When it comes to Chelsea Manning, the former Army intelligence analyst who was sentenced to prison after leaking a trove of classified government data to WikiLeaks in 2010, the question of whether her actions made her a patriot or a traitor is one reasonable people can debate. That debate will undoubtedly continue after the announcement on Tuesday that President Barack Obama had commuted Manning’s 35-year sentence—an unprecedented long sentence for a crime that usually receives terms of one to three years. (Manning will go free on May 17.) What’s indisputable, however, is the unconscionable nature of Manning’s treatment as a transgender woman during her incarceration.
Chase Strangio, Manning’s American Civil Liberties Union attorney, referenced the trauma Manning has experienced in a press release praising the decision. “Since she was first taken into custody, Chelsea has been subjected to long stretches of solitary confinement—including for attempting suicide—and has been denied access to medically necessary health care,” he said. “This move could quite literally save Chelsea’s life.” Prominent transgender writers and advocates agreed.
The ACLU represented Manning in suing the Department of Defense in 2014 over the agency’s refusal to treat Manning’s gender dysphoria. Though doctors diagnosed Manning with the condition—which is typically treated with a combination of social gender transition (clothes, pronouns, etc.), hormone replacement therapy, psychotherapy, and, depending on the patient’s personal preference, gender confirmation surgeries—the Army has resisted providing even the most basic of these medically necessary treatments for years. Manning has consistently been forced to maintain male hair-grooming standards (though light makeup and female undergarments are allowed), and she was only granted access to hormones in the spring of 2015. Her request for surgery was granted in September of last year, but only after a five-day hunger strike, and no procedure has yet taken place.
After Donald Trump—who has called accommodations for transgender members of the military “politically correct”—won the election, it became clear that Obama’s power to commute and pardon in the last days of his presidency might be Manning’s only hope. Strangio put it bluntly in a Jan. 11 blog post calling for the commutation: “Her trauma is escalating; her life is in danger. President Obama is likely the only person who can save her.” The ACLU and more than a dozen other LGBTQ advocacy groups communicated that grim reality to the president in a December 2016 petition, which garnered more than 100,000 signatures.
Clearly, Obama heard the plea. In a few months, Manning will return to a world in which freedoms for queer and trans folks have improved considerably since her confinement began. Let’s hope that those improvements remain in place to greet her in May, and, despite the politics of the incoming administration, continue to grow in the future.