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Transgender in the military: What a Wausau native author observed: Mentzer column

2:23 PM, Sep. 3, 2013  |  Comments
Chris Beck, as pictured on the cover of 'Warrior Princess: A Navy SEAL's Journey to Coming Out Transgender.'
Chris Beck, as pictured on the cover of 'Warrior Princess: A Navy SEAL's Journey to Coming Out Transgender.'
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Chelsea Manning, the U.S. Army private formerly known as Bradley Manning, was convicted last month of leaking state secrets to the website Wikileaks. Her announcement that she is transgender and wants to be known as Chelsea came soon after.

This did not sit well with a certain former Navy SEAL.

"This person took an oath to protect American interests and defend the Constitution," the former Navy SEAL wrote on Facebook, "and took additional oaths due to security clearances to protect information that leaders deem secret. ... This person is a liar and a thief and a traitor to many people."

What's more, Manning could be faking gender identity issues just to get easier accommodations in federal prison. Manning's gender identity is "just a claim."

Here's the kicker: The former Navy SEAL questioning whether Manning's gender identity issues are real is named Kristin Beck, formerly Chris Beck, whose book "Warrior Princess: A U.S. Navy SEAL's Journey to Coming out Transgender" shone a light on what it is like to be a member of the military facing questions about gender identity. The book, the cover of which features Chris Beck standing outside a military outpost with a massive beard, is also the story of Beck's decision after leaving military service to live as a woman.

Beck's coauthor on that book is Anne Speckhard, a Wausau native whose life has taken her around the world since she graduated from Wausau West High School in 1976, both as the wife of former U.S. Ambassador Daniel Speckhard and as a Ph.D. researcher studying psychological trauma in the aftermath of terrorist attacks. Her 2012 book, "Talking to Terrorists," detailed interviews with hundreds of former and active terrorists, their family members and their victims. "Warrior Princess" came about after Speckhard met Beck at a counterterrorism conference; the book was published in June.

I recently talked to Speckhard about the book and a piece she had written at Huffington Post that made the claim that the Army's own lack of good policies for dealing with gender identity dysphoria - the intense psychological pain that a person who feels uncomfortable in his or her biological gender - could have contributed to Manning's decision to destructively leak state secrets in the first place.

Here is something I learned from Speckhard that I did not know and would not have guessed: Researchers say male-to-female transgender people are disproportionately represented in the military. According to one theory, they might be trying to suppress their female gender identities - overcompensating, in other words, for the fact that they feel like they're women by becoming super-, extra-masculine according to the gender markers we're used to.

I wondered if that was what Beck was doing, too, but it turns out she and Speckhard apparently have had a falling out. When I wrote on Twitter that I had interviewed Speckhard, Beck wrote back to me that "ANNE SPECKHARD DOES NOT SPEAK FOR ME" and that "THE REAL STORY IS YET TO BE TOLD."

It is a bit weird, of course, that Beck would have coauthored a book that does not tell the "real story" and then done a bunch of media appearances to promote that book after it came out. But Beck did not respond to my email requesting clarifications, so who knows.

Under criticism for her judgments of Manning, I think Beck backed off a bit from the claim that Manning was faking it. My reading of Beck's initial statements is that she just really resented that Manning was going to forever associate "transgender" and "traitor" in a lot of people's minds. I get that. It is possible to support Manning's right to identify as a woman while also condemning the leaks of classified information, or vice versa. But here in the real world, we tend to want to see things in black and white. So if you hate the leaks, you also make a show of being publicly skeeved out by her being transgender; if you see Manning as a hero, you also support her right to be a "she." That's not really the way it should be, but that's what I've observed.

Speckhard sees a connection between the two things that is a bit more nuanced. The transgender person's sense of a massive secret, of inner turmoil that they cannot correct, is a huge psychological burden. While carrying that burden, Manning saw state secrets that seemed to her to indicate wrongdoing and she had the power to do something about it. Had Manning seen for herself a clearer path to the gender identity she wanted, Speckhard thinks, then the imperative to expose national security secrets might well have felt less urgent.

This seems weird to the great majority of people who feel like they have fairly stable gender identities. But for those who don't feel that way, Speckhard said, it feels like living every day with a massive secret, ready to burst.

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