What do Chelsea Manning treatments mean for transgender troops?

The Pentagon appeared to go against its own policy in allowing transgender treatments for Chelsea Manning. The decision points to changes at the Pentagon on the issue, activists say, but none that are seismic. 

US Army/AP/File
US Army Pfc. Chelsea Manning poses for a photo. Defense Department officials say hormone treatment for gender reassignment has been approved for Chelsea Manning (formerly Bradley), a former intelligence analyst convicted of espionage for sending classified documents to the WikiLeaks website.

Chelsea Manning, a United States Army soldier serving a 35-year sentence for her role in providing classified documents to WikiLeaks, will now be able to receive hormone therapy at Fort Leavenworth.

It represents a considerable shift for the US military to provide this treatment for Ms. Manning, who identifies as transgender and sued the government to be able to have access to the hormone therapy in order to transition from a man, formerly known as Bradley, to a woman.

The decision speaks to changes that advocacy groups say they see at the Pentagon.

Though transgender troops are currently banned by the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has said that he believes the policy should be reviewed. Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James told USA Today that she believes the ban on transgender troops is likely to be reassessed and should be lifted.

And Mara Kiesling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, says she has witnessed openness to thinking about the issue in new ways at lower levels.

“We had a phone call here a few weeks ago from a commanding officer, saying, 'We have our first openly trans person in our unit, and we want to do right by them, and we don’t understand everything, so help us,' ” she says. “It’s a fairly common employer call.”

A report written by former US Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders and sponsored by an advocacy group estimated that there are some 15,000 transgender troops currently serving.

The decision involving Manning does, however, point to inconsistencies in Pentagon policy. While the Pentagon does not pay for hormone therapy for troops, the Department of Veterans Affairs does cover costs for veterans who qualify, though it will not pay for sexual reassignment surgery.

“So if you’re in the service and you’re a prisoner, you can qualify for this health care. But if you’re not a prisoner and you’re in the service, and your doctor says you need this, you can get thrown out of the military,” Ms. Keisling notes.

Since arriving to begin serving her prison term at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., Manning's "top priority" has been advocating for “her medically necessary health care,” says Chase Strangio, Manning’s attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union. 

“She has fought her whole life –and particularly over the course of the past few years – to be seen and affirmed as who she is: as Chelsea,” he adds. “We are thrilled for Chelsea that the government has finally agreed to initiate hormone therapy as part of her treatment plan.”

The Army had no comment on the decision to provide hormone therapy and referred questions to the Department of Justice, where a spokesperson also declined comment.

The story was first broken Thursday by USA Today, which obtained a memo dated Feb. 5 from Col. Erica Nelson, commandant of the Fort Leavenworth Disciplinary Barracks. 

“After carefully considering the recommendation that [hormone treatment] is medically appropriate and necessary, and weighing all associated safety and security risks presented, I approve adding [hormone treatment] to inmate Manning’s treatment plan.”

Mr. Strangio says that he is “hopeful” that the government will reconsider its positions on some decisions in the Manning case. Among these, Strangio says, “The military continues to refuse to let Chelsea grow her hair like other female prisoners, a critical part of her treatment plan that has been recognized by her doctors.” 

For the rest of transgendered troops currently serving in uniform, current military policy leaves them at the mercy of their commanders and co-workers, Keisling says.

While many are supportive, “You’re so blackmail-able, even if your commanding officer says, 'I want to support you because you’re a good soldier,' ” she adds. “You’re fine until a new commanding officer comes in, or you get a promotion someone else wanted and they out you.”

Again, this support is heartening, Keisling say, but “we’re getting a little impatient with, ‘The policy needs to be reviewed.’ ”

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