Chelsea Manning and the Fear of Trans Bodies

Posters calling for the release of Chelsea Manning are displayed at the San Francisco Pride Parade on June 29, 2014. (Photo: Torbakhopper)Posters calling for the release of Chelsea Manning are displayed at the San Francisco Pride Parade on June 29, 2014. (Photo: Torbakhopper)

On Friday, I spent the day reading lawsuits filed by parents of non-transgender students alleging that the specter of trans bodies in spaces shared with their children infringed their parenting rights as well as the privacy rights of their children. In what can only be described as a cruel set of legal filings, parent groups represented by anti-LGBT legal organization, Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), have escalated their strategic assault on trans existence.

These cases deliberately identify transgender individuals by their sex assigned at birth and use scare quotes to describe our “gender identity” and the fact that we are “transgender.” Demonizing their trans peers and community members, non-transgender students and their parents claim in one lawsuit that the non-transgender “Girl Plaintiffs experience anxiety, stress, humiliation, embarrassment, intimidation, fear, apprehension and distress throughout their day knowing that to obtain an education they must attend to their most personal needs in private facilities unprotected from the entrance, presence, or exposure of a male.”

It is a remarkable and devastating allegation —  that somehow by existing and using spaces designated for girls, girls who are transgender disrupt the safety and education of non-transgender girls. This insidious claim is animating lawsuits across the country as anti-LGBT advocates seek to systemically erode the legal protections that trans individuals have gained over the past decade.

But what about our bodies is so scary? That we may have some physical features that differ from others?

The author with his baby in 2012. (Photo: Courtesy of Chase Strangio)The author with his baby in 2012. (Photo: Courtesy of Chase Strangio)Our opponents make a lot of that but then when confronted with the reality that in restrooms no one is naked, they explain that the privacy interest at stake begins at the restroom door and is infringed by the mere presence of people with different chromosomes or reproductive capacities regardless of any prospect of viewing one’s body or having one’s body viewed by another person. Transparently it isn’t even about our bodies but our very existence.

On their own terms these legal filings are hurtful and dangerous but it is especially painful to read them in the broader context in which we must understand the fear of trans bodies.

Precariously situated trans bodies become exposed and vulnerable to premature death because of the complex and direct ways that they are understood as infringing the rights of others just by being. Death through the interpersonal violence that has killed far too many transgender people each year —  at least 18 this year, almost all trans women and femmes of color. Death by suicide in a cruel and unrelentingly anti-trans world. Death by denial of health care. Death by homelessness. Death by poverty. Death by incarceration.

Following the premature death of Alexis Arquette this past weekend, her siblings wrote, “She fiercely lived her reality in a world where it is dangerous to be a trans person —  a world largely unready to accept differences among human beings, and where there is still the ugliness of violence and hostility towards people that we may not understand.”

But trans people understand this. It is the shame that we hold in our bodies, the fear that we carry down the street or in a doctor’s office, the pain of hearing and reading and feeling that you don’t deserve to be happy, whole, or even alive.

While reading through ADF’s lawsuits last week, I was also thinking about my client and friend, Chelsea Manning, who that day had begun a hunger strike to protest the government’s continued denial of her medical treatment and the ongoing abuses she experienced in custody. [Editor’s note: On September 13, Chelsea Manning ended her hunger strike after the the army agreed to allow her to receive gender transition surgery.]

In a haunting and powerful statement, Chelsea wrote, “I need help. I needed help earlier this year. I was driven to suicide by the lack of care for my gender dysphoria that I have been desperate for. I didn’t get any. I still haven’t gotten any.”

Cut off from the world, Chelsea’s body is one of the few things that she retains agency over to protest the injustice she is forced to endure. The same body, which the government argued “presented unacceptable risk” to the administration of the prison if she were allowed to present herself in the feminine manner that accords with her female gender. The same body that she used to try to end her life in July. The same body that gives hope to so many other bodies because of the bravery she has embodied.

The same body that can’t be touched by visitors or seen by the public.

Stripped of her dignity and withheld medical care, it is her body that has become her tool of resistance.

At the end of her statement, Chelsea writes, “I expect that this ordeal will last for a long time. Quite possibly until my permanent incapacitation or death. I am ready for this.”

In a way, this is the cost of our trans-ness —  the expectation and fear that our demand to live will lead to death. It is a fear that is felt most acutely by those under the direct or indirect control of our carceral regimes —  prisoners, detainees, people of color, immigrants, people with disabilities.

Even as we celebrate the beauty of our bodies, the toll of inhabiting them in this cruel backdrop is always felt. The muscle aches from years of trying to make your body disappear. The physical toll from assaults. The emotional anguish from the shame and fear and relentless reminders that your body is unwelcome, dangerous.

As a community, we navigate, resist and survive these messages. For every ADF lawsuit, there is a counterpoint of beauty and resistance. There are the people who love us. Our community holding each other up. The icons and the caretakers.

Our pain gives way to so much transformation and beauty. So we keep fighting and take stock of the sadness that comes with enduring these attacks.