.

Gender dysphoria, the medical term for the behavior of someone, like Manning, whose gender identity does not match their physical sex, is a recognized medical condition. Prison officials would not deny someone with diabetes their insulin shots or someone with heart disease their cholesterol pills, and they shouldn’t deny Manning the hormone therapy she needs to be healthy. Her basic human rights to medical care do not end the moment she enters Fort Leavenworth to start her prison sentence.

In fact, in 2010, the federal Bureau of Prisons was forced after a lawsuit to change its gender identity treatment policy so that inmates – like Manning – who hadn’t received treatment before they entered prison could get it once they were there. The U.S. military is under a different set of rules than the federal Prison Bureau, but it should follow suit nonetheless.

Ultimately, however, this is a moral issue.  Manning has faced enough suffering already at the hands of the U.S. government. She was tortured and she endured over 100 straight days of solitary confinement for revealing other peoples’ war crimes, and could now spend up to three-and-a-half decades in prison. The least our military and government can do is make that time in prison easier than the brutality she often experienced during the past three years.

The United States military has made broad strides towards tolerance in recent years – gay soldiers can now serve openly, and women can join their male comrades in combat roles – but tolerance does not end when a soldier enters a military prison. In convicting Manning of leaking classified information, the U.S. military assumed responsibility for her. This is who Chelsea Manning is. Bradley Manning no longer exists and arguably never really did. Chelsea Manning is her real identity. And the U.S. military should respect that.

J Arthur: 

Far be it from me to judge Chelsea Manning’s desire to change sexes, and the military ought to address her in whatever way she chooses. But it strikes me as unreasonable to ask taxpayers to foot the bill for tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of treatment and elective surgery for any convicted criminal that asks for it. I’ve always thought it interesting that left-wing gender obsessives will argue the state must accommodate anyone’s desire for expensive physical transformation at any cost while at the same time saying genitalia don’t determine one’s gender identity. Gender dysphoria is a DSM-recognized condition, but gender reassignment — an oddly bureaucratic term, no? — isn’t the only treatment for it.

The military has broken down many barriers for LGBT individuals recently, though it appears they aren’t going to let this one come down. But I have a few questions for those who think it should: Is someone in the midst of such a lengthy, emotionally arduous, and physically demanding treatment as gender reassignment fit for military service? Is it fair for someone to join the military, request this elective treatment, and then be out of commission for months while still drawing a salary? And what about if they want to reverse the surgery, should that be on the house as well?

We’re talking about Manning specifically, though. You suggest that providing hormones is a reasonable compensation for how abysmally Bradley Manning was treated prior to his conviction. That’s ultimately for a judge to decide, but the military justice system is not likely to be as progressive as the Massachusetts court that found to deny a man guilty of strangling his wife a sex change is cruel and unusual punishment. At the very least, perhaps we could agree that failing to provide Manning with the same thing is not as cruel or unusual as the abuses already inflicted upon him — which is what he was, then. Nobody gets to rewrite — or re-gender — their past.

Chelsea Manning is a hero. I also happen to believe she deserves prison time — for extreme insubordination, for endangering Americans abroad, and for breaking the oath she took upon enlistment — though I’m happy the sentence wasn’t any worse than it is. The crux of the debate at hand is to what degree her struggles with gender identity played a role in deciding to leak the classified material. They probably played a pretty big one. Nevertheless, when Manning’s lawyer appeared on the Today Show earlier this week to announce her intentions, and probably a high-profile lawsuit, I couldn’t help but feel it distracted from, and maybe even helped to discredit, the cause of open government for which he had heretofore been one of the most high-profile advocates.


To the best of my knowledge, she is not asking for expensive surgery. She’s just asking for a daily dose of female hormones, which are probably cheaper then the drugs that treat high cholesterol. And to be addressed as Chelsea with feminine pronouns.

But, should she ask for such surgery to become fully what/who she has known herself to be since childhood, how would providing that be any less valid than providing a thalidomide baby (as an adult) with a prosthetic arm? Both were incomplete since birth, and both are entitled to the full, single-payer healthcare our socialist military and prisons provide.

J Arthur:

Yes, Manning’s statement only requests that she be able to begin hormone therapy immediately as part of an ongoing transition, but if it becomes a legal case, as it is likely to, there will be implications for more aggressive treatments, so it bears discussion. And I’m afraid it will be very difficult to draw a line between providing hormone therapy and full-on sex reassignment more or less on request.

I think a better analogy is whether to provide a prosthetic arm to a grown thalidomide baby who had been convicted of a serious crime. The handless, half-blind Islamist cleric Abu Hamza wasn’t allowed to keep his terrifying hooks in prison, but was issued a set of prosthetics — including what was described as a “spork” — at a cost to American taxpayers of $15,000. That sounds quite expensive, but he didn’t exactly get the Cadillac; they could have easily spent more, on mechanical prosthetics, or ones with sensors, and so on. Diagnosing gender dysmorphia is vastly more complicated than noticing someone is missing a limb, so Manning’s case is even more difficult. I suppose my question comes down to how, under the single-payer system of the military and prisons, does one ration care for hormone therapy or gender reassignment? Should the cost of providing convicted criminals with these things, no matter how high, belong to taxpayers? Where’s the line?