Chelsea Manning's Identity Crisis Is One Jews Should Relate To

Why We Should Care About WikiLeaks Figure's Gender Change

Coming Out: Bradley Manning’s crisis of gender identity has played out in the spotlight.
U.S. Army
Coming Out: Bradley Manning’s crisis of gender identity has played out in the spotlight.

By Jay Michaelson

Published September 04, 2013, issue of September 06, 2013.
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‘Yes, but is it good for the Jews?”

We Jews know this question well. Henry Kissinger: good for the Jews? Brandeis? Koufax? Seinfeld? As an American minority, Jews are naturally sensitive to the way we are perceived, and to the messengers who — without our endorsement or permission — represent us to the world.

Likewise in the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. Some of our public faces are heroes (Harvey Milk), some are martyrs (Matthew Shepard) and some are flawed and imperfect, just like all of us.

So is Chelsea, née Bradley, Manning “good for the gays”?

In some quarters she is regarded as a hero, in others as a traitor. But as the gradual revelations about Manning’s sexual and gender identities have grown, it’s become clear that, like it or not, she is now part of something larger than her own story. She is a face of the LGBT community, and arguably the most famous — or infamous — transgender person in the world. We’re stuck with her.

Throughout the Manning ordeal, I’ve been struck by certain similarities between the LGBT and Jewish experiences — specifically, the interlocking questions of gender, identity and autonomy.

Transgender people remain the most invisible, the least understood and the most stigmatized element of the LGBT community. They are often targets of violence: On a single day in late August, two transgender women were murdered in hate crimes in New York (Islan Nettles) and Los Angeles (Domonique Newburn).

Such violence is a symptom of ignorance, fear and marginalization. Let me be the first to admit that when I initially encountered trans folk, I was confused, and thus dismissive of transgender reality. But the more I learned, the more I was able to understand, empathize and respect.

First, what the rest of us need to understand about transgender people is that gender is between your ears, not between your legs — and that, like sexual orientation, it may be experienced as entirely unchosen, or chosen, or some combination of the two. Most of us have no idea what it’s like to have one’s sense of gender not align with one’s biological, anatomical sex — what doctors call gender dysphoria. Just try to imagine what that might be like.


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