As DOJ fights for transgender rights in North Carolina, it blocks Chelsea Manning from growing her hair

Chelsea Manning

Illustration by Max Fleishman (Licensed)

Manning's attorney says the DOJ's double-standard is 'problematic.'

The U.S. Justice Department stood firmly behind America’s transgender community on Monday and filed a lawsuit against North Carolina over the state’s discriminatory “bathroom bill,” which bars transgender people from using the bathroom that matches their gender identity.

“This action is about a great deal more than just bathrooms,” U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch said during a news conference just after the Justice Department filed its lawsuit. “This is about the dignity and respect we accord our fellow citizens and the laws that we, as a people and as a country, have enacted to protect them.”

But as the Justice Department champions transgender rights in one arena, some say that it is actively opposing them in another. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is currently locked in a battle with the DOJ, which is representing the Defense Department, over Chelsea Manning’s right to grow out her hair.

“Of course it is the [Justice Department’s] responsibility to defend government agencies,” says Manning’s attorney, Chase Strangio of the ACLU, “but they certainly have taken some very problematic positions in the Chelsea Manning case and are aggressively fighting her request for medical care while she is incarcerated.” While Strangio praised Attorney General Lynch’s remarks regarding the transgender community as “powerful” and “important,” he also said that the government’s seeming cognitive dissonance “reflects the hard truth that we have a lot of work to do for the transgender community and many other communities within the United States.”

Manning, the Army private who was sentenced to 35 years in prison for leaking a trove of sensitive government files to WikiLeaks, came out as transgender in 2013. After a protracted legal battle, she now receives hormone therapy, cosmetics, gender-appropriate undergarments, and speech therapy. But allowing Manning to wear her hair longer than two-inches, according to a Justice Department court filing, would present “security concerns.”

The Justice Department did not respond to request for comment in time for publication.

Manning is being held with male prisoners at the maximum-security United States Disciplinary Barracks in Fort Leavenworth. The military is requiring that Manning keep her hair to the male standard of two inches, despite its own medical providers advising that she be allowed to grow her hair to female standards. Many of the military’s reasonings are under protective order, according to Strangio, but it argues that the decision is for Manning’s own safety within the facility. Strangio counters that regardless of hair length, those held alongside Manning already know that she is a woman.

The ACLU filed an amended complaint in October regarding Manning’s hair, arguing that by not applying female standards to their client, the military “undermines [Manning’s] medical treatment and singles her out for differential and discriminatory treatment on the basis of her sex, gender non-conformity and transgender status.” The Justice Department countered with a motion to dismiss and a ruling is forthcoming.

“There really is no other reason to prevent [Manning] from following standards that all other female prisoners in the military are able to follow,” says Strangio, “except for resistance to the very core idea that a transgender woman is a woman. And that really can’t be squared with what was said yesterday by the Attorney General.” 

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