(CNN) — “I am Chelsea Manning.”
With those words, read from a statement on NBC’s “Today” show on Thursday, Bradley Manning immediately shifted public conversation away from the Army private’s conviction on espionage charges to gender identity.
“As I transition into this next phase of my life, I want everyone to know the real me,” Manning said in the statement. “I am Chelsea Manning. I am a female. Given the way that I feel, and have felt since childhood, I want to begin hormone therapy as soon as possible. I hope that you will support me in this transition.”
While his supporters may back Manning, the Army said Thursday it won’t.
One Army official, who was not authorized to speak publicly about Manning’s case, said the private remains a male in the eyes of the Army. Another said Manning would be treated like any other prisoner.
“A lot of the inmates have issues they’re dealing with,” said the second official, who also was not authorized to speak publicly about Manning’s case. “Even if you have gender identity disorder, you still serve your sentence.”
That includes access — like any other inmate — to mental health professionals like psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers and behavioral expects, said Kimberly Lewis, a spokeswoman at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, where Manning will be held.
She added those diagnosed with gender dysphoria, the medical term for those who identify with another gender, “must still complete their sentence” without hormone therapy or sex-reassignment surgery provided by the Army.
The Human Rights Campaign, though, insisted Thursday that the military should grant Manning’s wishes.
“The care she receives should be something that she and her doctors — including professionals who understand transgender care — agree is best for her,” the campaign said, using the pronoun Manning asked to be identified by. “There is a clear legal consensus that it is the government’s responsibility to provide medically necessary care for transgender people and the military has an obligation to follow those guidelines.”
Manning’s lawyer, David Coombs, told “Today” that he’ll take action if the Army doesn’t provide the hormone therapy Manning has requested.
“I’m hoping Fort Leavenworth would do the right thing and provide that,” Coombs said. “If Fort Leavenworth does not, then I am going to do everything in my power to make sure that they are forced to do so.”
Pfc. Manning was sentenced on Wednesday to 35 years in prison for leaking 750,000 pages of classified documents to the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks. A military judge convicted Manning in July, sparing the former intelligence analyst from the most serious charge of aiding the enemy.
Gender identity issues
The issue of Manning’s gender identity repeatedly surfaced during the court-martial. A widely circulated picture released by the military showed Manning wearing a blond wig.
The image came from an e-mail Manning sent to a superior titled “My Problem.”
“It’s not going away, it’s haunting me more and more as I get older,” Manning wrote in the e-mail. “Now, the consequences of it are dire, at a time when it’s causing me great pain in itself. As a result, I’m not sure what to do about it.”
An Army psychologist called by the defense said Manning appeared to be isolated and under intense pressure as a male soldier struggling with gender identity issues.
Speaking during the sentencing phase of the court-martial last week, Manning said the decision to leak the documents came while “dealing with a lot of issues” — a reference to the gender identity crisis.
Manning’s announcement brought a range of reaction.
On Twitter, where “Chelsea Manning” was a hot topic of discussion, user onekade wrote of being “pretty much in awe of Chelsea Manning’s bravery, on so many fronts.”
Others were less supportive.
“Chelsea Manning,” conservative pundit John Podhoretz tweeted. “This country has officially jumped the shark.”
Coombs told “Today” that Manning did not intend to make a public issue of his desire to live as a woman.
“She never really wanted this to be public to begin with,” Coombs said. “When the information came out, you need to understand that she gave it to Adrian Lamo in a very private setting, in a one-on-one chat, never expecting this to be public. Now that it is, unfortunately, you have to deal with it in a public manner.”
Lamo is a former hacker from California who pleaded guilty in 2004 to breaking into The New York Times secure computer network. In 2010, Lamo, in California, and Manning, in Iraq, chatted over a few days, Lamo has said.
The issue of taxpayers being required to pay for gender reassignment surgery has come up repeatedly in recent court cases.
Earlier this year, a federal appeals court reinstated a lawsuit brought by a transgender prisoner in Virginia, where a prison had refused to allow her to undergo sex reassignment surgery.
Last year, a federal judge ordered Massachusetts to pay for a sex change operation for a convicted murderer. The state is appealing that decision.
There are few good statistics on the number of transgender inmates in U.S. prisons, according to Vincent Villano of the National Center for Transgender Equality. A study of California prisons identified 330 transgender inmates in an overall prison population of 160,000, he said.
The center believes those numbers are higher, he said.
At Fort Leavenworth, Manning can’t alter his clothing to reflect a desire to be seen as a woman.
Lewis noted that Army regulations require all prisoners wear a “distinctive … uniform (with) a white name tag with black letters spelling the last name of the prisoner over the right picket of the shirt.”
The letters won’t change for Manning.
But, as Lewis said, Manning could otherwise go through the courts to legally change his first name — to Chelsea.