Hot off the presses today is that a fellow up for a pretty long prison term by the name of Bradley Manning is intending to start hormone replacement therapy (HRT) and become Chelsea Manning. As you can imagine, the bigots are out in force.
If you don’t understand transgender people – what makes us who we are – here’s a not-so-quick guide to transgenderism and, to a lesser extent, Chelsea Manning. It’s important to remember these things because trans people have it tough enough as it is, let alone without the misrepresentations and stereotypes. If we are to build a progressive society on the principles of tolerance and understanding, surely the ball isn’t supposed to stop rolling at gay rights.
She is not mentally ill. Transgenderism is a normal variation of human gender identity. When a person is transgender, all that it means is that our gender identity does not match our biological sex. Another way of putting this is that sex is between the legs, while gender is between the ears. The recommended course of action includes hormone replacement therapy and corrective surgeries. Her identity as a transgender female is not indicative of mental instability in any way.
Transgender does not mean homosexual. Gender identity and sexual orientation are completely different things. Transgender persons come in all orientations – we aren’t homosexual by default. When one is transgender, what determines orientation is gender identity: if you are male to female and attracted only to women, this makes you a lesbian. If you are male to female and attracted only to men, this makes you straight.
You should not refer to her as a he. If you’re a person with privilege, you need to understand that she was never a he. What makes a person transgender isn’t an inexplicable desire to be the opposite sex, it’s that a person’s internal identity does not match their external. Even though Chelsea Manning has not yet started HRT or had any surgeries, her gender identity is still female and always has been. When you refer to a trans person as their biological sex instead of their gender identity, it isn’t just an attack on them, it’s an attack on all of us. Hearing other trans people identified as the wrong gender shows a profound lack of respect for us and the struggles we go through in attempting to rectify the differences between mind and body.
Getting hormones and surgery is really tough. Before starting HRT, a person has to first live as the opposite sex for a period of six months to a year. This standard is viewed by many of us as being arbitrary and a poor standard for treatment, but it’s one that most of us have to go through unless we intend to take black market hormones (as many of us do). The fact that a person has to go through this much derision, bigotry and hate in order to start HRT is the primary reason a lot of people like Chelsea attempt instead to “man up” and join the armed forces (as she did). Sex reassignment surgery itself is perilously expensive, costing upwards of $20,000 on average. Considering that transgender persons are often discriminated against in employment and often live in poverty, $20,000 may well be $1 million to most of us. All of this is why it’s imperative to accept a person’s gender identity and refer to them as they desire before hormones or surgery.
Sex reassignment surgery isn’t an elective surgery. Today especially, those inclined to transphobia have come out of the woodwork to declare that taxpayers shouldn’t be covering elective surgeries, equating SRS with botox or rhinoplasty. This simply isn’t the case at all. Imagine you – knowing your gender, your sexuality, who you are inside – wake up tomorrow in the wrong body and are told that you must spend the next 20+ years in this body. If you know inside that you’re a man (as female to male trans do) and wake up every morning with a vagina, you are going to be really distraught. If you know inside that you are a female and wake up every morning with a penis, you are going to be really, really distraught. Welcome to the life that Chelsea Manning and I have lived: waking up every morning, knowing that our gender is female, and quickly becoming outright horrified when we realize it wasn’t just a bad dream and we have male sex organs.
As we now know from the struggles of the gay and lesbian community, it’s easy to stereotype a group of people that most aren’t familiar with. While almost everyone today knows someone who is gay or lesbian, transgender persons are still a relative rarity. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle: like our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters, we see the hate projected towards us by larger society and want to stay deeply in the closet. In the past, gays and lesbians were deemed immoral, mentally ill, disgusting, weird – and until recent years, that’s just how it was. Today, things have changed. The LGB community has reached widespread acceptance and respect, while those of us in the transgender community now face the same exact bigoted and stereotypical nonsense once projected at the LGB community.
There is one thing, however, that bothers me about this whole case: Chelsea Manning will very likely win a court case to receive sex reassignment surgery in prison on the taxpayer’s tab. The problem isn’t that the surgery will be covered by taxpayers, the problem is that those of us in the transgender community that haven’t committed crimes don’t receive the same benefit. In exchange for being productive and law-abiding members of society, we have to foot the bill ourselves. A surgery that, for many of us, can be the difference between life and death, sanity and insanity, and thanks to our underprivileged position in a hostile society, is near impossible to get.
By the way, if the thought of paying for sex reassignment surgery is troubling to you as a taxpayer and you’re that reluctant to help arguably the most hated and suicidal minority, this is where I should probably note that if it were paid for by taxes, the total cost of covering the entire transgender community, all 700,000 of us, would come out to about $42 per person. That’s right, an issue that is life or death, sanity or insanity, self-love or self-hate… would only cost $42 per person, and presumably over a period of 20-40 years. If that’s too much to cover in order to help fix people like us whose very bodies are the problem, we need to take a long hard look at the society we live in.
It’s notable that she isn’t the first ex-military to come out as transgendered; an ex-Navy Seal did the same not too long ago, writing a book about her experience and how difficult the transition can be, not to mention the discrimination trans people face from the armed forces.