The Next ‘Last’ Battle

It was, you might say, a slight changing of the subject.

Army Private Bradley Manning, upon being sentenced to 35 years in prison for leaking classified government documents, announced that from this point forward, he wishes to be regarded as a woman and intends to undergo the necessary processes and procedures to make this so.

In truth, this revelation’s timing was more noteworthy than its substance.  It had long been known that Private Manning had a complicated sexual identity.  In 2010, when the WikiLeaks story first broke, his effective status as a gay man in our “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” military added an additional layer of intrigue to the whole saga.

By disclosing his intention to become a woman at the moment he is to begin a lengthy prison term, Manning complicated the matter a bit, as American military prisons are apparently not prepared to grant such a request.  (He did not announce during the trial for fear of it becoming a needless distraction, as it probably would have.)

In any case, the extremely high-profile nature of his situation will make his attempt at gender reassignment uncommonly visible as well.  Purposefully or not, Manning seems to have made himself a poster child for the rights of those who identity as the opposite sex—a fight that will not go away even if Manning does.

I raise this point, in part, because of how the gay marriage movement is regularly referred to by sympathetic voices—so much so that it has become a cliché—as “the last great civil rights struggle in America.”

What a silly thing to say.  As if the moment when all 50 states legalize same-sex marriage will signify the end of all civil rights disparities in the United States.  That nothing else stands in the way of America achieving its objective of treating all of its citizens as equal before the law.

No.  There will always be some group or other that could rightly claim that its members’ rights as free citizens are not being respected or enforced.

And why is that?  Because there will always be prejudices against people we think we don’t understand.

On the subject of addressing civil injustice, we should recognize that it is a battle with two fronts—one is legal, while the other is cultural.

In some cases, advances in the former help to bring about advances in the latter—for instance, the prohibition of slavery proved paramount in enabling white people (albeit not all of them) to recognize black people as their equals—while in other cases, the reverse is true—for instance, the present-day evolution of gay marriage laws is a consequence of the evolution of gay marriage views in the minds of the people.

While the precise intermingling of cultural and legal forces on a particular issue is not always clear, a relationship between the two nearly always exists to some extent.

In the case of the transgender community, it is probably fair to say that the American culture has not yet decided what to think about it.

While there has been a handful of transsexual folks on the pop culture scene in recent years—Cher’s daughter-turned-son Chaz Bono is one; Matrix co-director Lana (formerly Larry) Wachowski is another—the concept is still a fairly mysterious one to most people, and not always for the same reason.

Some are baffled by the very notion that one could possibly identify as the opposite sex, seeing it as unnatural and/or sinful.  Others are not necessarily hostile to the idea but nonetheless cannot quite grasp it.  As was long the case with gays, transsexuals have been culturally invisible; most non-transsexuals have never actually met one (or think they haven’t), and thus have no practical frame of reference.

The antidote to prejudice against the transgendered, then, would be to have more positive role models, which means that those who have kept their sexual identities a secret might want to consider “coming out,” in order to get the ball rolling.

Which returns us to Bradley (or rather, Chelsea) Manning, who is perhaps not quite the role model we had in mind.

Where Manning might prove useful is on the legal side of the equation.

Should he and his lawyers proceed to raise hell about a prisoner’s right to be treated according to the sex with which he or she identifies, the broader concerns about the civil rights of transgender people might be given the thorough public hearing they have thus far been denied.

It would be a messy way for the transgender rights movement to get reinvigorated, but then civil rights struggles are rarely clean or easy.

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