NEW YORK — U.S. Army Private Bradley Manning, who has just been sentenced to 35 years in a military prison for leaking secret documents, has announced that he is a woman, despite a body that is physically male. Manning is not alone. Hundreds of thousands of people around the world consider themselves “transgender,” meaning their gender as they experience it differs from their biological sex.
Manning’s admission has brought new attention to the word “transgender.” Kelly Wise, a human sexuality expert and therapist, explained what it meant when we said someone was “transgender.”
“Generally, it’s someone who struggles with the body they were born with," said Wise. "They don’t feel connected to it; they align with the other gender. And this usually happens early in life, where a person feels that they are just ‘off.’”
Wise said it helped to think of one’s sex as male or female, and one’s gender as the line stretching between what society labels “masculine” and what it called “feminine.”
“Sex is actually the biology of your body, your chromosomes, your hormones, your genitals," he said. "And gender is more socially constructed - so the pink given to girls, the blue given to boys [and] the idea that boys are going to be football players and girls are going to be ballerinas…. Those things don’t always align with your sex."
And that, said Wise, often means deep pain.
“People, generally, when they come to me, it’s something that they’ve avoided their whole life and they realize anything they do, it doesn’t go away; it still keeps coming back up. And there is usually years of depression [and] lots of anxiety…. You know, the idea that I don’t fit with my body,” he said.
It’s been more than a decade since 44-year-old Laura Jacobs began the hormonal therapy that would ultimately make her physically female.
Today, Jacobs is a New York area psychotherapist who helps others make the sort of transitions she has undergone. She said becoming transgender was easier now than in the past.
“[I] Couldn’t have predicted the amount of change that has gone on even in the last couple of years. Let alone though the course of my personal lifetime…. I have clients who are 15, 16 or even through their 50s and 60s who are able to come out and get all kinds of support from their families, from their friends, from their communities, [and] from their schools,” said Jacobs.
Jacobs said the path she took was sometimes rough, and that it’s still not always easy.
“And there are many, many ways in which my life might have been a lot easier if I had chosen not to pursue this. But ultimately I did and I feel happy about it. It gave me the opportunity to explore and live life in ways I never could have before,” she said.
Even as acceptance grows for transgendered people, questions arise for them and society: is hormonal therapy or sex-change surgery a cosmetic procedure, lifestyle choice, or a medical necessity? What medical safeguards are in place, and how should public institutions like schools and prisons accommodate transgendered people? It’s an issue that Private Manning’s jailers will have to face - and soon.