The U.S. Army ruled Tuesday that Private Chelsea Manning, who is serving a 35-year prison term for passing classified files to WikiLeaks, will be allowed to receive gender transition surgery, according to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
According to Reuters, Manning, who came out as a transgender woman after being convicted of espionage, began a hunger strike on Friday that ended with the Army’s ruling.
Manning’s psychologist recommended in April that she receive gender reassignment surgery as treatment for gender dysphoria, a psychological condition in which a difference between a person’s assigned gender and the gender with which they identify causes significant clinical stress. Manning will be the first transgender inmate to receive gender-affirming surgery while in prison, according to the ACLU.
“I am unendingly relieved that the military is finally doing the right thing,” Manning said in a statement Tuesday. “I applaud them for that. This is all I wanted – for them to let me be me.”
Manning attempted suicide in July as a result of the stress caused by her gender dysphoria. She began hormone therapy in 2015 but has been forced to comply with male hair standards. ACLU staff attorney Chase Strangio said in Tuesday’s statement that the government plans to continue enforcing these standards.
According to FindLaw, any punishment that violates the basic concept of a person’s dignity may be found to be cruel and unusual. Inmates who need mental health care are entitled to receive adequate treatment in a manner that is appropriate under the circumstances. It should follow that all prisoners who experience gender dysphoria are entitled to mental health care – which, all too often, they do not receive.
Luckily, this year, the United States has been taking important strides in the treatment of transgender inmates. On March 25, 2016, the Department of Justice (DOJ) issued new regulations clarifying guidelines it set in 2012 for the treatment of transgender inmates. The new DOJ guidelines state that treating inmates based on their external genital anatomy is in violation of the federal standard, which mandates that prisons consider both inmates’ gender identity and personal concerns about their safety when assigning them to a housing facility, according to Mother Jones.
The question remains whether Manning’s access to gender reassignment surgery will set a precedent for how transgender prisoners are treated in the United States. Too often, transgender inmates are subject to sexual harassment, discrimination and abuse at the hands of other inmates or those directly involved in the system. If they are granted full personhood – something they are currently lacking – this abuse can begin to decline.
The U.S. Declaration of Independence establishes that all people have inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Prison cannot and should not strip people of those rights. An inmate is just as human as anyone on the outside. If, for Chelsea Manning, the pursuit of happiness necessitates that she be able to fully express herself through her physical and anatomical appearance, that right should be granted.
Photo courtesy Henry Hagnäs, Creative Commons