I started writing this before Bradley Manning came out as Chelsea. At the time, I was trying to piece together the niblets and whispers of news about Manning’s sexuality – that she was gay and also transgender. My use of Manning’s three names – Bradley, Breanna, and Chelsea – is to respect the complex historical process that is gender identification.
Before going public, Manning had an online presence as Breanna on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. The New York Times quoted Manning as saying to a former hacker, “I wouldn’t mind going to prison for the rest of my life, or being executed so much, if it wasn’t for the possibility of having pictures of me … plastered all over the world press … as [a] boy.”
Interestingly, no further comment followed. Mainstream news remained pretty much silent on this issue. It did not help matters, at least for me, that early on Manning’s defence team raised her “sexual confusion” and “gender dysphoria” as a possible explanation for her whistleblowing. This complex matter of Manning’s personal and gender choices and how it related to her public and moral stances obviously was too complex to be discussed by mainstream news outlets, or dealt with in a courtroom.
Feminists of all political types, races and genders have brilliantly argued since the early 1970s that the “personal is political”, that there is a sexual politic to each moment; that the so-called divide between sex and politics, and the private and the public, is blurry and messy but also crucial. When it comes to transgender peoples, add in race and class and stir wildly.
So I will use these long-established anti-racist feminist insights and extend them to the realm of sexual choice and gender non-conforming people of all fashions. Paisley Currah, a transgender rights activist and researcher committed to the rewiring of law for transpeople; and Gayle Rubin, a long-time feminist and radical sex activist, make clear the necessity of opening our democratic hearts to the freedom of sexual beings in all their gendered variety and individuality.
Manning’s gift to the US public is to have exposed a militarism that is harmful, deceitful and devastating alongside a full transparency of her personal/sexual self.
Do not confuse all the cultural noise about sex with gender freedom. There is so much reporting of sexual scandal in our surroundings that one could wrongly assume that our culture is wildly free about sex or gender choices, rather than quite disciplining.
Whistleblower or traitor?
My embrace of Manning is as a whistleblower of keen ethical clarity, and as a member of a sexual minority and distinct gender identity who deserves equal rights and treatment. I am against all forms of terror – especially the kind that makes it hard to feel comfortable in our own bodies, whatever they may be. Manning was terrorised as a youth for being gay and now will probably suffer dearly for transitioning to a woman.
Manning’s gift to the US public is to have exposed a militarism that is harmful, deceitful and devastating, alongside a full transparency of her personal/sexual self. That she has done so in a public statement read on the Today show by her lawyer David Coombs makes clear that her commitments are to the wider public, not simply to herself. In her own words, “As I transition into this next phase of my life, I want everyone to know the real me. I am Chelsea Manning. I am a female” … and have “felt so since childhood”. We should embrace this public declaration with a careful scrutiny of our sexual and gendered culture and its anti-democratic lens.
Manning does not stand alone here. In 2011, a 23-year-old black transgender woman in Minnesota was convicted of second degree manslaughter in a transphobic incident, which her supporters say was an act of complete self-defense. She remains in a men’s prison for her 41-month sentence. The day after Manning came out to the world, Islan Nettles, also a 21-year-old transgender black woman, was brutally beaten in Harlem and died the next morning.
And then there is the TV character Sophia Burset who is a transgender black woman in prison on the hit series Orange is the New Black. She has to struggle to maintain her right to hormonal therapy given cutbacks in prison medical care. She is in a women’s prison, and is played by Laverne Cox, a transgender black actress. There is also the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, which has been working for the past ten years to support incarcerated transgendered people.
Manning has initiated a rare moment of opportunity that makes mainstream silence a bit more difficult. She is a patriot and demands radical sexual and gender rights for anyone wishing to simply be who they are, regardless of institutionalised gender. These alliances and allegiances are complicated and complex. The extra-legal nature of misogynist, heterosexist and transphobic gender rules increases the problems that Manning will now face in a military prison for men.
Manning came from a background with limited familial support so she joined the military to get an education, despite being only 157cm tall and a closeted gay. She also hoped that military life would curtail the desire to become a woman. She is described as smart and technically brilliant. She was horrified, maybe somewhat naively, by the cruelty and deceit that she discovered were integral to the Iraq war. Once she saw the carnage of wanton murders and the lies to cover them up, she felt compelled to tell the American people.
Chelsea Manning reveals just how complex human beings are.
Living as Bradley/Breanna, Manning leaked 700,000 documents exposing aspects of an illegal war and the torture and killing of unarmed civilians. She was sure that no one would support these actions if given the choice – and bravely decided to risk everything to give the US public a choice.
Alexa O’Brien, who followed the Manning trial every day, says Manning is more a moral person than a political one. She believes Manning is hard to sell to the American public because she is not easily packaged for US media.
It’s a difficult sell, because Chelsea Manning reveals just how complex human beings are. She knew she was gay since her early teens and then started to feel uncomfortable as a man. She started to cross-dress a bit and came out as a woman to her master sergeant Paul Adkins, saying that she suffered from gender dysphoria and attached a photo dressed as a woman. Information on hormone replacement therapy was found in her room. Bradley’s commanding officer Captain Steven Lim knew she had been calling herself Breanna.
In an interview with Amy Goodman on Democracy Now, O’Brien reveals that the largest leak by Manning was in January 2010, around the same time she was on leave in the US and had started to dress as a woman. Whereas Manning said she had been “troubled” and that this may have led to harming others, it is more likely that the terror she faced for being a woman in a male body caused whatever confusion there was. But maybe Breanna and Chelsea’s loneliness and pain assisted her identification with the powerless against US military policy.
A civil rights matter
Feminists of all types must widen their commitments to see how anti-militarism is part of the larger sexual, gender and racial democracy. The civil rights movement should see an ally in Manning, who has stood openly against the US military’s killing and maiming of Arabs and Muslims in Iraq and Afghanistan.
We have a rare opportunity to create an anti-war coalition of anti-racist feminists of all sorts, no matter their biological body. This would be a coalition that embraces sexual, economic, racial, and gender rights for each and every one of us.
Chelsea Manning should be free and not incarcerated for whistleblowing. But if not, the military prison system should recognise her rights to her female body. Feminists and progressives of all sorts must continue to enlarge their visions and their dreams in whatever sexual and gender and racial formation we desire.
Zillah Eisenstein has written feminist theory in North America for the past thirty years. She is an internationally renowned writer and activist and Distinguished Scholar of Anti-Racist Feminist Political Theory at Ithaca College, Ithaca, New York.