Manning, prison and hormone therapy

Transgender Army veteran Allyson Robinson speaks to Al Jazeera about Chelsea Manning

Robinson is an advocate for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender members of the U.S. military.
Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for LOGO

Allyson Robinson is a West Point graduate and former Army officer who in 2007 began her transition from male to female. She was, until recently, executive director of OutServe, an advocacy and member organization for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender service personnel.

In an interview with Al Jazeera Thursday, she spoke about the case of Chelsea E. Manning, the Army private sentenced to 35 years in military prison for leaking classified documents. Manning was known as Pfc. Bradley Manning until Thursday, when she issued a press release announcing her gender preference.

Manning said she wants to receive hormone-replacement therapy while in prison. But such treatment is unlikely to be approved.   

While transgender individuals in civilian prisons have been treated with hormone-replacement therapy, the military prison system does not offer such treatment. Below is an interview with Robinson that has been edited for length.  

What’s your reaction to Manning’s announcement that she is female and wants to live as a woman named Chelsea?

This does not come as a surprise. There’s been speculation for some time -- and her defense brought this up during the sentencing portion of her trial -- so it just confirms what many of us had suspected. From my perspective, regardless of what she’s done, all people -- including people in prison -- deserve to live lives that are free from harassment, free from violence. All people deserve the opportunity to live as their authentic self.

Transgender people face heightened levels of violence. We know that, for a fact, they are extremely vulnerable to all kinds of harassment, and they are frequently denied the kinds of medical care that they need. So it’s the responsibility of prison administrators and guards that prisoners like Manning are kept safe and that their well-being is provided for.

Manning said that she wants to receive hormone-replacement therapy, a treatment used to help transgender individuals transition their sex. However, the military said it does not provide such treatment in military prisons. Are there any instances in which the military could provide hormone treatment?

Well, certainly, there are going to be any number of medical conditions for which the military medical system is going to be providing to, in this case to female soldiers, the same kinds of prescription treatments that Manning would require should she receive that diagnosis of gender dysphoria (link to PDF).

Hormone-replacement therapy is very common for women, and particularly for post-menopausal women. But it’s also common for anyone who has some kind of a hormone deficiency-- those things are not disqualifying medical conditions for military service. The capability to provide this care is there. What prevents it at this point is the fact that the military bans people who are transgender from serving, and kicks them out if they’re found to be transgender while they’re in service.

Do you think Manning will be put into the women’s section of Fort Leavenworth prison where she is sent?

I would hope that those who are in charge of Manning’s incarceration would carry out their duty to provide for her in a way that is as humane as possible. In this case, that would certainly indicate access to appropriate medical care, and if it is indicated through a proper diagnosis and a treatment plan, housing her with the population where she can be the most safe.

It will be tempting to consider Manning, herself, a safety risk to other prisoners, but the facts show that is not the case. The facts show that trans people have much more to fear from their fellow prisoners when they are incarcerated than others have to fear from trans prisoners.

What kind of treatment can Manning expect to receive in prison, considering that the military says it can only provide psychiatric and psychological care?

We have very little evidence, almost no reporting at all, of what the experience of transgender people in the military incarceration system is like. I think it’s safe to assume, based upon the fact that the military is still operating under a medical understanding of gender identity that is 50 or 60 years old, that the military prison system is not prepared to deal adequately or humanely with trans prisoners.

Didn't the repeal of the military's “Don't ask, don't tell” policy apply to transgender service members?   

It related specifically to the issue of a person’s sexual orientation. That law did not address issues of gender identity. It did not address transgender people in any way.

When we talk about the “ban” against transgender people serving in the military, what we’re really talking about is an interconnected web of federal regulations, military regulations that relate to medical status of troops, readiness, conduct.

How do transgender military recruits manage their gender identity when coming into the armed forces? Do they reveal it to close friends?

People are managing in different ways. Some of them are out to no one; some of them are out to their closest friends; there are a few who are out to their chain of command. Their chain of command’s response has been, as long as you continue to perform your job in a way that is effective, in a way that is exemplary, then we’re not going to make a big deal of this. There are transgender men and women who are serving relatively openly in their units.

Jamie Tarabay contributed to this report. Al Jazeera

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