The Dubious Distinction of Being the First Out Trans Woman in Military Prison

Victoria Law
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Victoria Law is a voracious reader and freelance writer who frequently writes about gender, incarceration and resistance. She is also the author of Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles of Incarcerated Women

Manning in uniform

“I am Chelsea Manning. I am female.” With that announcement, Chelsea Manning begins her thirty-five year sentence with the dubious distinction of being the first openly trans woman in the U.S. military prison system.

While a new National Gay and Lesbian Task Force study shows that trans people are twice as likely to serve in the military than the rest of Americans, the military still bans openly trans folks from service and discriminates against them in a variety of ways. Manning’s imprisonment has already sparked national conversation about punishing whistleblowers and treatment of trans people—now, the military is having to consider the fact that their prison system is not set up for trans service members. 

In 1993, then-President Clinton passed Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT), which prohibited the military from discriminating against or harassing closeted gay, lesbian or bisexual service members. Openly gay, lesbian, or bisexual people were barred from military service. However, Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell did not extend to trans people.

While gay, lesbian, and bisexual service members have recently won the right to be openly accepted by the military, people who come out as trans are still denied equal rights in the service and can be legally kicked out of the military. 

Trans combat veteran Aaron Myracle served in the military for eight years. “The repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell made the military even more unsafe for me,” he says. “With DADT, if we were ever exposed as trans, we could pretend to be gay and get an honorable discharge.” However, he noted, trans people were not guaranteed to get an honorable discharge; instead, they could be charged with “fraudulent enlistment” and lose benefits. “When it was repealed, we risked losing our benefits if we were outed,” says Myracle.

According to Myracle, issues of trans identity rarely came during his time serving in a female military unit. “There were people in every unit I served in who were openly gay. But people that I served with were not aware of trans issues or even of trans people,” he says. Myracle began his transition after leaving the service. Had he come out as trans while still enlisted, he would have risked losing benefits for himself and his child. The Department of Defense continues to bar trans people from serving in the military “based on physical and mental factors.”

Myracle and Marine Corps veteran Joyce Wagner co-authored the Iraq Veterans Against War’s statement in support of Chelsea Manning. The statement quotes the recent study published in Harvard Kennedy School’s LGBTQ Policy Journal which states that, ironically, trans people are twice as likely to be recruited into the military.

“As an organization that sees the recruitment of vulnerable populations as a serious issue in this country, we find this statistic of incredible interest. Trans* people are certainly among the most vulnerable of populations, as multiple studies have found them to be at significantly increased risk of sexual and physical assault, homelessness, joblessness, and familial rejection.”

IVAW members wearing "free manning" shirts

Veterans in Obama’s Oakland campaign office protesting Private Manning’s imprisonment in 2012. (via)

Why do trans people wind up joining the military at twice the rate of non-trans people, despite the fact that the military discriminates against them in numerous ways? The answer is complex.  

Although sixteen states and Washington DC have some measure of legal protection for trans people against discrimination, such well-intentioned legislation has transformed the sad reality that trans folks experience rampant discrimination.

New York City, for example, has had anti-discrimination laws since 2002. However, “It’s War in Here,” a 2007 study by the Sylvia Rivera Law Project—a legal aid organization for trans, intersex and other gender non-conforming people—found that trans New Yorkers in prison suffer pervasive discrimination in housing, employment, health care, education, public benefits and social services. Widespread employment discrimination and violence often prevent transgender people from accessing shelters, foster care, Medicaid, public entitlements and social safety nets. This lack of access pushes a disproportionate number of trans youth and adults into criminalized means of survival, such as sex work and drug dealing, leading to disproportionate homelessness, criminalization, and imprisonment. It may also push them toward military enrollment as a way to escape poverty.

A map of states banning discrimination against transgender people

Graphic by the Center for American Progress.

“We know that trans people are disproportionately poor even before transition,” noted Reverend Jason Lydon of Black and Pink, a group that supports LGBTQ people in prison. “We [also] know that Chelsea Manning joined to get away from her family and had no opportunities.” At Manning’s trial, her sister recounted their family’s childhood poverty, noting that at age 18 Manning was briefly homeless. Her aunt testified that Manning enlisted because the military’s GI Bill which would enable her to attend college.

Myracle agrees that limited economic opportunities play a large role in military recruitment of trans people:  

“I would say absolutely economics is a huge factor in recruitment of anyone, and especially of trans* people. The military builds an image of being a part of something greater than yourself. It sells an image, and that’s appealing to young people struggling with issues of self, identity, and community.

That alone is a big draw, and then add to that the promise of economic security, advancement and promotion, job training, medical and educational benefits, and what poor young kid isn’t going to be enticed? Especially when they’re allowed to recruit right in our schools, which functions as a huge endorsement of the military as a good career choice.

Ironically, Chelsea is EXACTLY who the military seeks to recruit. She’s the basis of their entire recruitment machine: she was young, economically disadvantaged, very bright and idealistic, and wanted to better herself and feel like she belonged. The military promised her fraternity and career training and money for school.”

Since most trans service members don’t come out or start to transition until after leaving military service, Chelsea Manning is the first openly trans person to enter the military’s prison system. Her incarceration has prompted media coverage of trans issues in prison, but despite searching and phone calls to Fort Leavenworth’s Press Relations office, I could find no military policies about how trans people are treated in military jails or prisons.

Chelsea Manning has stated that she wishes to begin hormone therapy as soon as possible. In non-military prisons, trans people have successfully fought for access to hormones. Although some veterans, including Aaron Myracle, have been able to transition using Veterans Administration services, the military has already stated that it will not provide hormone therapy in its prison system.

Access to hormones is not the only issue facing imprisoned trans people. If not placed in solitary confinement, Manning may not find much solidarity among her fellow prisoners. Aaron Myracle noted that even queer people in the military are “angry at her [Manning’s] actions and see her as an embarrassment.” He points to the attacks by Kristen Beck, a former Navy Seal who came out as trans in her book Warrior Princess. “Beck accused Manning of coming out as trans to get preferential treatment. But being openly trans in a military prison will most likely mean being placed in Ad Seg [Administrative Segregation, where prisoners are confined to their cells for 23 hours a day]. That’s not preferential treatment.”

In non-military prisons, trans people are often placed in “protective custody,” ostensibly to protect them from violence from other prisoners. “Protective custody often means solitary confinement,” explains Alisha Williams, staff attorney for the Sylvia Rivera Law Project. Trans people and others in protective custody are often unable to participate in programs, which not only occupy their minds but also increase their chances for parole. Similarly, lack of program participation negatively impacts chances of parole from a military prison.

Trans people in non-military prisons have reported extensive levels of harassment and abuse from staff. Jenni Gann, a trans woman incarcerated in a California men’s prison, has repeatedly experienced sexual harassment during strip searches, including staff ridiculing her anatomy, threatening her, and exposing her to male prisoners. “Bianca,” a client of the Sylvia Rivera Law Project stated,

The correctional officers are the ones who are the most violent. They’re the ones to be scared of.

I’m raped on a daily basis, I’ve made complaint after complaint, but no response. No success. I’m scared to push forward with my complaints against officers for beating me up and raping me. I was in full restraints when the correctional officers assaulted me. Then after they said I assaulted them. All the officers say is ‘I didn’t do it.’ The Inspector General said officers have a right to do that to me. That I’m just a man and shouldn’t be dressing like this.

Placement in protective custody increases the opportunities for staff to harass and/or abuse trans prisoners. Bianca told the Sylvia Rivera Law Project that “protective custody” is “even worse cause there are no cameras.” Another law project client, who was in protective custody of a maximum-security men’s prison, reported that officers shut off her cell’s water and power, issued her false tickets for rules violations, and instigated other prisoners to assault her.

In response to Manning’s announcement, the military has stated, “The USDB has implemented risk assessment protocols and safety procedures to address high risk factors identified with the Prison Rape Elimination Act.” However, neither the possible admittance of trans prisoners nor procedures to protect more vulnerable people from sexual assault were mentioned in the Army Regulations, the Department of Defense Instructions or the Department of Defensive Directives sent by the Media Relations office at Fort Leavenworth. The Media Relations spokesperson was unable to elaborate further on these protocols and procedures when contacted by phone.

“The military didn’t have a system for reporting sexual assault until 2008, so it wouldn’t surprise me that they don’t have a policy in their military prisons,” stated Joyce Wagner, who served in the Marines from 2004 until early 2006 and co-authored the recent IVAW statement with Myracle. They recalled once-a-year talks about rape: “Basically, it was like, ‘Don’t get yourself in these situations and you won’t be assaulted.’” No instructions were given on how to report sexual assaults. Wagner was sexually assaulted on their last day of service. “I had no idea how to report it,” Wagner recalled.

“There’s been so much tension in the veteran and anti-war communities about how support should be provided and how to talk about trans people in the military and military prisons,” stated Wagner. “Trans issues are new to many people, especially the ones who are male and straight. People question why we’re talking about Manning’s trans identity, saying that it detracts from what she’s done to inform the world. They don’t see talking about her trans identity as valuable to the conversation. Instead, they call it ‘boutique identity politics.’”

Manning’s high profile has increased visibility of trans people in the military. At the same time, the Palm Center recently received a $1.35 million grant  to study transgender military service. Kenyon Farrow, former director of Queers for Economic Justice, and Dean Spade, founder of the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, have pointed out that military inclusion does not address the discrimination, violence and poverty faced by trans people across the country. “Trans people, trans organizations, the trans movement did not choose this battle,” Spade noted in a recent interview. “Anti-trans sentiment will be stirred up with patriotic fervor, and the rigorous, often local work we have been doing for decades to gain access to homeless shelters, drug treatment programs, and schools will be set back. Those who are most vulnerable will bear the brunt of the violence that ensues. Trans youth in foster care group homes and juvenile prisons, marginally housed trans people surviving in shelters and on the street, and others who are already easy targets for violence will feel the pain as the cops, parole officers and low-level bureaucrats who already control their lives take out their aroused aggressions on them.”

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