Photo of Kate Bornstein by Maxwell Lander
Editors' Note: We are aware that Chelsea Manning will not have access to this open letter right away. According to the Leavenworth prisoners' handbook, Manning will not have Internet access, so we will physically mail this to her (there's a whole procedure to follow if we want it to get to her, and we have to use her "Bradley" name and prison number, once it's assigned), so if anyone wants to also send the physical letter, please do.
Hello. My name is Kate Bornstein. I invite you to think of me as your whacky old aunt who loves you very much, and wants only the very best for you. I’m 65—a very old lady, indeed. I was born boy in 1948. I legally became girl in 1986 at the age of 38—I was 10 years older than you when I openly began my transition in 1983.
But enough about me. Let’s get right to you, missy. I know—well, the whole web-connected world has access to the information—that you’ve lived through the horror of “extreme solitary confinement” for months on end. You are the survivor of over-the-top cruel and unusual punishment, the kind of cruel and unusual punishment you’re likely to face over the next decade, honey, when you face active and potentially violent opposition to you simply being the girl you know you are.
It’s easier to use the labels boy and girl than man and woman. Men and women—both cisgender and transgender—are very possessive about those labels, so I’ve found it easier to claim neither gender as my own. A lot of people are upset with you because you’re tampering with the notion of what it means to be a woman. I do that too—I break the laws of gender. So, I call myself a Gender Outlaw. My neither/nor gender status has been a choice. Your current in-between gender state has been forced on you, and it breaks my heart. I wish I could hug and comfort you.
Every trans* person in the world has had a hardship in transitioning from one gender to another. Every single one of us, Chelsea, has cried about our transitions and strove passionately against all odds to finally express ourselves as who we’ve always felt ourselves to be. But you have been dealt a particularly rough hand. And you’re still going to be better off than some trans people in the world. There are hundreds if not thousands of genders and sexualities being owned and expressed in the world today by some very brave people in some very scary places. You’ll soon find a way to express your gender as best you can in the mono-gendered world of Leavenworth Federal Prison.
Please look at it this way, Chelsea… you’re a soldier and a girl. What does that translate into? You’re a real-life kick-ass warrior princess… only most people think you’re a guy. That really, really sucks. I know. I had my own warrior princess days when I was a guy, and an officer in the Sea Org, the paramilitary clergy of the Church of Scientology. I lived a military-style two-only gender life for 12 years before I couldn’t take it any longer. With strength, luck, and your good behavior, you might even get out in eight years. You’ll still have a lot of girl life ahead of you.
But no matter how all this upheaval in your life shakes itself out, please know this: God (or Goddess, or whatever gender-free deity, angel or sprite might move your spirit) only gives us what we’re capable of handling. A whole lot of people, including and especially me, your auntie, have faith in you to handle what you’ve been given, because you’ve done such a good job of that so far. Keep that inside your heart, please.
The good news is: You are not alone. You have got a huge support network out here. There are already folks out here who proudly call themselves your sisters, and brothers. You’ve got uncles, and you’ve got aunties, like me. Given a decade in your circumstances, it’s possible you’ll find a daddy, if that’s what you’re looking for. And somewhere in your life, you’re going to find your trans* mom, and she will teach you many wise trans* things.
My own trans* mom—and by extension, your great trans* aunt—was Doris Fish, San Francisco’s premiere drag queen in the 1980’s. The plague took her, hon. Please, please, please take every precaution to keep yourself safe from HIV and other sexually transmitted infections. Use safer sex guidelines, whenever you can. I hope you find someone inside those walls who will comfort you. Until you find someone like that in your life, please remember that alone doesn’t equal lonely.
Now… a word about hormones, because EVERYONE is clamoring about your hormones. Yes, of course hormones are important. I LOVE what hormones have done for the enjoyment of my own freaking freaky body. You’re going to love what hormones are gonna do for you, too. I promise. But for now, you just have to be patient. I know, you want to slap me, right? Sorry, grasshopper—you’re just going to have to use this part of your life to learn the art of patience.
I’d suggest the Stephen Mitchell translation of Lao-Tse’s Tao Te Ching, an ancient Chinese text. The Tao (which means “the way” or “the center path”) has gone a long way into making sense of my own gender quandary. Plus, it’s only 5,000 words long! I’ll figure out some way to get you that, if you’d like me to. But, I digress.
Back to hormones. My girlfriend and I (yes, I’m a dyke) are going to look into the possibilities of a bunch of us out here paying for your hormones and then sending them to you in prison. Please ask your lawyer to ask if the US Military prison system will administer them for you. (Hello, Mister Lawyer—thank you for taking good care of my dear niece, Chelsea. Please call me if I can help.)
Wrapping up now. I’m going to give you some last bits of advice. Not everyone is going to give you the same advice as me—and it would do you well to get advice from a LOT of people who only want the best for you. But this is me, your Auntie Kate, telling you:
Job one: Stay alive. Do anything you need to do in order to make your life more worth living. You’ve been in the army, and in jail, so you know how to obey the rules. The rule that counts the most for you right now is this: don’t be mean. Anything else goes.
Job two: Make yourself as safe as possible. You've been a member of the US military. You know what it means to fight an enemy. You’ve got a different kind of enemy now—people who will hate you for the sole reason that you’re trans*. You’ll need to put into play every bit of military strategy you’ve ever learned, as you deal with people we call transphobes, or transphobic.
Please keep this in mind: Transphobes are expressing the same fears we had about ourselves right up until the day we admitted that we were in fact trans. You’ve taken a HUGE step forward in self-expression, and I’m very proud of you for that.
Job three: Experience as much ecstasy as you can, with the girl/boy body you’ve got right now. You are occupying an in-between stage of transition, and most cultures consider that place pretty darned magical and powerful. Underneath it all, we’re all caterpillars on our way to butterfly.
Job four: As best as you can, make your body look the way you’d really like it to look. Do something, every day—even if it’s as simple using your fingernails tweeze a single hair from your brows,—to make yourself a little more happy with your body.
In closing, baby girl, remember that you have brothers and sisters and aunties and uncles all around the world who are so proud of you. Thousands of us, in fact. Think of us, and breathe.
Kate Bornstein is an author, performer, and advocate for teens, freaks, and other outlaws." Her most recent book is A Queer and Pleasant Danger: the true story of a nice Jewish boy who joins the Church of Scientology and leaves twelve years later to become the lovely lady she is today. Follow Kate Bornstein on Twitter.