Editor's Note: On Thursday, Bradley Manning came out as transgender, named Chelsea Manning. For a full update, read more here.
On Wednesday, Bradley Manning issued a public apology, claiming his intent was not to hurt the U.S. or its people by leaking confidential information about the war in Iraq. His goal, he claimed, was to spark a public debate on the issue and help people. Whether or not his leaks have hurt or helped anyone, one thing is certain: They have certainly led to a debate. However, this debate is not only about leaks. Rather, Manning's apology has shed light on another issue: that gender identity and breaking gender norms is considered a disorder by the mainstream media. Worse than this, the media has implied that gender-identity questions can cause emotional distress to the point that one is no longer patriotic.
I watched as CBS broadcast the message that Manning claimed confusion over his gender identity was the reason behind his emotional trauma and decision to leak sensitive information. For a split second as this was discussed, a picture of Manning with a wig on his head was shown, and then the story moved on. I shut off the television and wondered who had decided to send the message that:
1. Gender identity confusion is a “disorder.”
2. Gender identity "disorder" is enough of an emotional trauma to cause someone to act against the interests of the U.S.
3. Manning blamed his “bad” or “wrong” decisions on the prejudices he encountered when he questioned or challenged accepted gender roles.
Let’s take a look at gender identity. A great deal of research has shown that gender is not necessarily an actual binary but rather a spectrum. Gender Spectrum is an organization that works to educate individuals on this research. Those who fight for gender equality often use the idea of a gender spectrum a reasoning behind their work, claiming that prescribed gender roles create a situation in which one gender can oppress another. The ideas of breaking gender roles and challenging identity are new. Yet, here they have been simplified to a disorder and associated with the emotional difficulties of someone who acted against the interests of the U.S.
What message does this send to every young person who decides that their gender role does not fit their individuality? What happens when someone says, “You have a right to be who you are” but the rest of the world says, “But to be who you are may be a disorder that you need to fix”?
The British comedian Ricky Gervais recently created a show called Derek, in which the main character is often asked whether or not he has autism. In response, he says, "Will it kill me? Upon hearing the obvious answer, “no,” he points out that whether or not he has autism doesn’t matter. This is a powerful message in the media. Working with Josie Badger, former Miss Wheelchair America, I have also come to find that the greatest source of struggle for those with disabilities is not the disability itself but the lack of accommodation and society's overall attitude towards that disability.
The author and Josie Badger at the Miss Wheelchair America event in Rhode Island.
Those with questions about their gender identity are in a similar situation. If a child (or adult) who identifies with Manning’s decision to wear a wig then hears the phrase “gender identity disorder," it fuels the kind of self-loathing that is often present when someone feels they must be ashamed of who they are.
As for the term “gender identity disorder”? People who believe gender is a spectrum and not a binary would flatly reject the idea that gender identity is a disorder. In fact, in many theories, gender identity, gender expression, biological sex, and sexual orientation are separate categories. The YES Institute works to provide research and workshops on this issue to prevent internalized prejudice, which can lead to depression, emotional trauma, and suicide. In light of such theories, which are widely accepted by those who study gender, it's unacceptable that Manning's questions about his gender identity are dismissed out of hand as a"disorder." After all, if the media says Manning's gender identity issues are what led him to commit acts of espionage against the U.S., what message does that send to the millions more throughout the country who are struggling with their own questions about gender roles?