Famed whistleblower Chelsea Manning just achieved a limited—but important—triumph in her battle for gender affirmation as she serves out her 35-year sentence in Army prison: a court order mandating that the military officially stop referring to her using male pronouns.
Manning, who is a transgender woman, has vigorously pressed the military to use correct pronouns and provide gender-affirming medical care, despite the hostility she has faced from Fort Leavenworth, Kansas prison authorities. While Manning was allowed to legally change her first name to Chelsea last April, the military—which bans transgender people from service—has continued to deny her female identity.
"We should all have the absolute and inalienable right to define ourselves, in our own terms and in our own languages, and to be able to express our identity and perspectives without fear of consequences and retribution," wrote Manning in a December column for the Guardian—a publication she is a regular correspondent for. "We should all be able to live as human beings—and to be recognized as such by the societies we live in."
On Wednesday, the Army's court of appeals mandated that the military stop misgendering Manning in official court documents. "Reference to appellant in all future formal papers filed before this court and all future orders and decisions issued by this court shall either be neutral, e.g. Private First Class Manning or appellant, or employ a feminine pronoun," reads the order (pdf).
Chase Strangio, the ACLU staff attorney representing Manning in her lawsuit, declared in a press statement, "The court rightly recognized that dignifying Chelsea’s womanhood is not the trivial matter that the government attempted to frame it as. This is an important development in Chelsea’s fight for adequate medical care for her gender dysphoria. That fight continues but at least the government can no longer attempt to erase Chelsea’s identity by referring to her as male in every legal filing."
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The court order comes a month after the military, following Manning's years-long fight for gender-related medical care, agreed that she could start hormone therapy.
Manning, a former Army intelligence analyst who exposed thousands of military and State Department documents to reveal U.S. government and military wrong-doing, is hailed internationally as a hero and whistleblower, and many charge that her incarceration itself is unjust. While incarcerated, she has issued numerous statements advocating for the rights of transgendered people, Indigenous communities, people of color, and those impacted by U.S.-led wars.
Her supporters say that this latest victory is incomplete yet certainly not trivial. For example, the military "is continuing to deny Chelsea’s request to grow her hair consistent with the standards for female prisoners," according to the Chelsea Manning Support Network.
"This is an important victory for Chelsea, who has been mistreated by the government for years," said Nancy Hollander, lead counsel in Manning’s appeal. "Though only a small step in a long legal fight, my co-counsel, Vincent Ward, Captain Dave Hammond, and I are thrilled that Chelsea will be respected as the woman she is in all legal filings."