What Chelsea Manning can expect in a US prison

The soldier formerly known as Bradley Manning has announced that from now on she will living as a woman. What will life be like for a trans woman inside the US prison system?

Today we finally learn officially that one of the most-speculated, hitherto unconfirmed aspects of the entire Bradley Manning saga is indeed true. Bradley – or rather, Chelsea as she must now be known - is transgender.

As a statement put out today explains: Bradley wishes to transition, commencing hormone therapy as soon as possible, and to be known henceforth as Chelsea.

It was, of course, one of the worst kept “secrets” on the block: speculation on the matter first became public in 2010, with revelations in Wired magazine. But like most journalists who cover trans issues, it felt none of my business, and largely irrelevant to the case in hand.

Like Paris Lees, who wrote on this issue earlier in the week, I am reluctant to claim Chelsea as “trans hero”. She is a hero for what she has done, but there is no reason why being trans, any more than not being trans, can be claimed as a “reason” for virtue. There will in future be heroes who are trans, just as there will be villains.

Chelsea is trans. That is all.

Or rather, that is not all. Paris also writes eloquently about the horrors that await the trans prisoner. The unique torture of being forced to conform to a gender role not one’s own. In the UK, thankfully, a gradual and growing understanding of the trans condition means that, by and large, UK trans prisoners are treated humanely, allowed access to treatment and HRT. There are also reasonably clear rules as to which estate (male or female) trans prisoners should be assigned to. This despite the spluttering outrage of tabloids regarding the cost of such treatment. 

Two tendencies, well, three, perhaps, come together in a recent Express diatribe (I won’t dignify it with the title of “news”), about prisoners “forcing” taxpayers to foot a £90k bill for gender re-assignment. There is the idea, all too common, that once one has committed a crime, access to ANY Human Rights becomes privilege.

There’s the cost, which plays so well to the selfish, greedy Taxpayer’s Alliance audience. And then there’s that small question of accuracy. A little digging suggested the figures quoted to be ever so slightly pie in the sky. I have successfully challenged other misreported transgender costs through the Press Complaints Commission, but since the Express doggedly refuses to be part of the PCC, their world view is unchallengeable.

How do these factors play in the US? According to the group Stop Prisoner Rape, more than 200,000 men are raped behind bars each year: it seems likely that this is a special risk for trans prisoners.

The public health system mostly does not support individual transition. However, a freedom of information request by the Smoking Gun to the Bureau of Prisons revealed, in June of this year, that there are at least 61 trans prisoners currently in the system – and that these are all receiving HRT. (Although, since it is not clear on what basis the list was compiled, it is equally unclear whether this is good news or bad.)

The US is also home to the same old, same old bleats against taxpayer dollars being squandered on “undeserving” prisoners. In 2008, Massachussetts state senator, Scott Brown, attempted unsuccessfully to introduce laws that would ban the use of tax money to pay for the surgery for prison inmates.

He was therefore predictably apoplectic, when US District Judge Mark Wolf ordered the State of Massachussetts to pay both the legal and gender re-assignment costs for convicted murderer Michelle Kosilek.

This, according to Senator Brown, would be "an outrageous abuse of taxpayer dollars", and apparently as many as 84 other people agreed, signing a petition to that effect on change.org.

The US may be getting better, superficially. However, the scope for spite against trans prisoners remains. Another high profile trans prisoner, Cece McDonald, wrote recently of the unique torture inflicted on one trans woman in the US prison system, including “sexual harassment during cross-gender strip searches”.

She goes on: “This has included ridiculing her anatomy, threating her, and exposing her to male inmates”.

Prophetically, ironically, perhaps, she also writes of US “bigotry and hypocrisies that prove that LGBTQI-GNC people are dispensable when it comes to fighting for the country and risking lives, but we are not granted the equalities of any cis/heterosexual individual”.

The point is, given the unique nature of being transgender, there are many things that, while troubling to the non-trans are, literally torture to the trans individual. Which means that back in 2011, while the rest of the world was speculating on whether Chelsea was trans, the US government, which must have had a much better idea, was, through the mechanism of forced strip searches, starting to torture her. Out of spite? Ignorance? Who knows.

The fear is that, such is their desire for revenge against Chelsea, the state-sponsored viciousness has only just begun.

Chelsea Manning arriving at the sentencing in Fort Meade on 21 August 2013. Photo: Getty

Jane Fae is a feminist writer. She tweets as @JaneFae.

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France is changing: an army stalks the streets and Boris Johnson wanders the Tuileries

Will Self on the militarisation of France, and Boris Johnson at the Foreign Office.

At the corner of the rue D’Hauteville and the rue de Paradis in the tenth arrondissement of Paris is a retro-video-games-themed bar, Le Fantôme, which is frequented by some not-so-jeunes gens – the kind of thirtysomethings nostalgic for an era when you had to go to an actual place if you wanted to enter virtual space. They sit placidly behind the plate-glass windows zapping Pac-Men and Space Invaders, while outside another – and rather more lethal – sort of phantom stalks the sunlit streets.

I often go to Paris for work, and so have been able to register the incremental militarisation of its streets since President Hollande first declared a state of emergency after last November’s terrorist attacks. In general the French seem more comfortable about this prêt-à-porter khaki than we’d probably be; the army-nation concept is, after all, encrypted deep in their collective psyche. The army was constituted as a revolutionary instrument. France was the first modern nation to introduce universal male conscription – and it continued in one form or another right up until the mid-1990s.

Even so, it was surprising to witness the sang-froid with which Parisians regarded the camouflaged phantoms wandering among them: a patrol numbering eight ­infantrymen and women moved up the roadway, scoping out doorways, nosing into passages – but when one peered into Le Fantôme, his assault rifle levelled, none of the boozing gamers paid the least attention. I witnessed this scene the Saturday after Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel ran amok on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice – it was a little preview of the new state of emergency.

On Monday 18 July the French premier, Manuel Valls, was booed at a memorial service for the victims of the Nice attacks – while Marine Le Pen has been making all the populist running, whipping up anxieties about the enemy within. For many French, the events of the past week – including the failed Turkish coup – are steps along the way limned by Michel Houellebecq in his bestselling novel Submission; a via dolorosa that ends with La Marianne wearing the hijab and France itself annexed by a new caliphate.

Into this febrile drama comes a new player: Boris Johnson, the British Foreign Secretary. What can we expect from this freshly minted statesman when it comes to our relations with our closest neighbour? There is no doubt that Johnson is a Francophile – I’ve run into him and his family at the Tuileries, and he made much of his own francophone status during the referendum campaign. In Paris last winter to launch the French edition of his Churchill biography, Johnson wowed a publication dinner by speaking French for the entire evening. He was sufficiently fluent to bumble, waffle and generally avoid saying anything serious at all.

Last Sunday I attended the Lambeth Country Show, an oxymoronic event for which the diverse inhabitants of my home borough gather in Brockwell Park, south London, for jerked and halal chicken, funfair rides, Quidditch-watching, and “country-style” activities, such as looking at farm animals and buying their products. Wandering among ancient Rastafarians with huge shocks of dreadlocks, British Muslims wearing immaculate white kurtas blazoned with “ASK ME ABOUT ISLAM” and crusty old Brixton punks, I found it quite impossible to rid my mind of the Nice carnage – or stop wondering how they would react if armed soldiers were patrolling, instead of tit-helmeted, emphatically unarmed police.

I stepped into the Royal Horticultural Society marquee, and there they were: the entire cast of our end-of-the-pier-show politics, in vegetable-sculpture form and arrayed for judging. There was Jeremy Corbyn (or “Cornbin”) made out of corncobs – and Boris Johnson in the form of a beetroot, being stabbed in the back by a beetroot Michael Gove. And over there was Johnson again, this time rendered in cabbage. The veggie politicians were the big draw, Brixtonians standing six-deep around them, iPhones aloft.

The animal (as opposed to the vegetable) Johnson has begun his diplomatic rounds this week, his first démarches as tasteless and anodyne as cucumber. No British abandonment of friends after Brexit . . . Coordinated response to terror threat . . . Call for Erdogan to be restrained in response to failed coup . . . Blah-blah, whiff-whaff-waffle . . . Even someone as gaffe-prone as he can manage these simple lines, but I very much doubt he will be able to produce rhetorical flourishes as powerful as his hero’s. In The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History, Johnson writes of Winnie overcoming “his stammer and his depression and his ­appalling father to become the greatest living Englishman”. Well, I’ve no idea if Bojo suffers from depression now but he soon will if he cleaves to this role model. His Churchill-worship (like so many others’) hinges on his belief that, without Churchill as war leader, Britain would have been ground beneath the Nazi jackboot. It may well be that, with his contribution to the Brexit campaign, Johnson now feels he, too, has wrested our national destiny from the slavering jaws of contingency.

Of course the differences between the two politicians are far more significant: Johnson’s genius – such as it is – lies in his intuitive understanding that politics, in our intensely mediatised and entirely commoditised era, is best conceived of as a series of spectacles or stunts: nowadays you can fool most of the people, most of the time. This is not a view you can imagine associating with Churchill, who, when his Gallipoli stratagem went disastrously wrong, exiled himself, rifle in hand, to the trenches. No, the French people Johnson both resembles and has an affinity for are the ones caught up in the virtual reality of Le Fantôme – rather than those patrolling the real and increasingly mean streets without. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt