Within days of the Obama administration announcement of the repeal of the ban on transgender soldiers serving openly in the military, Chelsea Manning, the transgender soldier who was convicted of leaking more than 750,000 classified and unclassified documents to WikiLeaks, tried to commit suicide in her cell at Fort Leavenworth’s prison. Manning, who is serving a 35-year sentence for violating the Espionage Act while serving in the Army as Bradley Edward Manning, successfully sued the U.S. Army for the right to transition from male to female in prison. She began hormone replacement therapy in early 2015.
During her more optimistic days in prison when she began her early transition to female last year, Manning sent an open “thank you” letter to the 17,000 individuals from Amnesty International activists who sent her letters and cards during their global Write for Rights campaign. Writing that “I finally began my prescribed regime of hormones to continue my overdue gender transition in February. It’s been such an amazing relief for my body and brain to finally come into alignment with each other.”
Sadly, it seems that body and brain may not have been quite so well aligned after all. In her suicide attempt, Manning joins the more than 41 percent of those identifying as “transgender” or gender nonconforming who have attempted suicide, compared with 4.6 percent of the overall U.S. population who report a lifetime suicide attempt. It is also higher than the 10-20 percent of lesbian, gay and bisexual adults who report ever attempting suicide. These data come from a study by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and UCLA’s Williams Institute, which analyzed results from the National Transgender Discrimination Survey. More than a dozen other studies since 2001 have found similar results for alarmingly high rates of suicide for transgender individuals like Chelsea Manning.
In 2013, a 44-year-old Belgian female-to-male transsexual chose to die by euthanasia after expressing his unhappiness with his sex change operation. Claiming that the surgery had turned him into a “monster, doctors assisted him in ending his life on the grounds of “unbearable psychological suffering.”
While some have suggested that the reason for the high suicide rates for the LGBT and transgender communities is due to the stigma and discrimination they have faced, the reality is far more complex. In fact, the prevalence of suicide attempts is elevated among those transgendered individuals who are open about their transgender identity. Those who disclose to others that they are transgender have the highest rates of suicide. (50 percent) The research suggests that the military’s new policy of encouraging transgender individuals to “openly” serve puts these transgender soldiers at greater risk for suicide than those who continued the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.
Estimates of the number of transgender service members range from as few as 2,500 troops on active duty and 1,500 in the reserves to as many as 11,000 transgender active duty service members and reservists according to a RAND Corp. study cited by the Pentagon. Claiming that allowing transgender soldiers to serve openly will lead to a stronger military force by giving all troops the equal treatment they deserve, the Defense Department has released guidelines on how unit commanders and Army medical personnel must help service members transition while on active duty.
Undeterred by the data on transgender identity, mental illness and suicide rates, the Obama administration continues its campaign to radically transform the military to conform to the culture. In 2000, an article titled “A New Way to be Mad” written by physician Carl Elliott and published in the Atlantic suggest that “our cultural and historical conditions have not just revealed transsexuals but have created them. That is once ‘transsexual and gender-identity disorder’ and ‘sex-reassignment surgery’ became a common linguistic occurrence, more people began conceptualizing and interpreting their experience in these terms.” They began to make sense of their lives in a way that hadn’t been available to them before and to some degree they actually became the kinds of people described by these terms. Dr. Elliot wrote that gender identity disorder is “far more complicated than the trapped in the wrong body summary would suggest. For some patients seeking sex-reassignment surgery, the wish to live as a member of the opposite sex is itself a sexual desire.”
Likewise, Dr. Paul McHugh, psychiatrist-in-chief at Johns Hopkins Hospital was so concerned about the psychological origins of gender identity disorder that he halted the practice of sex reassignment surgery at his institution. He wrote about that decision in the November 2004 issue of First Things and concluded that Johns Hopkins would no longer participate in what he called “unusual and radical treatment” for mental disorders.
The Obama administration’s decision to allow transgender individuals to serve openly may actually contribute to the already-escalating rates of suicide for troops. Research by the UCLA Williams Institute suggests that the prevalence of lifetime suicide attempts is significantly lower among those who describe their gender identity as “part-time one gender and part-time another.” More selective disclosure and more limited perceived recognition by others of transgender or gender nonconforming status is the better choice. The researchers conclude the findings suggest that “not being recognized by others as transgender or gender nonconforming functions as a protective factor for suicidal behavior.” It seems that for transgender individuals in the military, the previous policy of “don’t ask, don’t tell” may have saved lives.
• Anne Hendershott is director of the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio. She is the author of “The Politics of Deviance” (Encounter Books, 2004).