Access to transition-related healthcare for trans inmates, like Chelsea Manning, is an extremely pressing issue. I’m grateful that I was once again given the chance to draw attention to this injustice on CNN today:
Aug 24 2013
Aug 23 2013
Guest post by Heather McNamara
To whom it may concern:
My name is Heather McNamara. My fiancée, Lauren McNamara, was a confidante of Chelsea Manning’s and testified in her trial. As such, Lauren was recently interviewed by Jake Tapper on The Lead and will be appearing again tomorrow morning on New Day Saturday.
During Lauren’s interview on The Lead, Mr. Tapper explained that CNN would be referring to Chelsea Manning by her former name Bradley and using male pronouns until such a time as her name is officially changed and her physical transition process has begun. NPR made similar decisions, and it is my understanding that this has led to some backlash from transgender people concerned that this is disrespectful of Chelsea Manning and her gender.
Mr. Tapper explained to me that CNN is interested in being sensitive to the LGBT community and certainly intended no harm, but that it is difficult to understand the needs of a largely invisible minority and what constitutes respect. I believe that CNN has the LGBT community’s best interests in mind, and it is my hope that I can assist in shedding some light on some simple strategies for demonstrating respect to trans people.
While trans identities can seem difficult to understand at first, it can actually be made quite simple. Mr. Tapper expressed to me that it may be confusing for CNN’s audience to comprehend an abrupt change from two years of news coverage as Bradley Manning to Chelsea Manning. There’s nothing disrespectful about being confused by a sudden name change. It may assist viewers’ understanding to refer to her as “Chelsea” and add the caveat “formerly known as Bradley Manning” while people continue to learn her new name. This proclamation and clarification will remove the necessity of continuing to refer to Chelsea as “he” and “him.”
Where further questions arrive, it can sometimes be helpful to imagine replacing words associated with gender with words associated with sexual orientation to determine whether a statement or policy would be offensive. For example: Mr. Tapper said that Lauren was “once a gay man.” Although gay people may have gone through a time in their lives where they formed heterosexual relationships before coming out, they are no less gay for having done so. Ellen DeGeneres went to prom with a boy, but it would be disrespectful to refer to her as once having been a straight woman.
The societal understanding is that there is so much pressure on gay people to be straight or keep it secret that it is difficult for them to understand their identities and be open about them immediately. The same is true for trans people. Chelsea has not changed. The only thing that has changed is that she is now presenting outwardly as the person she has always been within. Further, we prefer “trans” or “transgender” to be used as adjectives rather than nouns. “A gay” would be bad form, and so would “a trans.” “A lesbian” continues to be the only exception to this rule.
Waiting for Chelsea to achieve a legal name change and physical transition, including hormone treatment and possible surgery, is unnecessary and inhumane. The military currently refuses to treat transgender people with hormone replacement therapy and/or surgery. In any case, that line is arbitrary. There is good reason that trans people consider coming out to be the only step necessary to command respect of their genders.
At what point would her hormone replacement be considered sufficient? When a blood test showed her testosterone as sufficiently repressed? Or not until surgery? Only one in five trans women get sex reassignment surgery, and even fewer trans men – only one in 26. The surgery is prohibitively expensive and can lead to complications. At what point would she be considered to be presenting as a woman? When she wears make-up and dresses? And if I wear pants and no make-up, am I therefore presenting as a man? Would it then be acceptable to call me “he?” I hope you can understand that, under scrutiny, it becomes significantly more confusing to deny a trans person’s gender than to accept it.
As Lauren mentioned on Mr. Tapper’s show, 41% of transgender people will attempt suicide at some point in their lives. Social ostracism and denial of agency can and do seriously harm people. CNN’s anchors’ word choice will make a difference in how the public understands and discusses transgender people. Setting an example of respect and dignity will change the lives of trans people everywhere for the better.
CNN would not be alone. In fact, if these changes are not made, CNN may be left in the dust. Since speaking with Mr. Tapper this afternoon, MSNBC, Slate, Huffington Post, and NPR have all agreed to refer to Chelsea by her chosen name and female pronouns. It’s too late to take the lead, but it’s not too late to catch up.
Thank you for your consideration.
Heather McNamara writes about indie literature, politics, and civil rights at HeatherMcNamara.net.
Aug 22 2013
Today, Private Chelsea Manning came out, and I had the opportunity to inform viewers about the importance of treatment for transgender people.
Despite the misgendering, I’m very glad I could let people know why this matters, and I intend to keep fighting for Chelsea.
Aug 22 2013
Guest post by Heather McNamara
10:00 a.m.: fiancee Lauren McNamara texts me at work that she will be doing some interviews on CNN today about Chelsea Manning, who came out this morning.
10:00:01 a.m.: I tell everyone within earshot that my famous awesome beautiful amazing brilliant genius girlfriend is going to be on television.
12:30 p.m.: Lunch time. I tell some other people. My friends hide faces/walk away embarrassed that I’m admitting out loud to people outside of our circle of trust that my girlfriend is trans.
1:00p.m.-3:00p.m.: television at office plays Chelsea Manning story on loop; news anchors asking “hard-hitting” questions like whether those poor taxpayers might have to pay for Chelsea’s medical care.
4:10 p.m.: at doctor’s office with sons. CNN plays on TV. Lauren, my children’s stepmom, comes on TV. Two people in the waiting room snort and laugh. I ask if they think transgender people are funny. They laugh and stare at their laps. One of them says “Yeah.” I reply “assholes.”
4:11 p.m.: CNN news anchor continually calls Chelsea “he” and “him” and postulates that Lauren, too, was “once a gay man.”
5:00 p.m.: Arrive home. Cousin’s wife on Facebook has posted a status about how horrifying it is that her daughter has to share a bathroom with “a confused boy” at school. No really. I am not making this up.
6:00 p.m.: I call my counselor for a session.
Heather McNamara writes about indie literature, politics, and civil rights at HeatherMcNamara.net.
Aug 18 2013
I recently decided to begin working towards obtaining a bilateral orchiectomy, one of the many surgeries available to transgender women. This refers to the permanent removal of both testes, while leaving the penis intact. It’s also known as an orchi (rhymes with “Yorkie”), castration, or in animals, neutering. In short, it’s the polite term for having your balls cut out.
One of the first questions I’m often asked about this, particularly by people who value their testes, is “dear god why!?” For most ball-owners, it seems that few things provoke a more visceral reaction than the prospect of losing them. But this is a valid question – it’s worth exploring what exactly this surgery does, the role it plays in transitioning, and why I’ve decided that this is right for me.
How HRT works
This will be a significant milestone for me: the first surgery I’ll be having as part of my transition. And while that is a big step, I tend to think of it as simply being an extension of hormone replacement therapy, which is the only medical procedure I’ve had so far. HRT for trans women generally includes supplemental estrogen, as well as anti-androgen drugs to suppress testosterone. These anti-androgens are designed to shut down the production of testosterone, block its action at receptors, or prevent it from being converted into more potent forms. This clears the way for estrogen to produce physical feminization more effectively.
However, anti-androgens do have side effects. One common drug causes frequent urination, and can theoretically result in dangerously high potassium levels, although this almost never happens. Others have been associated with a small risk of liver toxicity. Overall, there’s little data available on the effects of using them for several decades.
Removing the testes eliminates the main source of testosterone – but as long as I still have them, I’ll need to monitor my testosterone to make sure it’s being adequately suppressed by anti-androgens. Furthermore, if I ever went off HRT for any reason, its feminizing effects would largely be reversed as my body began to produce normal male levels of testosterone again. My breasts would shrink away, my body hair would grow back thicker and darker, my skin would become rougher and more oily, my hairline would recede and male-pattern baldness could set in, my sex drive would become uncomfortably active again, my face would lose much of its feminine aspects, my facial hair would start to spread, my body would return to a more masculine shape, and all of these effects of testosterone would continue to accumulate as I aged.
What an orchi would change
An orchi can largely prevent this from ever happening. After having my testes removed, my testosterone levels would fall to within a normal female range – possibly even lower, due to the absence of any testosterone production from ovaries. This effect would be permanent, so there would no longer be any need for anti-androgens, and no risk of physical regression or re-masculinization due to uncontrolled testosterone.
At that point, the only HRT regimen I’d need would consist of estrogen and possibly progesterone. This would also permit me to lower my dose of estrogen, which reduces the risk of potentially life-threatening blood clots. If I ever did have to stop HRT, the regression of feminine features would be minimal, similar to that experienced by cis women during menopause. Practically speaking, an orchi would effectively lock in the feminizing effects of HRT.
Still, lacking any testes or ovaries would leave me dependent on supplemental sex hormones for the rest of my life, in order to avoid symptoms such as bone loss. At this point, I’m pretty comfortable with that degree of commitment. I’ve been on HRT for almost a year now, and even if I didn’t get an orchi, I would still need to keep taking it indefinitely in order to continue transitioning. By now, I’ve become accustomed to this as a part of my life.
I don’t intend to go back, so realistically, this isn’t a choice between needing medication or not. Rather, it’s a choice between needing more medication or less. And crucially, it means choosing between remaining in a limbo state of perpetually staving off masculinization, or making these changes more permanent and resilient.
Why not vaginoplasty?
Some people have asked why I wouldn’t instead choose to have a vaginoplasty, commonly known as sex reassignment surgery, or SRS. During SRS, the penile and scrotal tissue are used to create a vulva and a vagina. When people say “the surgery”, this is the one they’re talking about.
It’s usually easy for people to understand why a trans woman would want a vagina – they can recognize that, as women, we want this to be a part of our bodies. So it can sometimes be puzzling to them when we don’t, especially given that an orchi doesn’t do anything to align my genitals with normative female standards, and even takes them further away from normative male standards. Quite simply, I’ve taken the benefits and risks into account, and I’m not ready to have SRS at this time. While I’m certainly curious about what it would be like to have a vagina, it’s not something I have a particularly strong need for.
I’m comfortable with the way my genitals currently function, and SRS would alter that significantly, with a potential risk of losing sensation and the ability to orgasm. There are also a number of serious complications that can occur, and revision surgeries are often necessary. If SRS were perfect, I’d be much more willing to have it done. But as is, I personally don’t consider it worth the risk of compromising what I have now. This is just my own evaluation of my options – something that each person has to decide for themselves.
On the other hand, an orchi is a much simpler surgery in almost every way. It doesn’t involve repurposing the genitals to change their function or create a whole new organ – there’s no delicate crafting involved. Instead, it’s the relatively straightforward removal of two small bits of tissue that are just hanging out there, waiting to be excised. SRS is a highly specialized operation, uncommon enough that the surgeons who make a career of it are very well-known to trans women. These specialists are scattered around the world: getting SRS with your surgeon of choice can mean traveling across the country, or to the other side of the planet. And because it’s such a unique form of reconstructive surgery, it can cost $10-20,000, usually out-of-pocket.
An orchi is a relatively routine and commonplace procedure with a low risk of complications. It’s likely performed for more cis men than trans women, and there are many more surgeons in everyday hospitals who can do it safely and effectively – you don’t have to travel to Thailand to find someone who can give you the perfect orchi. It’s a minor operation using a small incision and local anesthetic, and many trans women report staying awake for the entire surgery. The recovery time is only a week or two. And given that it doesn’t require such detailed work, it can be obtained for as little as $2,500 in some areas.
Furthermore, this is not an either-or decision. Having an orchi still leaves open the choice to have SRS in the future – the testes are not a crucial component of vaginoplasty, and they’re discarded during the procedure. Some surgeons prefer not to perform SRS after an orchi, and others will charge more for it, but it is possible. And post-operative HRT regimens are essentially the same whether you’ve had an orchi or SRS. Right now, I’m not pursuing this, so an orchi will give me the hormone-related benefits without requiring me to have such a major operation.
My priorities in transitioning
I should emphasize that I personally find the whole-body changes induced by HRT to be much more important than obtaining a vagina. People tend to reduce all of transitioning to being solely about correcting your genitals, as if that’s the entirety of what a “sex change” is. And yes, for many trans women, having a vagina is a priority. But there’s still much more to this than rearranging small pieces of flesh that most people will never even see.
Over the past year, I’ve been amazed to discover that HRT changes almost everything. It’s changed the way my face looks, how my body is shaped, the way I move, my hair, my skin, and my physical strength. It’s also changed how I experience the world, my emotions, and even sex. My body and my mind feel so much more right for me, and this has improved my life in nearly every respect. It’s fixed whatever was missing for me, and for the first time, everything matters and I can actually find a reason to care about things. My life is worth living now. Without question, this has made me more complete as a person.
This isn’t like putting on makeup – this has fundamentally changed my physical presence in the world. I consider these changes to be integral to who I am now, and I don’t ever want to lose them. As I move forward in life, it’s very important to me to ensure that these effects will become a permanent part of myself – that’s my priority. An orchi will give me that certainty, and if I ever do feel the need to get a vagina, that option will be available as well.
Some people have wondered how an orchi would affect sexual functioning, and a few were apparently under the impression that erection and orgasm are impossible without testes. However, that’s not really how that works, for cis men or for trans women. I should note that HRT has already reduced my testosterone to the levels I would have after an orchi – essentially, I’ve already been “chemically castrated”.
Those levels will be the same both pre-op and post-op, and the sexual effects of this are likely to be similar as well. Every trans woman experiences sex differently, but for me, this already hasn’t compromised my ability to orgasm – if you really must know. And, well, let’s just say it’s not all about erections anymore.
Others have asked if I’ve banked sperm prior to this. I haven’t, and I don’t intend to. HRT has already made me practically infertile, and I would have to go off it for several months to have even a chance of regaining some fertility. In that time, most of the feminizing changes would be reversed, which is exactly what I want to avoid. If you had been in my shoes, and experienced all the differences between living with testosterone and replacing it with estrogen, trust me: you wouldn’t want to go back, ever.
I also don’t personally consider it very important to pass on my genes, and I never intended to have biological children anyway. I already have two wonderful stepkids, and they’re the best in the world – they’re all I need. For me, reproducing isn’t a big deal, and I really don’t mind if my gametes are forever erased from existence.
Some have questioned whether being hit or kicked in the area hurts as much after an orchi. I’ve asked other trans women who’ve had an orchi, and they report that being hit in the balls doesn’t hurt when you have no balls. Personally, I’m looking forward to having this glaring vulnerability fixed.
Most interestingly, some people have asked whether I’ll get to keep them after they’ve been removed. And some surgeons do let you take them home! I figure we’ll preserve them in a jar, display it on our bookshelves, and use it as a weird prop for videos. (Anyone who knows what chemicals and processes are necessary to do this, hit me up.)
Where we stand now
At this point, I’m highly certain that an orchi is right for me. I’ve been seriously considering it for several months, and during that time, I’ve only become more comfortable with the possibility. I’ve never particularly valued these organs, nor are they a necessary or important part of my self-concept. Beyond just a weighing of benefits and risks, I’ve reached a point where I’m happy to regard them as merely a temporary part of my body. I don’t feel I’ll regret permanently separating them from myself.
Nevertheless, I’ll still have plenty more time to think it over – there’s a lot of work to be done. I have to obtain the necessary referral letters, find a surgeon, and see if there’s any way my insurance could cover some or all of the costs. As I don’t yet know how this will turn out, I’ve made a goal of saving $4,000 to cover medical expenses, travel, time off work, and other incidentals. While this is a substantial amount, I’m aiming to have an orchi before the end of next year.
Those are the parameters. I’m making this happen, and I’ll continue to keep you all updated on how it goes. Wish me luck!
Aug 15 2013
After reading Suzanne Moore’s only-half-serious advice on owning a penis, and fellow FTBer Ally Fogg’s insights on the relationship between men’s penises and society, I had an odd feeling that something was left out. Sure, their musings on the “male organ” were entertaining, but still somewhat limited in one important respect: they focused solely on men’s penises.
Now, I know a lot of people see these as inseparable, a perfect tautology of gender and anatomy. Men have penises, and people with penises are men. It’s an elegant notion, but one which fails to reflect the complex realities of today. Let’s face it – some women have penises, too. And that can be a pretty serious situation to find yourself in. What exactly are you supposed to do with your penis when you’re a woman?
Yes, men are the vast majority of the audience for penis-related advice, given that most penis-owners are still men (at least until we implement our secret plan to dump finasteride into the water supply). And I’m sure they’re very much in need of these man-centric tips. But contrary to mainstream perceptions, we members of Club Ladycock face a very different range of penile challenges.
People like to assume that our bodies are still essentially men’s bodies, and therefore work the same way. However, as any trans woman can tell you, this just isn’t the case. From social situations to sex to surgery, the standard dudely dick dilemmas simply aren’t all that relevant to our lives. So, for the sake of my fellow trans ladies (but mostly for any confused cis onlookers), I’ve assembled my own 10 semi-serious tips for wrangling a girl penis.
1. Tuck that thing. Conceal any trace of its existence at all times, leaving no hint of what’s in your pants. Too-tight panties, taping it between your thighs, twice as many layers of clothing as anyone else might wear – whatever it takes. Sure, guys get to walk around all day with their insubstantial crotch bulges, and no one gives them any crap for having outward-facing bits that take up space. But, much like how leg and underarm hair magically becomes unhygienic when it’s on women, the mere presence of a girlbulge will make people freak right the hell out. As the Montana Meth Project would say: Pushing your testes up into your abdomen and keeping them there for hours isn’t normal – but when you’re trans, it is.
2. Never go to pools or the beach. So you like swimming? Found a really nice bathing suit? Too bad. Tucking in everyday life is one thing – now try managing that in a crowded, wet environment where highly-gendered tight clothing is the norm. All the tape in the world won’t help you now, and society’s inability to comprehend or accept non-normative bodies is especially magnified when a woman quite visibly has something extra in her bikini. Potential means of mitigating this issue: skirtinis; burqinis; martinis.
3. Speaking of spaces with no room for non-normative bodies: never, ever use locker rooms. Any of them. Take tips 1 and 2, add enclosed spaces, and multiply by nudity – what do you get? A level 7 disaster on the International Ladydick Event Scale. Much like gendered swimwear, locker rooms leave little possibility of compromise. Either you’ll be taking your breasts into the men’s room, or you’ll be bringing your penis to the women’s room.
I’ve actually asked some ignorant assholes what they expect us to do in that situation, and once they understand the paradox, it basically breaks their brains. People generally don’t seem to be prepared to accept either of these choices – not without blowing it up into a non-troversy for the Daily Mail. Yeah, you just wanted to shower and change like everyone else there, but apparently the cis world can’t allow that.
4. Don’t even dare to expect that anyone could ever find your body desirable. Sure, in a world where people have gotten past the fear of being “gay”, and the realities of transgender existence are accurately taught from a young age without stigma or ridicule, there might be vastly fewer people who reject us outright as partners. In a time when people can accept that some of us simply have different bodies with different origins and a different shape, they might be somewhat less reluctant to get into bed with a woman and her penis.
But, for the love of estrogen, don’t ever say that out loud. Don’t even suggest that the kinds of women people say they like are anything other than sacrosanct, forever untainted by societal norms and common prejudice. Don’t expect them to reexamine their assumptions about who and what we are. And, boy howdy, don’t ever express your discontent with people largely viewing your transness as something that marks you as inherently unfuckable.
Straight cis men will call you “deceptive” for not outing yourself the moment they start flirting with you. Bonus boner tip for the guys: don’t blame us when your dick doesn’t cooperate with your transphobia. Shitty fringe feminists will call you “rapey” for daring to be a woman at all and not wanting to be desexualized and degendered and treated like a dude (or in the case of trans guys, treated like a butch lesbian). “Rapey” is a favorite metaphor of transphobes – it’s kind of like rape except for the part where no one is raped and none of us are actually doing anything to them, but it has the word “rape” in it, so knock it off you rapist. Best to settle for chasers whose entire knowledge of “chicks with dicks” comes from degrading mainstream pornography.
5. Cut it off. Much like trimming the tops of onion plants, this will cause the remaining stub to grow into a fully-formed vulva. I think? At least, that’s what people keep telling me.
6. Just kidding – better start saving up now. Assuming you’re not in a country with civilized healthcare and your insurance doesn’t cover it (and really, whose does?), a new vulva can set you back $20,000 or more depending on your choice of flesh-artist. Hooray, you’ve purchased the legitimacy of your gender in the eyes of the public, maybe kinda sorta if they’re feeling like it today. Who else gets the privilege of paying thousands of dollars just to go swimming again? Of course, it still won’t keep anyone from calling you “rapey”.
7. “Keep it in shape.” Bluntly, this is our euphemism for regularly masturbating to avoid penile atrophy prior to surgery. See, when your testosterone is chemically suppressed (or just gone, if you already got rid of your girlballs), you tend to stop getting spontaneous erections – the kind that happen on their own while you sleep, and sometimes during the day. On the bright side, morning wood is pretty much a solved problem. Still, even when we intentionally try to make it happen, it won’t always cooperate as easily. And mentally, many of us lose much of our sexual drive and interest. After a lifetime of having to deal with this obnoxious and uncomfortable testosterone-fueled urge, it can be a huge relief once we can just ignore it indefinitely. (That’s a pretty big difference between owning a penis when cis or trans – fearing impotence, versus enjoying every minute of it.)
Unfortunately, general lack of use can supposedly cause some degree of long-term shrinkage, which is undesirable if you intend to have the tissue repurposed into a vulva. For this reason, a lot of trans women feel it’s necessary to use it regularly even if you don’t feel like it. In reality, there doesn’t actually seem to be any hard data on this – some women who’ve made sure to “maintain” theirs have still needed additional skin grafts; others who’ve mostly disregarded theirs haven’t needed anything extra. Which basically makes it more of a superstitious ritual than anything. But just to be on the safe side…
8. Seriously, take some time to get reacquainted with it. People see what’s on the outside and assume we’re identical to men – even some of us make the same mistake. Getting off should be as simple as it always was, right? Not anymore. The truth is that running estrogen on unlicensed hardware can scramble almost every aspect of sexual response. Things just don’t work the way they used to: orgasms change or disappear, your whole body reacts to touch in different ways, and the entire structure of arousal-erection-climax may break down. Traditional techniques might not cut it anymore, and new approaches can be non-obvious. It can take a lot of practice to figure out what to do with it now, but you can speed things up with a Magic Wand and a copy of Fucking Trans Women #0.
9. Do come up with fun names for it! Sure, it’s not like it necessarily needs a proper first name (Barbara? Michelle, maybe?), but there’s nothing wrong with breaking out of the common “dick” and “penis” vocabulary. Those tend to be so strongly associated with men that using them in reference to a woman’s body can just feel strange and uncomfortable. So get creative! Try “girlcock”, or even “jane”. “Clit” is a particular favorite, given that it already refers to female genitals, and both organs initially develop from the same anatomy anyway. It also has the added bonus of pissing off all the assholes who insist “if you have a penis you’re a man because you have a penis because you’re a man because…” Use “she” pronouns for your clit for extra awesomeness.
10. Fuck everything, do whatever the hell you want and don’t ever be ashamed. Toss the tape and rock that bulge. Wear your new bikini to the beach and dare anyone to say a word. Find someone who respects you and your girldick. Let it atrophy into something adorable. Take your $20,000 and travel the world. Call it Nadine and make little ballet outfits for it. At the end of the day, you’re not the one who needs to be told how to deal with your penis. You already know what to do with it. Society, sadly, still doesn’t.
Aug 06 2013
I keep a personal Tumblr for notes on my daily experiences while transitioning, as well as timeline photos documenting my physical development. Recently, an anonymous reader asked why I would keep such a history. This is my reply.
Anonymous asked: Wouldn’t most trans people not want to keep records of their transition? I mean, isn’t that like proving “you’re not really a woman, see, here’s an old picture of you” by reliving your transition? If I was trans I would think I wouldn’t want to be reminded that I was once a male.
Personally, speaking solely about my own experiences and feelings, I don’t agree with this at all.
Yes, some or many trans people prefer that their gender history remain firmly in the past. There are a lot of us who just want to get it done and move on without it being brought up, and without being reminded of it. Most of the time, I too would prefer it not be an issue.
It’s not something that needs to come up when I’m buying groceries, meeting other parents when out with the kids, and so on. It can be obnoxious when others try to bring it up in irrelevant contexts. And, yeah, I know a lot of trans people who are pretty averse to seeing their own pretransition photos, or anyone’s – it’s not something they want to be reminded of.
But the presence or absence of photos and records won’t change the reality of my history. The fact is that, for 23 years of my life, I did have a body with male-typical features, and I still have a few of them even after transitioning. Being reminded that I “was once a male”? I call that “looking down”. Photos and records pale in significance next to the experience of living in this body.
I’ve been in it my whole life, through all of its different stages. Trying to erase photos seems futile – more than just photos, I have memories, experiences, feelings. Whether there’s an old photo of me out there or not… I still remember who I was. So having to see old pictures of myself is quite a minor concern – either way, I’ll still have the memories of being that person, which are much more vivid, thorough, and full of emotion than a simple photo.
And I don’t want to forget who I was. That phase of my life is an enormous part of my history. It constitutes the majority of my existence up until now. Yes, there were difficult times, and things I’ve done my best to forget and move on from.
But I don’t feel my life up until now is disposable. This wasn’t some bad dream that I only recently woke up from. It was real, and I can’t deny that. As hard as it might have been, it was not devoid of any value. I was still a human being. I was making the most of my life, just as I am now. And even in those times, there was much worth remembering.
I also have to recognize that, during that time, I did genuinely believe I was male. It may have been an incorrect belief, it may have stemmed from my confusion of the absence of a strongly female identity with the presence of a male identity… but I did believe it.
That’s also a fact of my history, and something that can hardly be erased by deleting a photo. There were many years when I thought of myself as male, presented as male, and didn’t pursue a better option or even realize there was a realistic alternative. That was just who I was at the time. I don’t see any need to shy away from that, or deny it.
More importantly, my personal gender history, whether seen or unseen, doesn’t invalidate my womanhood. It’s completely understandable why many of us keep this to ourselves and don’t tell most people. We still live in a society where “trans woman” is taken to mean “not really a woman” or “actually a man”. We don’t want that knowledge of our history to get in the way of us being seen as who we are now. We don’t want our genders to come with an asterisk attached. We don’t want it to be the first thing people see us as, when they think about us.
But that’s their problem – not mine. Being trans and having a history as “a guy”, and being a woman, should not be incompatible. Being trans doesn’t mean you’re not a woman. I have friends, co-workers, family, my partner, my children, so many people in my life who know that I’m trans, and are still capable of recognizing my womanhood. For them, my transness doesn’t get in the way of my womanhood. It doesn’t preclude my existence as a woman, or diminish it in any way. So what excuse does anyone else have to deny what I am?
Further, I find transitioning to be fascinating from an experiential, philosophical, and scientific perspective. This isn’t something that most people will go through in their lives. It’s also something I’m only going to experience once, and I feel it’s important to make note of every little moment. It’s rare, and fleeting, and extraordinary.
Keep in mind that medical transition, as we now know it, is barely a century old, if that. We’re still at the very beginnings of transition treatment. And there’s often no other way to learn about the current process in detail except by experiencing it firsthand. Most available research has to do with hormone levels and surgery results and complications of treatment. But there’s much less information about the day-to-day mental changes that trans people can experience, or the specifics of how our breasts develop, or simply what it will feel like.
For that reason, I believe documenting my transition can serve as a useful resource for other trans women. When I was first considering whether to start treatment, and then decided I would, I still had very little idea what I was getting into. Yes, there are the broad strokes: you’ll grow breasts, your sex drive will change, you’ll probably feel better…
But that didn’t really answer the question of what it would be like. And now that I’ve been through this myself, I realize that such vague information is like being shown only a single frame of an entire movie. How will my breasts develop? How fast? What will they look like and feel like? How will my sex drive change? How will I adjust to that? Will I like it? How are my moods going to change? Is it really such a big change? Will I be the same person? When it comes to these specific questions, there’s still so little information available. And I believe trans people deserve better. To that end, I’ve tried to explain and describe and capture these things in as much detail and depth as possible, just so the world can have some better sense of what this whole experience is like. Sharing our experiences, and finding points of similarity in our own lives, is incredibly important for trans people. Knowing what to expect, and that someone else out there has been through it, and feels much of the same things you do, is a thing of comfort in what can otherwise be a very uncertain and difficult time.
Most of all, I love that this is happening to me. For me, transitioning has been an experience that’s so extraordinary and affirming and life-changing, I’m thankful every day that this is possible and that it could happen in my life. It’s damn near a miracle that something like this can be done, and all I can do is stare in awe.
I love seeing my body change more and more every day, growing into something that feels like home, even if I’ve never been here before. I love being able to feel things more intensely and deeply than I ever could before, and finally looking out on the world with true happiness, unburdened by any chemical imbalance dragging me down. I love seeing my face turn into something new and unknown and beautiful. I can finally love myself.
When I look back at what I was, I don’t feel it dragging me back. Instead, I see just how far I’ve come. All of this is possible because of the body I once had, the seed for something amazing to grow. All of this is possible because of the person I once was, the one with the courage to survive and figure this out and make it real. I can’t forget that, and I wouldn’t want to.
Aug 03 2013
This piece was originally published on Thought Catalog.
Dear Anonymous, I’m sorry about everything that happened with you and your boyfriend. Anyone would agree that his betrayal and history of lies were unacceptable. Your raw pain at the discovery of his deception is plain to see, and I know it can’t be easy to find out that the one you loved the most was abusing your trust and looking for others to fool around with.
I can especially relate to your despair at knowing that you wouldn’t ever be able to offer what he was covertly seeking elsewhere — that he wanted the kind of person you could never be. It’s not hard to imagine how crushing it was to realize that the fact of your partner’s desires made any compromise impossible here.
Except if you think that’s difficult, try being a woman with a dick.
‘Cause I do mean a literal dick, not just some lowlife who’s always looking for escorts when you’re out of town. That’s right, I’m “a transsexual” (as they say among your people), just like the trans women your boyfriend was downloading porn of and trying to meet for casual sex.
I can assure you it was an utter delight to see that on the very same day I had written about the unrealistic perceptions of trans women in society, you chose to dehumanize us flagrantly and repeatedly while telling the tale of your boyfriend’s indiscretions. Evidently, chastising him for his callous relationship-destroying behavior wasn’t enough. You needed the extra bit of unique attention that can only come from indulging the public’s ever-present obsession with strange, taboo, scandalous “transsexuals.”
So what started as a relationship problem between two cis people — that means you unlucky folks who don’t get to be trans — ended up as yet another story where women like me are needlessly depicted as barely-human sex objects with gross, incomprehensible bodies. Make no mistake, I know you’re really torn up at how his sexual fixations came between the two of you, and it shows. I get what it’s like to fear that your partner wants a type of body you simply don’t have. As a fully penis-equipped woman, trust me, I know.
Situations like this can be tragic and heartbreaking. That being said: Go fuck yourself.
Certainly your boyfriend chose to be evasive and defensive about his trans porn because he knew this was the particular area in which he was secretly pursuing sex. And maybe he also knew that there was something different about this, something that set it apart from the cis porn of blondes and cheerleaders which you seemingly had no issue with.
Ultimately, he had absorbed all the inconsistent messages from wider society that subtly teach us to see trans women as both fetish objects for the pleasure of men, and as disgusting freakish men who implicitly threaten the heterosexuality of any man who lays eyes on us (let alone constantly downloads porn of us). And he knew that you, too, had received those same messages from our culture, and would see his trans porn habit in that light.
Me, I find it amusing to think that my partner and I would ever start questioning the other’s sexual identity upon finding that they had been looking at (gasp!) cis porn. But in keeping with our world’s continued inability to decide what trans women even are, you took this opportunity to engage in a typically ignorant dissection of our genders, our bodies, and precisely how gay your boyfriend is now.
On that note, let’s get one thing straight: He’s a guy who likes women, such as yourself, the partners he’s had before you, cis women in porn, and also women who are trans. You know what we call a guy who likes women and not men? Sorry to suck all the ill-gotten queerphobic fun out of publicly suggesting he’s a homo, but there’s no need for you to describe him as “otherwise straight.” He’s not straight with a twist of queer — just regular, boring Straight Classic. And he will be until he starts trying to get with other men. There’s a reason he was the “M looking for a T” and not the M looking for an M.
And if the presence of a penis in his porn still gives you pause, take a closer look at the “blondes and cheerleaders” portion of his collection. You might find that the dull cis-only titles you first neglected to scrutinize are in fact home to all manner of massive, erect penises. Thick, hard penises, up close and personal — it’s pretty much a fixture of mainstream porn intended for straight men. No, I don’t really understand it either.
Nevertheless, I’d invite you to think about how shifting said penises to women rather than men could possibly make the porn or its viewers more gay. You might call us “transsexual men,” but if you’re really concerned about his hetero-integrity, I’m pretty sure we’re still preferable to him jerking it to cis men.
By the way, thanks for saying we’re “men.” I’m sure that’ll come as news to my lesbian fiancee, who’d had quite enough of men after the first two decades of her life. While it’s pretty tasteless and tacky of you to try and police how “muscular” a woman can be before she doesn’t “look like” a woman anymore, I’d love to see what you would make of us — the short, skinny chick whose muscles have melted away after a year of high-dose estrogen, and the butch Viking goddess who towers several inches over me and has been known to lift me above her head whenever she feels like it.
What exactly do you think it means to “look like women?” And which of us has the “parts of men” according to your stereotype-addled worldview? Because I don’t think you have the slightest idea. Cis or trans, butch or femme, hulked-out or stick-thin, penis or vagina, we’re all women. So what do women look like? Us.
Yet as you were nearly done excoriating the cheating bastard, you couldn’t resist getting in one final dig at us: your shameless admission to calling us “things.” It’s always nice to be reminded that falling outside the narrow, purist categories of what makes someone a “man” or a “woman” marks me as not even a human being. After all, if you aren’t clearly male or female, you’re just a “thing” lacking any real personhood. Apparently the very substance of what I am places me entirely outside of humankind in your eyes.
And maybe you truly don’t see us as actual people beyond the mythic, sexualized vision of trans women that your boyfriend was obsessed with. But we certainly haven’t made the mistake of thinking of you as little more than a set of naked tits walking around in lucite heels, rather than a whole intelligent person capable of spreading hatred. Meanwhile, you treat us as no more than unnatural, disturbing porn-bodies fit to be called “things”, rather than real people capable of feeling pain.
If you had said this about any other group of people in society just because they happen to be a niche interest in the adult industries — if you had depicted them as insidiously corrupting your boyfriend’s very orientation, questioned whether some aspect of their bodies met your personal standard of womanhood, and concluded that they are more “things” than they are people — this would not be considered suitable for publication in any respectable venue.
But because this is about us, you knew you could get away with that. On the same day you wrote this attack on our humanity, I wrote of my wish that we could have the simple normalcy of being treated like everyday people, even as I recognized this was impossible right now. You’ve proven, yet again, just how far off such a world is for me and my kind. Thanks.
We’re not the ones who are responsible for breaking up your relationship. Still, I’ll give you the same advice your boyfriend should have listened to: Stay the hell away from us.
Jul 30 2013
It’s been weeks since I testified at the court-martial of Private Bradley Manning, and I still don’t know how to explain to anyone what that experience was like. I don’t even know how to feel about what I saw there.
Everything seemed simple before, and now it’s really not. It used to be easy to take a bird’s-eye view of the entire situation. I saw it as some abstract network of people, events, morals, responsibilities, laws, consequences, past, future, the connections between them, and some process of justice or historical consensus that would resolve all this in favor of one definitive outcome or another. It was easy to talk about what Manning did, debate the ethical and legal character of his actions, and calmly contemplate what should happen next.
That was my attitude going into this – there were facts, they would eventually add up to an answer, and I didn’t need to give much thought to anything beyond that. For me, the facts were simple: I had spoken with Manning online for several months in 2009, after he took an interest in my fledgling YouTube channel, and long before his leaks of classified material. His defense team believed our conversations could show that Manning cared about his country and wanted to protect people, contrary to the government’s assertions that he had recklessly placed America and its troops at risk. And so I was called by the defense to testify about what Manning said to me: that he felt he had a great duty to people, and wanted to make sure everyone made it home to their families.
Flying out to Baltimore was disorienting; I hadn’t been apart from my fiancee and our kids for over a year, and now I was on my own in a city I’d never visited before. Still, I took it in stride and tried to think of it as something that was going to happen, something I’d get through no matter how it went, and then it would be over – the same things I would always tell myself before a dental appointment. As if this were no more than some temporary discomfort or inconvenience to my life. I drew on the same strategy I used when nervous about flying, or transitioning, or coming out to my family: pretending that all of this was completely normal to me. Of course, having to pretend meant that it very much was not, but I tried not to think about that.
“Miss McNamara?” Sgt. Valesko, clean-shaven and wearing a sports jersey, recognized me at the baggage claim and introduced himself. He carried my bags outside, where Sgt. Daley was waiting to drive me to my hotel. I joked about the fact that I was quite literally getting a ride in a black government van. As they showed me some landmarks around the area – Costco, Olive Garden, and a high-security prison – we all got to know each other. Daley told me about growing up in Shreveport, attending a superhero-themed wedding in Seattle, and shattering his wrist in a motorcycle accident; I showed him the thick five-inch surgical scar on my abdomen. They thought it was great. It was surprisingly easy to talk to them – they were very friendly, and it really put me at ease, even when I was still struggling to get a handle on everything that was happening.
I was scheduled to have a meeting with Manning’s defense the next day, before they began making their case on Monday. Sgt. Val – everyone called him that – picked me up from the hotel, as well as Capt. Barclay Keay, another witness for the defense. This was my first time at Fort Meade, and it was a subtly disturbing place to be. While there were some features that made it clear this was a very different world, such as entire lots full of giant beige fuel tanks and warnings of barriers that might erupt from beneath the roads, it took me a moment to realize why it felt so wrong. It wasn’t about what was there, but what was missing: variety. Nothing here was out of place.
Unlike the surrounding town outside the barbed-wire fence, there were no irregular trees or overgrown weeds or strangely curved roads. Vast expanses of empty, perfectly maintained grassy fields separated the base’s buildings, nearly all of which were faced in brownstone and looked like they were built in the 1950s or earlier. There were homes here like those in most suburbs, but even the higher-end “mansions,” which Sgt. Val pointed out were for generals and admirals, were absolutely identical and took up no more space than any other house. What looked like a Walmart was simply titled “COMMISSARY” in plain white letters across the side. A lone Burger King sat atop a hill; I almost expected the logo to read “FOOD.”
We soon arrived at the courthouse where the trial had been taking place, a small bland building that gave no indication it had become a site of any historic events. A series of makeshift hallways fashioned from white tents wrapped around the building, blocking any view of its entrances. Sgt. Val guided me and Keay through the maze both outside and inside the building, and we eventually reached the courtroom itself. No one else was there today, but we didn’t have to wait long before we were approached by Capt. Angel Overgaard of the prosecution, a small woman in a sweatshirt with her hair in a tight bun. I was surprised, as I had been rather specifically informed that this would be a meeting with the defense, and I still have to wonder if this was intended to catch us off-guard.
Overgaard chose to talk to me first, and led me to a small private room to discuss my testimony. Just as the defense had previously spoken with me to work out what I would be talking about at the trial, the prosecution now wanted to figure out what they should ask me during cross-examination. The content wasn’t much of a mystery: the only relevant evidence at hand was my online conversations with Manning, which had already been published in their entirety. But unlike the defense, who worked together with me to establish exactly which questions they would ask and how I would reply, the prosecution couldn’t be quite so open about this. As their goal would be to diminish the significance of my testimony, they needed to retain some element of surprise.
Her questions spanned a wide range of topics, and didn’t seem to suggest any larger picture of what approach the prosecution might take when cross-examining me. Starting with the basics – how Manning first contacted me, how he felt about his job as an intelligence analyst, and what his goals and ambitions were – she then moved on to various details of what we talked about. She asked me to explain what the Python programming language was, as well as information theory, the AES algorithm, “Slashda” (by which she meant Slashdot), and Reddit, which she pronounced “read-it.”
These seemed to me like things the prosecution could learn about from a brief session of Googling, and I suspected this much ignorance was a put-on so they could see how I would personally explain such things. I had a nervous sense that they specifically wanted to know what I would say about it, and I wondered how they intended to use all this. It became even more suspicious when she began asking me what WikiLeaks is, when I had first learned about it, what sort of content is on the site, which of their material I had read, and how I believed the organization functions.
As someone who had only visited the site a few times out of curiosity, and didn’t read very many of the cables simply because they were in all caps, I found it almost amusing that she thought I could explain the nature of WikiLeaks in any useful detail. Still, her tone was friendly throughout, even as she was not-so-subtly digging for any answers that could be turned to the prosecution’s advantage. She didn’t feel there was much more to talk about after that, and she led me back to the courtroom to explain how my testimony would proceed tomorrow. I would enter through a side door and walk down the center aisle, where another prosecutor would hand me a water bottle, and I would then approach the witness stand to be sworn in. The prosecution would be in front of me on the left, and the defense on the right.
Standing there in the nearly-empty courtroom where all of this was about to take place, I felt… nothing. None of it seemed to reflect any of the significance the entire situation had acquired. Yes, it was important, but everything around me made it clear that it was also just another trial. It was just a courtroom that would be used for many more cases in the future, a building where you could just as easily walk down another hallway and have no idea what was taking place in the next room, and a gathering of ordinary people with ordinary lives who were doing this as just another part of their jobs.
We get excited when we watch film teasers, but after we see the movie, we realize it was nothing like what we expected – it was just another movie. Having only heard about the trial from a distance, my expectations had grown so much that I failed to realize this was all still taking place in the same boring world the rest of us inhabit. Nothing about the reality of this seemed to do justice to the idea of it. Before leaving, I was directed to the government’s trial operations trailer, where two soldiers issued me a witness badge. My name was written on a whiteboard below several others. On the wall above their televisions, a black-and-white image of the Dos Equis guy read: “I don’t usually watch trials… but when I do, it’s not the ones I’m supposed to watch.”
Back at the hotel, I Skyped with my family, recounting the day’s events and making sure everything was okay at home. It was difficult to sign off for the night, and as soon as they were gone, the feeling of isolation grew to almost a physical presence. I left the TV on a random channel and tried to imagine I wasn’t alone. When the alarm went off at 5:30, I was nearly in a state of panic – it was still pitch black out, and it took me a moment to remember that I was in a hotel far away from home.
This time, Chief Joshua Ehresman joined us on the ride to Fort Meade. Tall, stocky and charismatic, his Southern accent and broad grin made his tales of hard-partying hijinks seem like so much innocent fun. He asked if I was military or civilian, and insisted he had seen me somewhere before – perhaps because of my Army surplus purse. I suggested he might know me from the internet; he laughed and remarked that he needed to stay off the internet so as not to get himself into trouble.
At the entrance to the courthouse, we were ordered out of the van so it could be inspected by bomb-sniffing dogs. A crowd of a few dozen people had gathered behind a barricade at the very far end of the parking lot, holding signs and cheering loudly as we walked into the tents. Not knowing what else to do, I waved. “Who are they?” asked one of the soldiers. “They’re gonna free Bradley Manning,” smirked Ehresman. “Good luck,” I muttered bleakly. He thought this was hilarious.
The witness trailer where we waited was roomy and colder than a movie theater – a welcome relief from the unexpected Maryland heat. Two private rooms were at either end, with a common area between them, lined with small drab waiting-room chairs and a few syrupy orange leather lounge chairs. A coffee machine was perched on a table, and an unused television sat in the corner, with DVDs like Independence Day stacked on top of it.
Today, there were six of us lined up for the defense: Chief Ehresman, Capt. Keay, Sgt. David Sadtler, Capt. Steven Lim, Col. Morris Davis, and myself. With the exception of myself and Col. Davis – the former Chief Prosecutor of the military commissions at Guantanamo – they had all personally worked with Manning in some capacity while he was stationed in Iraq. Every one of them felt somewhat mystified as to why they had been called here. They admitted to knowing almost nothing about Manning himself, and believed they had little to offer in the way of evidence other than simple facts such as “I saw a window open on his computer.” Once I told them of my conversations with him, they concluded that out of everyone present, I had spoken with him the most extensively.
Throughout the morning, we all refreshed our phones for updates on Twitter from Alexa O’Brien, Kevin Gosztola, Ed Pilkington and Nathan Fuller. Their tweets provided more valuable inside information on the minute-to-minute happenings than anything the Army told us that day. It was through them that we learned why the trial, scheduled to begin at 8:30 AM, had not even begun two hours later: the video and audio feed to the press room was nonfunctional, and they couldn’t proceed until it was fixed.
Eventually, Ehresman was escorted to the courtroom. We refreshed our phones obsessively as we waited for the next update from Alexa on what questions were being asked and who would be called next. At one point, my old name was tweeted by a reporter, and all of them saw it. “Oh great, now the whole world knows,” I joked. “Why do they even think that matters?” lamented Sadtler, a detached and ironic young man who was much less uptight and formal than everyone else present.
For such a significant occasion, the atmosphere in the trailer was starkly mundane. Even when waiting to testify at a historic trial, waiting in a small room all day gets old fast. Most of them talked to each other in acronyms I couldn’t understand, stopping only to inquire about the My Little Pony sticker on my phone. Keay had brought bananas, almonds and berries for us to snack on, and we all remarked on what a brilliant invention the Keurig machine was. Sadtler discussed the US involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan with Lim, who soberly contended that our actions were regrettable but necessary. Sadtler, who seemed to be of a more liberal bent, was skeptical.
At one point, Manning’s lead attorney, David Coombs, stopped in to say hello to us. Taking Lim into a private room, we overheard them discussing several very obvious points about .EXE files – executable software. To Sadtler and I, who had both been raised online, it was highly amusing to hear people try to work out exactly what an .EXE is. We joked that it “hacks the Gibson.” By lunch, only Ehresman and Sadtler had testified. Col. Davis and I ate at the catering tent, where prosecutor Maj. Ashden Fein was angrily berating another soldier for the problems with the media feed that morning. He seemed very high-strung and truly upset about this. I wondered if he would be similarly on edge in court.
With the press room issues cleared up, everyone’s testimony proceeded much more rapidly during the afternoon session. Eventually, Col. Davis and I were the only ones left waiting in the trailer. While my phone’s battery had died hours before, he helpfully kept me updated on what was happening just a few hallways away from us, and we passed the time talking about what we had each been working on recently.
I learned that he had received a Hugh Hefner First Amendment Award along with Jessica Ahlquist, a young woman who successfully fought to remove an unconstitutional Christian prayer display from her public school, and whom I had spoken alongside at a secular rally last year. He shared his thoughts about Guantanamo and the injustice of extraordinary renditions, as well as his stance on the Manning trial: that Manning’s actions were wrong, but so was the government’s pursuit of an “aiding the enemy” charge that could carry a life sentence. I found this to be a refreshingly elegant perspective – an all-too-rare acknowledgment that perhaps both sides could be right, and wrong.
At around 4:30 PM, a soldier finally came to escort me to the courtroom. We waited outside the doorway as dozens of spectators were led out of the building. Many of them looked me up and down as they passed – I couldn’t tell whether they were scrutinizing my face, or my pink hair, or if they just wanted to get some sense of what was going to happen next at the trial. An older woman asked if I enjoyed the clapping that morning. “Yes,” I answered unsteadily, not sure if I was allowed to say anything to them.
I was led through the hallways until I was standing outside the closed doors of the courtroom. Two soldiers, both women, stood ready to open them as soon as I was called in. I chatted with them about insignificant things like the weather, and once again, I shared my well-worn explanation for why I was there: that Manning and I had talked several times, and the defense now felt that the record of his statements could be useful in countering the charges against him. We stood there in silence for some time, until the doors were opened.
I walked in, and saw that the benches were packed with spectators. Every single person in the room was looking at me. It was completely silent; my ears began ringing, and my heart raced. I got the sense that everything was somehow frozen in time – walking past the benches and up to the stand was like a dream where everything is too slow, and you know you have to try and get away from something terrible, but you can’t. Fein handed me a water bottle. I didn’t know why I was panicking. I had told myself this was just something I’d have to do, like any other routine thing, and then it would be over.
As I turned to face the room, my heartbeat pounded in my ears even worse than before, and I could barely speak when Overgaard swore me in. My mouth went dry and my throat tightened. In front of me, at the defense table, I saw Bradley Manning for the first time. However underwhelming and unimportant everything seemed in the empty courtroom before, however much I’d thought the reality of the situation fell short of the idea, the reality had surely caught up and exceeded whatever I expected to feel. I could sense the energies of some pivotal moment of history turning to focus themselves on me, and the weight of it was almost unbearable.
Coombs asked me what my name had been before I changed it, the name I still had in 2009 when Manning spoke with me. In front of this room of strangers and the entire world listening outside, I spoke a man’s name in little more than a wavering croak. He then asked why I changed my name. I thought it was obvious – did I really need to explain it? What came out was something like this: “I’m a woman, and I wanted my name to reflect that.” A young woman in an aisle seat seemed to be vaguely impressed.
I kept looking over toward Manning. I wanted, more than anything, to see some indication that he was okay – that he was still alive in there, that he hadn’t been destroyed by all this. He only stared straight ahead at the ceiling-mounted monitor, with no visible emotion on his face. I tried desperately to make my pulse stop pounding, but seeing him that way just added to what I began to realize was a growing despair.
Coombs continued, asking me basic factual questions about my history with Manning: how he found me (he was a fan of my videos), how long we talked for (six months), and why he chose to speak to me (he felt I had a similar outlook on political and religious matters). I answered as best I could, but I couldn’t get my thoughts in order, and the words were slow and jumbled. My mind seemed mostly occupied with processing something much larger.
Most of the questions seemed redundant, given that the chat logs were the entirety of our interactions. I didn’t understand how my opinions could have any value here – even if all they had to go on was the text of our conversations, that was all I had to go on, too. I had no unique insight beyond anyone else. I didn’t know why I was there.
Coombs finally moved to introduce the 39 pages of logs as evidence, and Overgaard immediately objected, claiming that they were hearsay. There was a brief back-and-forth over the precise legal details, and Judge Denise Lind called a 20-minute recess so that copies could be made of our conversations and she could review them. The spectators once again shuffled out, along with the prosecution team. The only ones who remained in the courtroom were myself, Manning, his attorneys, and his guards – two large plainclothes men with earpieces who stayed within a few feet of him at all times.
During the recess, Coombs took me aside to the unoccupied jury panel, where we went over the specific portions of the logs that he would ask me about. I had looked over these excerpts with him many times before, but now I couldn’t concentrate. Instead, my eyes were drawn to Manning, well aware that I might not see him again for a very long time, if ever. It was a relief to see that he was happily talking and joking with the attorneys and even the guards. Some part of him had survived through all this.
After Coombs left, I sat alone at the jury panel. Seeing Manning look in my direction, I waved weakly at him. He nodded at me.
Once the court reconvened, Coombs simply had me read selections from the logs. For the first time since I walked into the courtroom, I began to relax, certain that the confident Manning I once knew was still there with me. My voice seemed to return, and I read his words aloud.
“With my current position… I can apply what I learn to provide more information to my officers and commanders and hopefully save lives. …I’m more concerned about making sure that everyone, soldiers, Marines, contractors, even the local nationals, get home to their families. …I place value on people first.”
During the cross-examination, Overgaard’s questions had little to do with anything we discussed at our meeting, and she likewise asked me to read certain portions of our conversations. I could tell that she had assembled these excerpts to paint a more damaging picture of Manning.
She cited conversations where he expressed a nuanced outlook on the methods and goals of terrorists, criticized malfunctioning military computer systems that made his job difficult, and sent me a link to his newly-developed unit “incident tracker” that was hosted on his personal site – a link which contained no actual content, though Overgaard did not allow me to clarify this. By now, any trace of nervousness had dissipated. Instead, I was merely incredibly offended. Even though these were his words and not my own, I felt a deep indignity at being forced to speak what they were intent on using against him.
I was excused from the trial and strode out of the courtroom, with a nod to Bradley Manning and to the spectators. Some nodded in reply.
Bradley Manning is a human being, and that simple fact made itself so apparent that day, everything else ceased to matter. Looking at him, there was no way I could continue to see the situation as being about anything other than this one person and what they had gone through. Yes, there are issues of morals and laws and risks and harms that must be weighed up. I know this. I’ve said those words before. But none of it was important now.
It’s not that I believe Bradley’s actions were right. It’s that I don’t even care anymore, and people’s shallow words of support or denouncement mean nothing to me. They have no idea what he’s going through – none of us do. To me, this isn’t about making him a figurehead for some movement, or a subject of our little arguments over abstractions, or a symbol of everything right or wrong with the world. It’s not about my opinion or the reporters who ask me for it. It’s not about the meaningless words I’ve written on needing to deter soldiers from leaking mass amounts of classified documents, something I foolishly believed to be the most relevant response to this situation. It’s not about finding an elegant answer to a moral puzzle or coming up with yet more rational arguments to support whatever I happen to be feeling at the moment.
It’s not about what we think of Manning’s opinion of Guantanamo or the Army or their broken computers, it’s not about soldiers joking around and admiring a coffee machine in a trailer, it’s not about whether the trial lived up to our expectations. It’s not about us.
For the past three weeks, my life hasn’t been about anything other than the fact that Bradley Manning is sitting in a cage right now while the rest of the world gets to walk away and move on. And I don’t think I can move on.
It’s easy to forget that at the center of all this furor is one person – a person like us, who thinks like us and feels like us and hurts like us. Having seen Manning in that room, I can never forget this. Before, he was just a name to me, one of thousands that have crossed my screen. But Bradley Manning is not, and never will be, just a name.
In that room, I saw a person who was in more trouble than I had ever seen another person be in, someone who had suffered and was still suffering the full wrath of an enraged, unforgiving American government. And that scared me, and I wanted to help him, to do anything I could to get him out of there, and I couldn’t. And that hurts beyond any words.
Nothing I can possibly say about this will be able to give him what he needs and deserves. What he needs isn’t as sterile as some right answer that accords with ideals of freedom or justice or any other lofty concept that we speak about in preachy tones. He is a human being and what he needs from the rest of us is humanity. The only meaningful question is how we can live with ourselves while this is happening to a person.
What I felt then and still feel now is a kind of guilt, unreasonable as it may be. No, I had no way of knowing what Manning was going to do – but if I had kept talking to him, everything could have happened so differently. I don’t know how I, still an immature child even at 21, would have reacted if he had spoken to me about his intentions rather than Adrian Lamo.
I could never tell how serious he was being when he talked about his work, and there’s a good chance I would have unwisely leapt at the opportunity to see or touch or transfer any classified material he had been gathering behind the scenes. For such an excited, youthful lapse in judgment, I could have been dragged into this unexpected and unimaginable hell right alongside him. Or, if I were more attentive to the consequences of what he was planning, I might have tried to discourage him from doing something so reckless. I might have been able to prevent this.
And if there was something else going on in his life that was distressing to him, maybe I could have helped him with that, too. What I didn’t reveal at the trial was that Manning opened up to me in part because we were both gay men. That’s not who I am anymore, and by the time Manning contacted Lamo, there were clear signs that he too was considering transitioning – signs that any other trans person would see as indicative of someone who was so far into this, they weren’t likely to turn back.
I’ve talked about Manning as male, because there’s been nothing but silence and denial on this front from his family and his attorneys, and I simply don’t know how else to refer to him. But I do know what happens when you take one of us and lock us away for most of our early twenties, unable to access treatments like those he was seeking. It horrifies me, and it should horrify anyone else who truly understands what it means to be held hostage by our own bodies.
Somewhere, in some other universe, I might have been able to stop all of this – or I might have ended up in a cell, too. But now there’s the unbearable discrepancy, the miserable and unyielding knowledge that I would get to walk out of that courtroom as a free person and he wouldn’t, that he’s locked in a cage and I’m not, that I got to transition and he didn’t.
The next day, Sgt. Daley drove me back to the airport. I stared blankly as he asked if I had seen any movies during my stay – he recommended The Lone Ranger. “That horse stole the show!” he effused. I tried to laugh, and I couldn’t.
I’d like to thank Heather, Lydia, Amy, Patience, and all my supportive friends who’ve offered their kindness and a listening ear. Thank you for helping me through this.
Jul 26 2013
The case of a women’s shelter in Maine handily demonstrates the true inanity of policing gender via its expression:
But the women who complained said they believe that in at least one case, it was a ruse. They believe one of the people in question is a man who occasionally dresses as a woman to get into the shelter, perhaps for voyeuristic reasons. That person did not have any feminine mannerisms and often dresses in a T-shirt and jeans, sporting a 5 o’clock shadow of male facial hair, they said.
“If they’re really living as a woman, I think they have every right to be there,” said one of the women who complained. “But he wasn’t wearing makeup or wearing eyeliner or anything. Just a man wearing a skirt. It was just odd.”
Let’s take a moment to consider the following advertisement.
“Women’s jeans”? This is clearly a contradiction – anyone wearing jeans, logically, cannot be a woman. Note also this recent photo of Lady Gaga without makeup.
Oh, that’s right – nobody questions or doubts the very genders of cis women who wear shirts and jeans, or don’t put on makeup. That unique treatment is reserved for trans women. Cis women can dress as they choose, and while they too are scrutinized no matter how they present themselves, none of this is seen as invalidating the fact of their womanhood. When cis women wear jeans, nobody claims they’re actually men. Yet trans women are held to a higher standard: the jeans and shirts that would be acceptable for cis women now only erode our own legitimacy as women.
Cis genders are solid and stable enough to withstand any change of dress, but trans genders are seen as so flimsy that the mere absence of makeup can upend them. We thus face the dichotomy that we must be either far more exaggeratedly, stereotypically feminine than is expected of other women, or risk being treated as “men”. What sense does this make? It is an instance of cissexism: the attitude that cis people’s genders are more real, more important, and generally superior to those of trans people.
Shelters are a crucial and necessary resource for homeless, abused, and vulnerable women, and it’s very important that these shelters remain safe for their residents. These concerns are also not exclusive to cis women. Trans women need these shelters just as badly – and they need them to be a truly safe place to stay.
In a 2011 survey of 6,450 transgender Americans, 22% of trans women reported experiencing domestic violence due to being transgender. 19% of respondents had been homeless at some point in their lives, a number which rose to 48% among those who had suffered domestic violence.
A significant portion of trans women will require the services of shelters at some point in their lives. However, 34% of trans women who had attempted to access shelters were denied entry outright. Of the respondents who did manage to access a shelter, 25% were evicted after it became known that they were trans. 55% were harassed by shelter staff or residents, and 29% of trans women were physically assaulted. 26% were sexually assaulted at shelters. Overall, 47% were treated so poorly that they chose to leave the shelter.
Again, this took place in shelters that are intended to serve as a safe, supportive environment for abused and vulnerable women. Think about what that means: At least one in four trans women in shelters have been physically or sexually assaulted while residing at the shelter.
Many trans women are clearly in need of these shelters, and they urgently need these shelters to be a safe place to stay. But in pursuing the wholly valid and important goal of ensuring the safety of shelter residents, too many people have mistakenly viewed trans women as a problem, a danger, a threat. In rightfully seeking to keep women safe, they’ve wrongfully treated trans women as inherently suspicious un-women, refusing to see them as women who are just as much in need of support as everyone else there.
Fortunately, the shelter in Maine has refrained from casting doubt on trans women’s genders, and treats them as equally legitimate and worthy of respect. Yet the exclusion and mistreatment of trans women at shelters remains a widespread problem. The concerns that lead to this mistreatment neglect the reality of the situation: trans women are not the threatening ones at women’s shelters. They are the threatened ones.
And the more that people engage in this hostile, insipid questioning of trans women’s pants or makeup choices, the fewer trans women will be able to access these much-needed services during some of the most difficult times in their lives. This isn’t protecting women – it’s failing them.