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Locked in Military Prison, Chelsea Manning Speaks Out for Transgender People Everywhere

'It’s time for trans people like me to tell the world something different: we exist.'

At left, Chelsea Manning, then known as Bradley, leaving court in Kansas in 2013. At right, a recent portrait by Alicia Neal. (Photograph: Patrick Semansky/AP)

Chelsea Manning, the U.S. Army whistleblower who leaked some of the most explosive military and government documents of the post-9/11 era is not staying silent as she serves a 35-year sentence at the Fort Leavenworth prison in Kansas for making those disclosures.

In a powerfully worded op-ed published on Monday in the Guardian, Manning speaks out for the transgender community which she says is too often misunderstood, ignored, and maligned. Though she joined the military identifying as a man and became famous throughout the world by her former name, U.S. Army Pvt. Bradley Maning, Chelsea has become—following her conviction in 2013—an outspoken champion of transgender rights.

"We are told, by the legal system and the military, that we don’t belong," Manning writes in her essay on Monday. "It’s time for trans people like me to tell the world something different: we exist."

Caught in an ongoing legal battle with her jailers (the U.S. government) over her medical treatment as a transgender woman while in custody, Manning describes how amid other fights for justice in the United States, the community of people who don't identify with the gender they were assigned at birth have been painfully sidelined. She writes:

The fight for justice for the transgender community is largely invisible to our fellow citizens, despite the rampant systematic discrimination of trans people – those whose gender identity differs from the sex they were assigned at birth.

Unfortunately, it seems to me that when it comes to issues affecting the trans community, most people who are cisgender – a word describing those people whose gender identity is in alignment with the sex they were assigned at birth – focus too much on the administrative, legal and medical aspects of trans identity. Such a focus on these institutional definitions of gender is constricting, and too often it leads to difficult obstacles for most trans people.

Take something as basic as obtaining photo identification. Many people need photo ID for their workplace. You need one to drive, you often need one to vote – especially with many US states passing disenfranchising “voter ID” laws.

For many in the trans community, just applying for basic identification documents is a hostile experience. You’re told you don’t belong because you don’t fit into one of the tiny boxes offered by the system. And for those of us in the military, this civil rights violation of trans people’s basic identity is downright life-threatening.

Offering background and recent developments in her case, the Guardian reports:

In August 2013, Manning was jailed for 35 years, for passing files to Wikileaks. The following day, Manning said she would from then on be known as Chelsea. In April 2014, a Kansas judge formally granted her request to change her name.

Manning’s request for clemency was denied, before proceeding to appeal. She has formally applied to President Barack Obama for a pardon or reduced sentence.

Separately, she is suing the US military over its denial to her of gender dysphoria treatment, despite defense secretary Chuck Hagel having approved the process in July.

In Manning’s case, gender dysphoria refers to an innate sense of being female though her sex at birth was male. Treatment includes psychotherapy, hormone therapy and surgery to change her primary and/or secondary sex characteristics.

A hearing in the case, in which Manning is also seeking to be allowed to grow her hair long and use cosmetics, is scheduled for January.

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