Whether Chelsea Manning likes it or not, she’s becoming an icon with the same mythic status as Laverne Cox or Caitlyn Jenner.
To be honest, I didn’t know much about Manning and I never formed much of an opinion about her over the last seven years, until her gender identity became public and I started seeing that label overshadow the entirety of her story.
I saw a big part of the trans community bemoan the news and fear that all trans people would be seen as traitors -- and attempt to discredit Manning’s gender identity as a way to distance themselves from her.
I saw conservatives who were glad to jump at the opportunity to demonize and discredit both Manning and trans people in one punch, with rhetoric along the lines of, “He thinks he is a woman now? Either he’s mentally disturbed like those other transgenders or a coward trying to get out of prison.”
That’s when I took an interest, but the interest was related to the broader picture of how the transgender community gets scapegoated, how our stories are taken from us, and how we are treated in prisons.
Most of my information about her as a person comes from a recent article in the New York Times, by Matthew Shaer. It was a compelling look into the life of Chelsea Manning, her gender dysphoria, her isolation, the crime she committed, the punishment she suffered, and where she stands now.
I read the story not knowing what I’d feel or what to expect. I grew up during the 9/11 attacks and the creation of the twenty-four-hour news cycle by the media, who grasp at every sensational bit they can muster, to stay relevant.
After the initial shock and terror of the events in 2001, the years that came after served to numb us to the onslaught of news, war, and tragedy. Both someone leaking data and the horrible atrocities of futile war were just par for the course. Her leaks, trial, and imprisonment weren’t examined, understood, or scrutinized as anything other than just another thing that happened.
It was interesting to read the piece and see that the very apathy I described above was a motivation for her to leak the information in the first place.
Chelsea, on returning to the United States for a two-week leave, saw an incredible disconnect between civilians living here and soldiers across the sea. The public seemed to not really pay attention anymore or even know what was happening in Iraq or Afghanistan.
For myself, my only connection to that distant battlefield was the fear I had for the lives of my deployed friends. That’s what Iraq had become to me as a civilian, not some greater effort to accomplish or defend anything, but a place where the people I knew could die, and their hopes and dreams could meet a brutal end.
Manning leaked information because she hoped to end the fog and prevent the cavalier deaths of more young soldiers. The news spoke about the leaks at length, but focused on the consequences, and their story about the deplorable traitor Manning effectively muted everything else. They speculated that her actions had strained and destroyed the relationships we had with much of the world, as well as endangering our soldiers and allies.
Somewhere, lost in the reporting and outrage, was the broader context of the struggles and combat across the sea.
What she did was a crime and the leaks were an abuse of her military privileges. In that regard, she ignored the proper channels for whistleblowers that were designed to protect her in exposing criminal activities. However, the decision about what constitutes criminal activities that warrant protection for whistleblowers is determined by the military. Manning did not believe she could use the system as a way to release information that would challenge the system itself.
The Pentagon later testified that no casualties could be traced to the leaks, yet Manning was given the longest sentencing for any whistleblower in U.S. history, and was prosecuted using an act designed for people who colluded with the enemy. This is a legal strategy that many have said only serves to set up a chilling precedent to discourage our citizens, journalists, and soldiers from holding our country accountable.
Ultimately, like the French Revolution, it’s too soon to understand the positive or negative outcomes of her actions. It is too soon to say if she should’ve tried harder to work within the system or if going against protocol and taking the scorn of a nation was exactly what we needed to help start breaking up our post-9/11 culture of pain, fear, and secrecy through an act of heroism and transparency.
Either way, her leaks were a huge factor in Iraq’s decision to deny U.S troops immunity from prosecution after 2011, which led to us withdrawing from their country.
It’s worth knowing that she started out as a patriot who enlisted because she wanted to make a difference. She saw a country she was proud of and that she wanted to fight for doing atrocious things that she couldn’t stand behind. She knew the risks of her actions, she knew the consequence it would have for her, and she decided it was worth it.
Shaer quoted her saying, “Let’s protect sensitive sources. Let’s protect troop movements. Let’s protect nuclear information. Let’s not hide missteps. Let’s not hide misguided policies. Let’s not hide history. Let’s not hide who we are and what we are doing.”
When former President Barrack Obama commuted her sentence, there was outrage by those who’d rather see her dead than free. His response to that outrage and to criticism around that decision was to say that, “She served a tough prison sentence” and that “justice has been served.”
And no, being trans is not a get out of jail free card. Trans people don’t enjoy any privilege other than horror inside a prison, and seven years of torture as a trans woman in a male prison is a horrible sentence to bear, regardless of the weight of her crime and no matter where you stand on the issue.
To be trans in prison is to have a giant target on your back with no protection. The current practice of throwing trans people in solitary confinement for being trans is barbaric and sanity-destroying.
It also invites abuse from those supposedly guarding them. A report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics a few years ago found that 40% of trans people in prison reported being sexually assaulted by guards or other prisoners, a rate 10 times that of the general population.
This is the reality for a trans person entering the prison system. The day I sat down to write this article, I read a news story about a trans woman in the U.K. who won a settlement from a police station that had put her in holding, had male officers forcibly removed her clothes, sprayed her with mace twice, and left her mostly naked with nothing but toilet water to wash her eyes out. She was there because she attempted suicide in a hospital and broke some equipment in the attempt.
The day after I started writing this article, a trans women in Australia opened up about the innumerous times she was raped during her sentence in a male prison.
A few years ago, in Minneapolis, Cecil McDonald was put into a men’s prison because she defended herself from assault, after having a glass bottle thrown at her face. After she was released she spoke about her experiences and said that prison was bad for everyone; that rape was a risk for everyone in there. That she got targeted more because she was African American and trans, but that it’s an awful system, destructive to the dignity of any person.
These stories aren’t cherry-picked, they’re a drop in the frickin bucket.
I can say that if I were to find myself in her situation, I can understand her suicide attempts. I can understand going insane in solitary and banging my head against the wall and screaming at the top of my lungs to prove I still existed inside the box. I can understand the complete hopelessness, the despair, pulling my hair out trying to get the treatment I needed so I could stop feeling the existential pain of being in a prison within a prison. I can understand the pain of having your story and transition dictated by a press that demonizes you.
I can tell you that Chelsea Manning is stronger than I am. Faced with those odds, I would be dead today.
The article by Matthew Shaer ends with a letter to Chelsea Manning from a trans youth declaring Manning their hero. Matthew depicts her as not knowing how to really process that. She doesn’t know how to process being a trans icon or considered a hero by so many people in the trans community.
I will say that I don’t think that this praise comes from her leaks or the values of transparency, as much as it comes from her surviving. We live in a world where so many trans lives are abruptly ended for no other reason than we are trans -- a world so hostile to us that we still have 40% of our population try to take their life each year.
Chelsea dealt with all there is to deal with in being trans, but also with being considered an enemy of the state and being behind bars for seven years as a woman in a male prison for doing what she felt was morally right.
In our community, surviving is still something we praise and cherish in each other, and I think it’s why she is an icon and why she has become a hero to those in the LGBTQ+ community.
I’ve looked over this information from top to bottom several times while researching and writing this article. What I conclude from it all is that I think people want to see Manning as an ideal, because we as humans are drawn into the narrative convention of casting people as heroes or villains. I think Manning was probably just a person responding to the world she lived in. I think the tighter we try to keep our injustices secret, the more compelled people are to expose the truth. The harsher we see people treated within prisons, the more we are moved to wish for their justice and freedom.
As for Chelsea Manning, she probably wants a moment to live a life she never thought possible; a chance to live the dream of being her authentic self that kept her going long enough to see freedom again. She probably just wants to be a woman living the rest of her life after having paid her debt.
Regardless of what will come or if she embraces being a role model or hero for those in the community, she’s earned some time to rediscover herself and redefine her life.
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