FORT MEADE, Md. – The young Army intelligence specialist accused of passing government secrets spent his 24th birthday in court Saturday as his lawyers argued his status as a gay soldier before the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” played an important role in his actions.

Lawyers for Pfc. Bradley Manning began laying out a defense to show that his struggles as a gay soldier in an environment hostile to homosexuality contributed to mental and emotional problems that should have barred him from having access to sensitive material.

Manning is accused of leaking hundreds of thousands of sensitive items to the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks, including Iraq and Afghanistan war logs, State Department cables and a classified military video of a 2007 American helicopter attack in Iraq that killed 11 men, including a Reuters news photographer and his driver.

The Obama administration says the released information has threatened valuable military and diplomatic sources and strained America’s relations with other governments. Manning’s lawyers counter that much of the information that was classified by the Pentagon posed no risk.

The military is conducting a hearing in a small courtroom on an Army post outside Washington to determine whether prosecutors have enough evidence to bring Manning to trial, where he could face a term of life in prison as a traitor.

Prosecutors began presenting evidence to substantiate the charges against Manning.

Army criminal investigators described evidence they collected that links Manning to the WikiLeaks website’s collection of U.S. military and diplomatic secrets.

But among the first issues to arise Saturday was whether Manning’s sexual orientation is relevant to the case against him. The basis for the charges Manning faces are transcripts of online chats with a confidant-turned-government-informant in which Manning allegedly confesses his ties to WikiLeaks and also reveals he is gay.

Maj. Matthew Kemkes, a defense lawyer, asked Special Agent Toni Graham, an Army criminal investigator, whether she had talked to people who believed Manning was gay or found evidence among his belongings relating to gender-identity disorder. The condition often is described as a mental diagnosis in which people believe they were born the wrong sex.

Graham said such questions were irrelevant to the investigation. “We already knew before we arrived that Pfc. Manning was a homosexual,” Graham said.

Prosecutors objected several times to the questions. Kemkes responded that if the government can argue that Manning intended to leak secrets, “what is going on in my client’s mind is very important.”