TV

Manning 's gender-swap request echoes prison plot on 'Orange is the New Black'

Aug. 22, 2013 at 12:14 PM ET

IMAGE: Laverne Cox on "Orange is the New Black"
Netflix
Transgender actor Laverne Cox plays Sophia Burset, a transgender prisoner who has her hormone dosage reduced due to budget cuts, on the Netflix show "Orange is the New Black."

Bradley Manning's announcement that he wants to be referred to as "Chelsea," and now wants to begin receiving hormone therapy "as soon as possible," had a familiar feel to it, at least for fans of "Orange is the New Black." 

On the Netflix series, the character of Sophia Burset is a transgender inmate who was born male, yet is being held in the show's fictional women's prison. Burset is played by transgender actor Laverne Cox, who was born male but has been living as a woman since the late 1990s.

Burset's situation does differ from Manning's though. Manning is not requesting to go to a female prison. "The ultimate goal is to be comfortable in her skin and be the person she has never had the opportunity to be," Manning's attorney David Coombs told Savannah Guthrie in a point of clarification on TODAY. 

Another difference: Burset entered prison as a woman (she was sent to prison for committing credit card fraud in order to pay for her gender-reassignment surgery). Once in prison, budget cuts resulted in her estrogen dosage being reduced, and then denied completely. She was so desperate to maintain the hormones that kept her looking and feeling like a woman that she tried to convince her wife to smuggle them in and then plotted to trick a menopausal nun into sharing her hormone pills. 

Manning will not be able to receive Army-provided hormone therapy, according to Kimberly Lewis, a spokesperson at the military prison in Fort Leavenworth, Kan., where Manning is being held and will serve her sentence. 

"The Army does not provide hormone therapy or sex-reassignment surgery for gender identity disorder,” Lewis said

Transgender people have been portrayed in other television shows and in movies, of course. Animated "South Park" teacher Mr. Garrison was a man who became a woman who became a man again (it's "South Park," after all). Transgender characters have also appeared on such shows as "The L Word," "Nip/Tuck," "Glee" and "Ugly Betty." And the issue was raised onscreen as far back as 1975. In the Oscar-winning "Dog Day Afternoon," Al Pacino's character disastrously attempts to rob a bank in order to raise money for his lover's gender-reassignment surgery.

If the "Orange is the New Black" plot line is the one that rings most true, there's another point to consider. Outside the television world, prisons usually go by birth gender when assigning inmates. Even after gender-reassignment surgery (which Manning has not had, and Coombs says he hasn't discussed with her), a prisoner could end up in the population of their birth gender -- or in isolation for their own protection.

Regardless, like the Burset character who had to fight to get her hormone therapy -- which was ultimately restored -- Coombs hopes that Fort Leavenworth "would do the right thing" and provide for Manning. "If Fort Leavenworth does not, then I'm going to do everything in my power to make sure they are forced to do so," he said.


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