Chelsea Manning, was recently given a thirty-five prison sentence for leaking secret documents that she claimed were distributed in order to expose wrongdoing and prompt debate of government policies among the American public. It appears now that Manning had already been living for years under another military imposed prison sentence - feeling trapped as a female in a male body and unable during her military service to openly acknowledge that angst.
Manning, renaming herself Chelsea, has come out as transgender - provoking yet another public debate over mental health and LGBT issues as they relate to US military service. Indeed this is a debate that needs to occur.
This past June, Kristin Beck, former US Navy Seal also came out transgender, chronicling her story in the book Warrior Princess: A U.S. Navy SEAL's Journey to Coming Out Transgender. Beck gender identified as a female as a preschooler but only found the courage and support to express herself as a female following twenty years of service as a US Navy Seal. At the time when she entered the Navy and won a place in the Seals, Beck found little public support for coming out and she certainly knew that once in the US military she had to keep her gender identity secret - as to reveal it would result in an immediate discharge from service.
Beck found her Seal's duties a good means of hiding and suppressing her internal conflict as she was constantly engaged in "masculine" pursuits. Likewise, when the "War on Terror" started she volunteered for nearly constant deployments, sometimes risking her life as she despaired of living in constant painful hiding.
George Brown MD, a former military psychiatrist who has probably studied US transgender military individuals more thoroughly that any other, theorises that male to female transgender people - who are disproportionately represented in the military and gravitate to the special forces - do so in order to suppress their female gender identities. They in his words, join the special forces in order to take a "flight into hypermasculinity".
Whether the so called "masculine" character and physical traits demanded by the Seals, Rangers, and other SOFs - fortitude, courage, teamwork, determination and extreme athleticism - all necessary to building a warrior - are indeed masculine traits could also be a whole other cultural debate about what is indeed "masculine" or "feminine". It may be that if Beck had come out female early on, and gone through transition, that she still would have wanted to prove herself - and if allowed into the Seals may have also performed in a superior manner in a hormonally and surgically transitioned female body.
But our military does not value the service of its transgender members enough to allow them to serve openly. And this causes a great deal of pain to those who having found their careers in the military as they must also hide their true identities while serving - as Chelsea Manning did.
And we see even today, as the Army responded to Manning's request to transition, publicly stating that it "does not provide hormone therapy or sex-reassignment surgery for gender identity disorder" that the Army is even behind in its terminology. Gender identity disorder has been removed from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V) and is now referred to as gender dysphoria.
Australia, New Zealand, UK, Spain, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Israel all allow transgender people to serve and provide medical support to their service members including treatment for gender dysphoria when applicable. It is interesting that in this cultural climate of acceptance that our military does not provide the same support to its transgender service members. US transgender service members may be willing to take a bullet for their country - but the country is not willing to meet their medical needs. It should also be noted that not all transgender individuals desire to change their bodies, and for those that do, the time off for surgery may require the same recovery period as a hysterectomy or C-section birth--medical procedures that are also performed for active duty service members.
One wonders if Chelsea Manning had been free to declare herself female and had been given the support to stay openly in the military and transition (if she wished to), if she would have shown different judgment on how she handled state secrets. Likely she was bursting with her own secret and at the time she leaked government documents was yearning for an honest debate. Perhaps now is the time to have that debate.
Anne Speckhard, Ph.D. is Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry in the Georgetown University Medical School and author of Talking to Terrorists: Understanding the Psycho-Social Motivations of Militant Jihadi Terrorists, Mass Hostage Takers, Suicide Bombers & "Martyrs", Fetal Abduction: The True Story of Multiple Personalities and Murder and coauthor of Warrior Princess: A U.S. Navy SEAL's Journey to Coming out Transgender.