For many Americans, US Army Pvt. Bradley Manning – the young man who now wishes to be known as a transgender woman called “Chelsea Manning” – brought the issue of gender identity to mind for the first time.
Pvt. Manning, court martialed and sentenced this week to 35 years in a military prison for leaking some 700,000 classified items to the controversial whistleblower organization WikiLeaks, may be unusual in this regard, but he is far from unique. Nor is his particular circumstance – how to fit into a culture and society marked by historical, political, and religious norms about gender – necessarily unusual, even given its military aspect.
The Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law estimates that there are nearly 700,000 transgender individuals in the US today – males who feel and think of themselves as female and vice versa. That’s less than 0.3 percent of the population.
But the figure may be understated as it becomes more acceptable for such individuals to reveal their self-perceived gender identity to what may be a critical world around them.
Among psychologists and psychiatrists, the trend has been to shift from labeling such inclinations as “gender identity disorder” to “Gender Dysphoria” (as the latest version of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders does), which carries less of a stigma. (The American Psychiatric Association declassified homosexuality as a mental disorder in 1973.)
Advances in transgender rights – which are included in many gay rights laws – have followed.
According to the ACLU, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington, and the District of Columbia all have laws clearly prohibiting discrimination against transgender people.
In federal prisons, inmates have a right to receive an evaluation of their gender status, and where applicable, a treatment plan for Gender Dysphoria (including hormone therapy), reports the ACLU. (This will not be true – at least initially – for Pvt. Manning incarcerated in the Fort Leavenworth maximum security prison in Kansas.)
In any case, the issue is becoming increasingly political – focused most recently on communities faced with decisions involving children.
Colorado officials recently ruled that a suburban Colorado Springs school district discriminated against a transgender 6-year-old (anatomically a boy, although she thought of herself as a girl) by preventing her from using the girls' bathroom, in what advocates described as the first such ruling in what Vice President Joe Biden has been quoted as calling “the civil rights issue of our time."
And in California earlier this month, Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation requiring public schools to allow transgender students access to whichever restroom and locker room they want.
The law, which takes effect Jan. 1, also will allow transgender kindergarten-through-12th grade students to choose whether they want to play boys' or girls' sports. The new law gives students the right to participate in sex-segregated programs, activities, and facilities based on their self-perception and regardless of their birth gender.
The issue became federal last month when the US Justice and Education Departments told the Arcadia school district near Los Angeles that it must accommodate a ninth-grade transgender boy (who is anatomically female) who wishes to use school bathrooms, locker rooms, and other facilities designed for boys.
“The Education and Justice departments have forced districts to change policies and practices to better protect students who are transgender, including in Minnesota and elsewhere in California,” reports Politico.com. “But those protections, primarily intended to prevent bullying and harassment, have been part of agreements to protect all students who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender."
For the public – and especially for the press – transgender individuals in the news raise a pointed question, writes Amanda Marcotte in Slate: “How do you refer to … gender in a way that balances respect for the right of individuals to determine their own gender identity with the need for clarity in your reporting?”
In other words, at what point does “Bradley” become “Chelsea” in referring to Pvt. Manning? And doesn’t the he/she, him/her choice become problematic on subsequent references?
For some individuals, the gender-identity issue is more than a matter of rhetoric or grammar.
In New York City, the beating death of a transgender woman by a group of men this week is being investigated as a hate crime.
Acceptance of transgender people is likely to keep growing, just as approval for same-sex marriage is.
But for some religious leaders, the issue is more profound than political.
“Ultimately, the transgender question is about more than just sex. It’s about what it means to be human,” Russell D. Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, wrote in the Washington Post last week. “Are we created, as both the Hebrew Scriptures and Jesus put it, ‘male and female,’ from the beginning or are these categories arbitrary and self-willed?”
“Laws such as those in California will quickly test the boundaries of society’s tolerance for a psychological and individualistic definition of gender,” Mr. Moore writes. “When gender identity is severed from biological sex, where does one’s self-designation end, and who will be harmed in the process?”