Fight for Trans Rights in Prison Can't End With Chelsea Manning

Progressives rallied around Manning's rights as a trans woman in prison – but there's thousands more we can't forget about now that she's free

Credit: Elijah Nouvelage/Reuters

On Tuesday, President Barack Obama announced that he was commuting Chelsea Manning's 35-year prison sentence. The move sparked instant celebration across the left, which has long felt that Manning was used as a scapegoat by a government furious about leaked internal documents. It was also heartening for the trans community, which has been dismayed by her treatment in prison. Manning is possibly the most high profile trans women in the prison system – and one of the most well-known trans women in America – and this marks an important development in the fight for trans equality. 

But it's more complicated than it might appear.

Manning's treatment highlighted a number of issues trans people face in prison. Women like Manning may be denied basic means to affirm their gender such as hormones, appropriate clothing and haircuts. Last week, California inmate Shiloh Quine became the first trans prisoner to receive gender confirmation surgery, but only after aggressively suing for the right.

Furthermore, trans women are frequently incarcerated in facilities designated for men, even though this violates the Prison Rape Elimination Act, and consequently often end up in solitary confinement "for their own protection." Solitary confinement is a form of torture, according to the United Nations, in part because it exacerbates mental distress, which is common among trans prisoners struggling with gender dysphoria.

During her time in prison, Manning attempted suicide at least twice, reflecting her extreme stress, which was exacerbated by her move to solitary confinement as punishment for one of her suicide attempts. She was denied gender-affirming treatment, initially refused hormones and forced to clip her hair short, and trapped in men's prisons for the entirety of her sentence. Trans activists and others pleaded for her release, arguing that she would likely die in prison. That would have been a grave injustice, but it wouldn't be the first time a trans person's prison term has turned into a death sentence.

Manning has become a rallying point for those on the left who view her as a hero, as well as trans people aiming to highlight inequalities in the justice system but when she walks free on May 17th, 2017, she will be leaving over 3,000 trans federal inmates behind. That number, based on surveys by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, is likely artificially low, with many more trans prisoners flying under the radar. None are likely to begrudge her freedom, but the question remains: With Manning released, will the thousands of followers who advocated for her release commit to helping those she left behind as well?

Manning was easy to advocate for: A hero in some eyes, and a woman who endured horrific treatment, as she documented in her own clemency application. When looking at the segment of the trans population that ends up in prison and jail, it tends to be people of color, particularly women of color, many of whom, like Manning, are either housed inappropriately or stuck in solitary for lack of a better option. Many are ordinary women without remarkable stories, but like Manning, they are denied gender-appropriate housing and services, and they are at increased risk of assault. In 2012, over 30 percent of trans federal inmates reported sexual assault, illustrating that it is a systemic and ubiquitous problem.

Trans women of color often run afoul of the justice system because of the inequalities that push them towards sex work and criminal activities to stay alive. Others are undocumented immigrants who find themselves spending months or years in detention. As people of color, they're more likely to end up in prison than their white counterparts. The reasons they're in prison also aren't always palatable to the left: Some have drug offenses; others are convicted of solicitation or petty crimes. For every Manning or CeCe McDonald – who successfully obtained clemency following 19 months in prison for second-degree manslaughter after she killed a man who assaulted her and her companions outside a bar – there are thousands of other inmates with stories that don't provoke sympathetic responses.

As Manning exits the prison gates, I hope she thinks about her sisters still trapped inside, and advocates for them as part of her work on the outside. As a high profile and beloved trans women, Manning may find herself with tremendous power and influence, and if she uses it wisely, she could change the way the justice system approaches transgender people. Former prisoners often make the most compelling and forceful advocates, for they know the details of the system they are confronting firsthand.

But it would be unfair to place the burden of addressing the plight of trans prisoners solely on Manning. The left, which loyally rallied around her and successfully pushed for her commutation, should also turn its attention to the rest of the trans prison population. Progressives were horrified to learn that Manning was denied hormones, cosmetics, clothing, appropriate hairstyles and other things we may think of as basic rights at various points during her incarceration, but that's a daily reality for trans women in the justice system. Likewise, many are serving their terms in men's facilities – and like Manning, they end up in solitary after suicide attempts or because they're physically or sexually assaulted. This is an injustice no matter why someone's in prison; whistleblower or sex worker, no one should be dehumanized.