25/08/2013 19:11 BST | Updated 25/10/2013 06:12 BST

Chelsea Manning, Transgender People and the Army

The US soldier who has just been sentenced to 35 years for leaking US government secrets, has now announced that he wants to become a woman.

It has been reported that the soldier formerly known as Bradley Manning prefers to be referred to as Chelsea Manning, and also has felt female since childhood. Manning's former Army supervisor has testified Manning had previously sent him a photograph of herself wearing a blond wig and lipstick. Struggles and conflicts over his gender identity formed a key part of Manning's defence, as affecting her mental health, through her court martial.

According to court martial defence testimony, Manning joined the Army in 2009 partly to help rid herself of desires to become a woman.

Transsexualism, or gender dysphoria, is persistent discomfort with biological gender, accompanied by desires to render the body similar with the preferred sex, through hormone treatment or sex reassignment surgery.

Latest research reveals transgender people's personalities show a significant tendency to be more independent and less cooperative than the general population ('Temperament and character in Transsexuals' just published in 'Psychiatry Research' by Esther Gómez-Gil, Antonio Guillamónd and colleagues at Department of Psychiatry and Psychology, Institut Clínic of Neurosciences, Barcelona).

There is other evidence that transsexuality, given that this is increasingly thought to be a biologically determined phenomenon, could be repeated, as a significant factor in future trials involving secrets, the military and whistle-blowing.

Dr George Brown, a military psychiatrist, points out that one would initially assume that the prevalence of transsexualism, would be low in the military - certainly lower than in the civilian population.

In his paper entitled 'Transsexuals in the Military: Flight Into Hypermasculinity', published in the journal 'Archives of Sexual Behaviour', Dr Brown contends that any man who engages in cross-gender activities would not surely voluntarily submit himself to an organisation notorious for intolerance of deviancy in any form, whether it be homosexuality, unkempt hair, or scruffy uniforms.

Yet Dr Brown goes on to indicate, from his clinical experience, that the prevalence of transsexualism in the armed forces may be higher than in the civilian population.

Dr Brown argues that some developing transgender people choose hyper-masculine pursuits such as contact sports, racing car driving or mountain climbing, and others select military service as the 'quintessential hyper-masculine environment', in which to purge growing lurking cross-gender impulses, that they are wrestling hard to reject.

In a paper entitled 'Transgender People in the Military: Don't Ask? Don't Tell? Don't Enlist!' by Adam Yerke from the Chicago School of Professional Psychology, and Valory Mitchell from the California School of Professional Psychology, evidence is marshalled that there could be a higher rate of transgender people in military service than expected.

Their paper in the 'Journal of Homosexuality' indicates there is some evidence suggesting that the rate of male-to-female transsexuals in the military may even be two or three time the rate in the general population. But Adam Yerke cautions no one really knows yet the true rate in the army.

Adam Yerke and Valory Mitchell cite psychiatrists who report meeting 11 biological males with gender dysphoria and eight of these had extensive active military experience. Other clinicians cited in other studies, according to Yerke and Mitchell, also indicated that over half of their male-to-female transsexual patients had served in the military.

Yerke and Mitchell point out that transgender people may be especially interested in the armed forces because of the weight placed on traditional masculine values, particularly given gender identity confusion is a frequent phase in transgender identity development, leading to attempts of repressing these difficulties.

Activities that express a traditional masculine, or even hyper-masculine, role associated with violence, danger, excitement and manliness means the military represents a widely accepted and incontrovertible way to become a 'real man'.

Yerke and Mitchell quote other transsexual experts who report that they have frequently found amongst male-to-female transsexuals, enlisting is part of a strategy over exorcising unacceptable desires to become feminine. The army not only rewards and cultivates exaggerated masculinity with high-risk taking, pain-tolerance, controlled violence and physical prowess; plus with a well known contempt for physical and emotional weakness.

This psychological escape into becoming a hyper-male as a way of burying or running away from distressing developing or lurking transgender desires, may be deliberate, but it can also be unconscious for many. In those cases the emergence of transgender emotions will tend to happen longer after joining the army.

Male-to-female transgender people may be seeking the most rugged, stereotypically male profession or job they can find. Driven by these psychological impulses, transgender people not only become career military officers, but experts report that they also frequently request the toughest most dangerous missions they can find, because of this deep need to exaggerate the hyper-masculine gender role.

This bravado provides an excellent cover-up not just for them hiding from themselves on the inside, but also to others on the outside, who they may be worrying could be suspecting them of being less than all male.

Some transgender people may also be attracted to the military for the extreme risks associated with active military duty, as a part of a self-destructive impulse linked to depression.

Yerke and Mitchell point out that suicidality has repeatedly been shown to be more prominent among transgender people, and so it is possible that some consciously or unconsciously put themselves in life threatening situations as a result of stress and despair regarding their gender identity. Joining the military presents ideal opportunities for this.

Other experts quoted by Yerke and Mitchell point out that many transgender people seek some of the most life-risking pursuits within the military, because if the mission were to end in death, the transgender person would be permanently liberated from a lifetime of pain from feeling trapped in the wrong gender.

Dr George Brown's study quotes an example of a transgender person who elected to leave the relative safety of being a laboratory technician and applied for combat helicopter pilot training at the very peak of the Vietnam war - an extremely high-mortality position.

One male-to-female transgender person is even quoted in a study cited by Yerke and Mitchell as stating: "And I joined the military. I even volunteered to go to Vietnam to get killed to put me out of my misery".

Yerke and Mitchell argue that transgender people should have equal opportunity to serve their country honourably, and they may be particularly drawn to military service. It is wrong, they contend, that the U.S. military continues to discriminate against transgender people, by barring them from military service and by discharging anyone who is, or is alleged to be, transgender.