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I Know What Chelsea Manning is Going Through

AP Photo/U.S. Army

Give Chelsea Manning a medal and some estrogen. She deserves the medal, not a jail term. And as a New Woman, she deserves the inexpensive hormones and surgery to get there. Relax. It’s no big deal. It’s not a threat to the family or to the American way of life. It’s about 100 percent American liberty—as was her free speech exposing the government’s malfeasance.

I speak as a New Woman myself, class of 1995. As Donald until age 53, I was not a sad sack, but I’m happier now. My presentation and my spirit are closer together than they were before I became Deirdre. (Read all about it in Crossing: A Memoir, a New York Times notable book in 1999.) I wasn’t gay, I was transgendered. It wasn’t about whom I loved but about who I wanted to be. In the usual way, as a boy and man, I loved women, and one in particular for a third of a century. The quickie analysis of transgender identity as “a woman in a man’s body,” is silly. As a guy, I was a guy, with guy loves and passions: assertion, the Chicago Bears, English cricket. (I still have that one.) There was nothing false about my love for my wife and children.

The longing was separate, and suppressed. It’s that I wanted to be a woman, the way you might want to be a lawyer or be French. I longed for it from age eleven on, but in the benighted 1950s there was nothing to be done. So I accepted with reasonably good grace being a guy, a football player, a husband and father—a macho guy, by the reduced standards of the academic life I entered. I set aside the longing. People can do that, adjusting, substituting, compensating. Manning joined the Army to show her masculinity. I knew someone who volunteered for three tours of duty in Vietnam as a tunnel rat, the most dangerous assignment, to rid herself of her longing to change gender. One suppresses it. I believed for decades that I was “just” a cross-dresser, occasionally, very much in private. Again, no big deal. Lots of men have little sexual peculiarities, my wife and I agreed, and cross-dressing is one of the commoner ones, something like one in 100 guys. Lots of engineers are cross-dressers, with no desire to change gender. Chelsea Manning and I are different, one in 400 or so.

How strong is Chelsea Manning’s longing? Here’s how strong. In 1995, when I first decided to transition, I expected to lose everything—my scholarly career, my job at the University of Iowa, my beloved birth family, my beloved friends, my beloved marriage family. Everything. Yet from that day in August 1995 when I finally twigged, I was willing to give it all up. As it worked out, I lost only my marriage family—my former wife and my children haven’t spoken to me since 1995, and I’ve not met my three grandchildren, sufficient punishment perhaps. In other words, it’s not a whim, or a fashion.

Though gender choice is not the same as being homosexual, gender crossers and gays have the same critics. Our friends the homophobes think that people “become” gay, probably because the clothes and the parties are better. The trans-phobes who clot up the commentaries on the Manning story have a similar theory. You bloody queer. You traitor. Rot in hell, or in this case, the men’s side of the prison. They don’t want anyone to have a free choice if it is an unusual choice or if they don’t understand it or it freaks them out. Like the old laws against blacks and whites marrying, my harmless gender change is to be subject to your notion of what is acceptable: no hormones, no nose job, no Orange is the New Black prison.

Chelsea is not going to get from the prison system anything like the treatment that I was able to buy for myself—a nose job, new plumbing. You want to depend on the market, not majority opinion, if you want to do something unusual. Opinion in United States is layered. About trans rights or religious convictions or the duties of patriotism some Americans live at the top, in 2013. A few very cool people live outside the layers entirely, in 2020. Others are down a few layers, at the 2000 level, say, well before the sweet movie Transamerica with Felicity Huffman told it spot on. Or at the 1990 level, before Oprah started airing shows every year dedicated to gender crossing.

The military is down at about 1980, before gay rights became routine, struggling to get to where the Israeli army was long ago. And you can imagine how deep the U.S. military prison system is. Maybe around 1950, before Christine Jorgenson became the first well-known person to undergo sex-reassignment surgery (“GI Becomes Blond Bombshell”), when even homosexuality was being “cured” by psychiatrists with electric shock therapy.

But in all seriousness, what exactly is the worry about Manning’s decision to transition? One less male prisoner, one more female. It’s not as if massive numbers of Leavenworth penitentiary attendees are going to demand the same treatment. And hormones and a nose job and some plumbing surgery is pretty cheap, costing less than a low-end new car. When I see new cars on the street I wonder, “Gee, why didn’t they get a gender change? Oh, yeah, they don’t want it!”

That’s what the liberating 1960s were about. You can identify a certain type of conservative by his hostile attitude toward the decade in which women, gays, blacks, colonial people, and the handicapped started to be treated the same way as men, straights, whites, imperialists, and fully abled folk. On that score I’m a liberal. Treating people with dignity is the first requirement. Let Chelsea be Chelsea.

Deidre N. McCloskey teaches economics, history, English, and communication at the University of Illinois at Chicago.