In the final days of the Obama administration, there is a clear sense of urgency for activists in the United States. One such move has been the recent effort to convince President Obama to pardon whistleblower Chelsea Manning from her 35 year sentence in prison. Manning’s supporters have recently gathered 100,000 signatures for a petition calling for her clemency, which the White House must now respond to within 60 days.
Manning was convicted for releasing 700,000 military documents to Wikileaks about U.S. misdeeds in the Iraq war, with a sentence that has been described by various human rights groups as unduly punitive. Manning was held in solitary confinement for eleven months before her trial, a time period in which she alleges she was stripped naked daily by guards and not given a pillow or sheet with which to sleep. She has had to fight for access to hormone therapy and gender confirmation surgery and is still required to conform to the male dress code—including short hair. It is little wonder that Manning has attempted suicide twice under these conditions.
Yet if Manning’s treatment during the Obama administration has been bad, worse looms on the horizon from the Trump camp. In his campaign, Trump talked about what he sees as the dangerous “political correctness” in the Obama decision to allow transgender people to serve in the military at all. Furthermore, Trump has made noises about removing transgender prisoners’ right to access trans-specific medical care. As a result, Manning may find herself denied hormone therapy and her surgery cancelled under the Trump regime, which is quite possibly a death sentence for a trans person in Manning’s state of mind.
Manning is far from alone in her predicament, for transgender prisoners all across the U.S. face issues with incorrect housing, violence and medical treatment. Harper Jean Tobin, policy director at the National Center for Transgender Equality, recently said that “the government, regardless of any crime for which someone has been accused or convicted, has a responsibility to provide appropriate medical care. There are very grave questions about whether those responsibilities have been met in Chelsea Manning’s case.”
Despite the high-profile nature of her case, Manning is far from alone in her predicament. As Tobin puts it, “there are a lot of other transgender people and a lot of other people behind bars who face inadequate medical care, prolonged solitary confinement, an indifference to their well-being or safety, and that’s something we should all be concerned about.” The treatment of transgender prisoners by police and guards may be considered a cycle of poverty and incarceration that sees trans people, especially trans women, at increased risk of violence, personal and institutional. Often excluded from legitimate work, trans women’s markedly increased likelihood of sex work, homelessness and drug charges has meant that this population has long been criminalised in the public sphere.
The criminalisation of transgender people as a community is a well-documented phenomenon, and as the right wing in the US readies a flurry of bathroom bills, this is only going to intensify over the next few years. With the impending Trump presidency, Manning’s supporters see this petition as a last ditch attempt to free the whistleblower, whom many consider a hero. It would be well deserved if Manning were given her freedom. But given the severity of her treatment thus far, it would be a Christmas miracle indeed if the Obama White House gave her clemency. There may be there is enough public pressure or political will to pardon Ms Manning. Anything is possible. What is certain, however, is that life is going to become a lot more difficult for transgender people in Trump’s America, and even more so for transgender prisoners like Manning.