chelsea manning exposes the hypocrisy of lgbt and mental health progress in the usa

As reports surface that Chelsea Manning may face criminal charges for a suicide attempt, we examine Obama’s limited progress on LGBT issues, prison reform and mental health.

by Edward Siddons
29 July 2016, 4:45pm

On April 28th, 2016, Barack Obama issued a Presidential Proclamation declaring the month of May "Mental Health Awareness Month." In an impassioned declaration, he promised to further fund mental health support programs, and acknowledged the severity of the mental health pandemic raging across America. "Let us strive to ensure people living with mental health conditions know that they are not alone, that hope exists, and that the possibility of healing and thriving is real," he wrote. He singled out US military servicemen and women in particular, pledging state support for its veterans with a robust care program.

On Thursday July 28th, exactly three months later, the American Civil Liberties Union broke the news that Chelsea Manning, the transgender US Army private jailed for the disclosure of hundreds of thousands of classified military documents to WikiLeaks, was facing charges relating to a suicide attempt on 5 July. The charges include the possession of "prohibited property", "resisting the force cell move team" and "conduct which threatens." The punishment? According to ACLU, if found guilty, Manning could be barred from seeking parole, see her 35-year sentence extended by eight years, be reclassified as a maximum security patient, or spend the rest of her jail time in solitary confinement - a punishment that human rights groups across the world have condemned as inhumane and severely detrimental to inmates' mental health. If "the possibility of healing and thriving is real," as Obama claims, it apparently isn't for incarcerated trans women.

The charges against Manning are tantamount to the recriminalisation of suicide, but they are far from the first example of her heinous mistreatment. Manning's conviction has been controversial from the start. Her revelations exposed terrifyingly high rates of civilian casualties in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, yet her legal team was unable to defend her on the grounds of public interest because she was indicted under the Espionage act.

While incarcerated, Manning has been allowed cosmetics and hormone treatment, but she remains forced to wear her hair short in line with US military requirements for men who serve.

The length of her sentence - 35 years to be precise - was condemned by her legal team: "No whistleblower in American history has been sentenced this harshly," they argued, citing the minimal punishment of General Petraeus, a former General and CIA director - and, have you guessed yet? a cis man! - who handed over eight notebooks of classified information to his biographer. Reporting by The Intercept revealed that, unlike Manning, he was not charged under the Espionage Act, instead receiving only two years probation and a $100,000 fine. He was allowed to keep his security clearance too.

While incarcerated, Manning has been allowed cosmetics and hormone treatment, but she remains forced to wear her hair short in line with US military requirements for men who serve. Chase Strangio, an attorney at ACLU specialising in trans rights, spoke to i-D on Manning's situation: "Chelsea has faced extreme and unconstitutional charges, sentences and conditions of confinement," adding that she "continues to have to fight so hard just to survive each day." Manning's case doesn't just expose the US government's proclamations on mental health as, at worst, hollow, or at best, severely limited, it sends a shockwave through the LGBT legislation that forms the core of his progressive credentials.

Manning's plight resonates with the thousands of trans women detained worldwide, prisoners who regularly face virulent transphobia, ignorance of their medical and psychological needs, and systematic abuse. The Bureau of Justice Statistics showed in 2014 that 39.9% of transgender respondents reported sexual assault or abuse in the preceding year by either another prisoner or staff, ten times the rate of prisoners in general. In one landmark case in 1992, Dee Farmer, a trans woman incarcerated in the US was repeatedly raped and beaten by other inmates. She acquired HIV as a result. Similar reports still surface.

A rainbow flag and proclamation might be appealing symbolic gestures, but those at the margins continue to suffer.

The phenomenon is not limited to the US either: yesterday The Independent reported a 170% rise in transphobic hate crimes and a severe "lack of trust" in the police among the trans community. The failure to send Joanne Latham and Vicky Thompson, two trans women, to female prisons was cited as a factor in their deaths in 2015: both apparently committed suicide. Prison reform, LGBT liberation, and mental health support have all been manipulated for political capital when required, yet all remain inadequate. A rainbow flag and proclamation might be appealing symbolic gestures, but those at the margins continue to suffer.

Strangio is unequivocal about the significance of Manning's situation: "What Manning's case shows is that even as we allegedly make progress on trans issues, we do not implement those changes into our carceral systems. Our government essentially says that we will recognise your core humanity and dignity as a woman unless and until you are arrested and taken into custody, at which point we will treat you like a man and deny you the medical care that you need. Then, if you are in distress, we will use that against you to further isolate you and cut you off from the few support systems you have. It is the very definition of cruelty and it is a stark reminder of the very significant work yet to be done on behalf of our incarcerated LGBT community members."

At the intersection of a brutal carceral system, state-sanctioned transphobia, and debilitating failures of the healthcare system to adequately address mental health issues, Chelsea Manning's life hangs in the balance. In his autobiographical novel of 1862, Fyodor Dostoevsky argued that "The degree of civilisation in a society can be judged by entering the prisons." Manning's case leaves a black mark on society, one we should all stand united against. 


Text Edward Siddons

mental health
president obama
chelsea manning
trans movement