On Chelsea Manning and Gender Identity (Part I)

In recent news, Chelsea Manning is second perhaps only to Edward Snowden in controversial fame for leaking classified information of the United States government. As the important details of her legal case are currently beyond my sphere of knowledge, I cannot write competently on that matter, although it would certainly make for pertinent material on this blog in the future. For now, let’s examine another aspect of her public life: her identification as a woman.

The world knew her as “Bradley” when her spread of military intelligence first made news, but now, for her own personal reasons, she has stated openly something she has — according both to her own testimony and secondary sources — known about herself for years. The dimensions of her personality and psychology align more strongly with the “female” classification of gender our society has shaped, than with the “male” one.

To the vast majority of readers, even those of us cisgender folk acquainted with transgender individuals, this may seem a foreign concept. The common status quo is that a person is born a certain sex and is generally comfortable with presenting in a manner coherent with this sex, at least as far as society is concerned. Considering somewhere between 120,000 (calculated from a rather conservative ratio) and 700,000 Americans are transgender, this is an evidently naïve view.

As explained quite simply and intuitively in the above video, we may reasonably speak of a distinction between sex and gender. The former is biological, referring to a person’s reproductive anatomy, hormones, and secondary sex characteristics. Although the debate over nature versus nurture with respect to gender (let alone all of human psychology) marches on, it is experientially apparent to all of us that cultures have for better or worse categorized physical aspects, habits, interests, personality traits, relationship dynamics, emotional expression, professional roles, and fashion within two boxes: male and female. Many presumptions about the correlation between these elements and sex have proven false. The existence of male nurses and female soldiers is proof of that.

Despite these errors, humans have tended to find gender a meaningful idea nonetheless, including in ways that are not necessarily dependent on sex or on stereotypes. Though it is an imperfect approximation, American car insurance companies find it prudent to charge higher rates for males such as myself, because of an apparent statistical correlation between gender and reckless driving tendencies. Less demoralizing is the use of gender labels to simplify communication and romantic relationships; when you’re a desperate soul on eHarmony, it’s probably convenient to filter out those whom you have no interest in dating by virtue of features we like to classify under genders.

So where does all this leave someone like Chelsea Manning? Well, imagine that you have found yourself with a certain physiological construction that virtually all of the humans with whom you interact assume implies a host of predictions about your behavior. Some of these predictions are of your innate character, others are expected of you in a form of self-fulfilling prophecy, but the overwhelming majority of them are wrong. They contradict who you are as a person with the basic freedom to express yourself harmlessly. This disconnect between your self and the suit into which others try to fit you cripples your confidence, happiness, social fulfillment, and ability to have relationships with partners.

That, within a margin of error attributable to the variability of trans men and women’s experiences, is Manning’s position, the implications of which we will consider tomorrow. This is the predicament not just of one person but of many, the best approach to which is controversial because it raises questions of the meaning of gender and the extent of people’s control over their bodies and identities. What is that approach? We’ll think through several perspectives in the next post.

What’s It All About, Alfie?

I expect the name of this blog to elicit one of three reactions. The first is scoffing dismissal at its audacity: “Gee, here’s another naive kid thinking he can make a difference. What a hack! Moving on…” The second is curiosity: “Gee, I was just wondering how one might go about the massive task of saving the world. What a potentially valuable resource, my cynical doubts notwithstanding! Moving on to the actual website…”

The last is outrage at the idea that I might actually be selling snake-oil to dummies, who think reading my patented manifesto on world peace (endorsed by the Dalai Lama) could protect the Amazon rainforest.

Suffice it to say, if you fall into the first niche of people, feel free to spend your time more wisely, as I am sure your life includes priorities above reading the word-vomit of a teenager on social justice. Seriously. For those of you more gullible hopeful folk who sincerely share my goal of at least trying to make sense of this complex, imperfect world, and who figure you might as well embark on your journey of stupid idealism with a soul-buddy on the Internet, welcome!

Naturally, you will have your reservations. Really, what do I know about improving society? The most honest answer I can muster is, not much more than the average person. Yet. The first warning I can give you to make this project more worthwhile for all of us is that you ought never take this blog to be the web edition of Peter Singer’s The Life You Can Save. I am not Gandhi. You will doubtless find people more valuable to the world than I am. If you feel so inclined, read my updates as if they were journal entries from the pen of a young person, aiming for nothing more or less than the expansion of his scope and depth of social consciousness.

That said, I can promise you, most patient reader who I am amazed has stayed with me this long, that in the annals of this blog you will never hear echoes of Lisa Simpson. I intend zero condescension, judgmentalism, self-righteousness, or pretension to know or do things I do not actually know or do. One virtue of this blog that I hope shines through is that it will never propose anything impractical for the majority of people with a shred of desire to make the world a better place. As one of the laziest people I know, I assure you that if, over the course of this endeavor, I find myself capable of saving a tree, then you most certainly can do so too. Chances are I will not get that far, thus I refuse to demand that everyone else match my imaginary moral superiority, lest you appear a despicable apathetic pig in my eyes.

If this sounds pessimistic of me, note that never in this essay have I stated that I will not try, or that no one else should try. Success in this project looks something like this: regardless of whether I earn the Nobel Peace Prize, I will have made the most authentic effort possible to think critically about the issues surrounding the extent to which I, you, and society can actualize the values we share (at least, that I hope we share). Bonus points if someone else finds these musings of mine somewhat thought-provoking.

So, now that we have dispelled any unreasonable expectations for this blog’s content — both positive and negative — let me explain what sorts of topics I may cover throughout my blogger’s career, before you leave thinking this site is pointless. “Saving the world” is basically the same in my mind as in anyone else’s; it’s the details that need sorting out. Most of us desire a society, or multiple coexisting societies, in which every person’s potential to pursue happiness with liberty is maximized. The debates over the means to that end could fill a nation’s worth of libraries, encompassing everything from personal ethics to large-scale politics.

To keep this blog ever on track, I swear to abide by this constant principle: If it has little relevance to the well-being of you or other conscious creatures, it has no right to any bandwidth here. Within the limits of that maxim, be you a passionate feminist or an enemy of malaria, there’s bound to be something of interest to you here if you are still reading this. The most powerful asset in our hands, as people discontent with the status quo, is determination. Apathy tends to shrink when you purposefully hold yourself accountable to others who keep ubiquitous tabs on you, saying to their fellows, “Who wants to start the bidding on how long this New Year’s Resolution will last?” That is the main reason I chose to start this blog.

Are you in?