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How Will the Military Handle Bradley Manning’s Request to Be ‘Chelsea’?

August 23, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Bradley Manning's request to be able live as a woman raises questions about transgender issues in the military. The U.S. soldier is sentenced to 35 years in prison. Will he be able to receive hormone therapy treatments behind bars? Ray Suarez speaks with Allyson Robinson, a private U.S. military consultant and LGBT advocate.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now to the conviction of the Army private sentenced this week under the Espionage Act and gender issues related to that case.

Ray Suarez has the story.

RAY SUAREZ: Just days after Bradley Manning was handed 35 years in prison over the largest leak of classified information in U.S. history, the Army private is bringing another issue to the fore. The soldier, who long struggled with gender identity, announced on Thursday the preference to live as a woman named Chelsea.

In a statement read on NBC’s Today Show, Manning 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.”

The announcement has raised legal questions over whether the Army provides that therapy. The soldier will serve time at Leavenworth maximum security prison in Kansas. The prison has 515 beds and no female prisoners. Manning’s attorney says he plans to fight for his client once again.

DAVID COOMBS, attorney for Bradley Manning: A Fort Leavenworth spokesperson said, we don’t have certain treatment; that’s not what we give.

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I’m going to change that.

RAY SUAREZ: Manning’s request has put a spotlight on an issue that’s often overlooked and how the military handles it.

Estimates vary, but one analysis from the Williams Institute at UCLA. Suggested as many as 700,000 Americans may be transgender, though many fewer may have taken hormones or surgery. Currently, most insurance plans will not cover treatments or surgeries involved with sex changes. There was an earlier gender reassignment involving a veteran. It first came to public attention after World War II.

Christine Jorgensen, an American soldier who served as a man, returned from military service and became Christine. In Manning’s case, the focus now lies on how the Army will proceed with the soldier’s request and what that means for the private’s future in prison.

We invited a representative of the Army to join us, but none was available to appear tonight. The Army said in statements it doesn’t provide hormone therapy or sex reassignment surgery. “Inmates,” the Army said, “are treated equally, regardless of race, rank, ethnicity or sexual orientation.”

As for his request for a name change, the Army said it won’t be changed unless prisoner Manning completes the legal process to do so. However, some prisoners have taken this action, and the U.S. Disciplinary Barracks can provide guidance.

For a perspective from the transgender community, we turn to Allyson Robinson, a former executive director of OutServe-SLDN, one of the largest LGBT advocacy organizations for military members and their families in the country. She now works as a private consultant on personnel issues for U.S. military and corporate clients. She is herself transgender.

And I mentioned Christine Jorgensen, Allyson Robinson, to remind us that this isn’t a brand-new issue, but it’s probably not one that the Army has to deal with often, is it?

ALLYSON ROBINSON, former executive director OutServe-SLDN: Well, that’s very true, although our estimates would indicate there are anywhere from 6,000 to perhaps 10,000 transgender people who are serving in the military today.

We have strong statistical evidence that shows that transgender people are twice as likely as their fellow citizens to join the military, to have served in the military. I’m just one example of thousands of transgender veterans and people who are actively serving today.

RAY SUAREZ: But Private Manning is unusual that he’s trying to make this transition while still under Army supervision, and, even more complicated, as a prisoner. What are the Army’s obligations to Private Manning?

ALLYSON ROBINSON: Well, it’s worth considering what the Army’s obligations are under the U.S. Constitution.

The Eighth Amendment to the Constitution protects citizens against cruel and unusual punishment. And there is a growing body of legal precedent that shows that transgender people who are incarcerated should be provided with these medically necessary procedures. In cases where they’re not, it is considered a violation of those rights.

RAY SUAREZ: The Army, in its policy statement that it released to us this afternoon, made it clear that it was willing to entertain a name change.

Private Manning himself, when addressing his supporters, asked that they send him letters under his old name, as he would consider it, because he’s not sure necessarily that it would be delivered to him. Why is that an important issue?

ALLYSON ROBINSON: Well, it highlights just how unprepared the U.S. Army and the U.S. military in general is to deal with the reality that transgender people have served, are serving, and will continue to serve.

It’s a very frightening thing for many of us to consider the experience that awaits Private Manning because they are so woefully unprepared. But it just highlights the way in which the U.S. military is so far behind the rest of our society.

They have regulations that are based upon an obsolete, an outdated understanding of transgender people, one that’s over 60 years old. And the rest of the country has moved on.

RAY SUAREZ: They have made it clear that they offer to all servicemen the same level of care, of availability of psychologists, of medical care that they need. I guess this might hinge on whether or not something like gender reassignment would be considered medically necessary as a legal question.

ALLYSON ROBINSON: I think you’re right.

What we do know is that it is already considered medically necessary by the voices that typically really matter in our society. The American Medical Association, the American Psychiatric Association, and the American Psychological Association all hold to that position. And more and more often, insurance companies are as well.

As you mentioned earlier, that is still frequently not the case. But, on the civilian side, more and more are covering these lifesaving procedures.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, let’s stay away from the Army for a minute.

Is there — are there differences when you go from state to state in regulation, both recognizing the changes, altering birth certificates so you can get documents like passports? Are transgender people facing a patchwork quilt of laws across the country?

ALLYSON ROBINSON: Well, they absolutely are.

And probably the worst of that is the fact that, in some states, a very small number of states, it is illegal to discriminate against someone on the basis of their gender identity, transgender identification. In the vast majority, it is perfectly legal.

And so this, you know, highlights the experience that transgender people have in this country every day, not just in trying to get appropriate identity documents, so that they can be addressed in appropriate ways, but simply trying to work, to rent an apartment, to enjoy a public space like a park. These experiences can be very, very challenging.

RAY SUAREZ: And does it take a long time once you finally come to the conviction that you’re going to make this change, both getting the rest of the world to accept it and accepting it yourself? Is Private Manning in for perhaps more than he even realizes at this early stage of the game?

ALLYSON ROBINSON: Well, it is certainly a process, as so many things in life are.

If we know one thing from the transgender people who are currently serving — I’m in contact with one group that counts almost 200 people in uniform today who identify as transgender — it is a process that they have — that many of them have begun, that many of them would very much like to complete, if they could do so without putting their years at risk.

And, increasingly, they are coming out to their chains of command, to their military peers, and they’re being accepted, because they do their jobs well.

RAY SUAREZ: Did don’t ask, don’t tell and that change make coming out in that way less complicated?

ALLYSON ROBINSON: Unfortunately, it didn’t.

The repeal of don’t ask, don’t tell didn’t change things for transgender people in the military. What it has done, though, I think, is it has taught our military leaders that they don’t need to be afraid of these issues. The implementation of don’t ask, don’t tell’s repeal has gone very, very well.

And, today, the gay and lesbian people are accepted. Their families are welcome in the units where they serve. This is not so for transgender people in any way. But, nevertheless, it could be. Our allies, Great Britain, Australia, Israel, some of the strongest militaries in the world, allow transgender people to serve openly and have experienced no ill effects from that.

RAY SUAREZ: Allyson Robinson, thanks for joining us.

ALLYSON ROBINSON: Thank you.