On August 22nd, Chelsea Manning released the following announcement on the Today Show on NBC:
“I want to thank everybody who has supported me over the last three years. Throughout this long ordeal, your letters of support and encouragement have helped keep me strong. I am forever indebted to those who wrote to me, made a donation to my defense fund, or came to watch a portion of the trial. I would especially like to thank Courage to Resist and the Bradley Manning Support Network for their tireless efforts in raising awareness for my case and providing for my legal representation.
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. Given the way that I feel, and have felt since childhood, I want to begin hormone therapy as soon as possible. I hope that you will support me in this transition. I also request that, starting today, you refer to me by my new name and use the feminine pronoun (except in official mail to the confinement facility). I look forward to receiving letters from supporters and having the opportunity to write back.
Chelsea E. Manning”
Ms. Manning is a recently incarcerated member of the US military who had released several thousand documents to WikiLeaks. She was sentenced to 35 years, a reduction in rank from Private First Class to Private, a dishonorable discharge, and a loss of her military pay.
This isn’t about what Chelsea Manning did. This isn’t about calling her a patriot or a traitor. Personally, I feel she may be a bit of both, and while I don’t think her sentence fits the crime, I also feel that a lot of what she exposed should not have been hidden. I think the whole thing is complex and difficult, and not easily pinned down in the typical political dichotomies everything is typically reduced to.
I also think that’s a good thing. We need to think beyond the notion of political ideologies – reduced to notions resembling rival sports teams.
However, at the end of Chelsea Manning’s trial, her story took a turn that made it my business. Prior to the publication of Chelsea’s letter, lawyers for Manning attempted to claim that stress surrounding Manning’s gender identity may have been a part – but only a part – of the reason she leaked sensitive material.
I personally have an issue with this. While I’m no stranger to the stresses of being a transgender woman in our modern culture, I find myself concerned with any legal strategy that makes it sound as if being transgender can lead a person to commit criminal acts. While it was a largely open secret that Manning is transgender, seeing her legal team trot out a 2012 photo of her to discuss how she hoped joining the Army would help her “get rid” of her transgender “problem” does leave an ill taste in my mouth.
A recent study from the Williams Institute discovered that transgender people are twice as likely to serve in the United States Armed Forces than non-transgender people. Many may also be seeking to reinforce male characteristics in one way or another. Only one of these transgender service members that we know of has released logs that they perhaps should not have.
So now Manning has come out and her path is not an easy one. Transgender inmates often face ill treatment behind bars, and often find it next-to-impossible to get what treatment they may need. In Manning’s case, you have a whole new level of bias that may have her ability to get care behind bars all but impossible.
Meanwhile, people all around the spectrum are tripping over themselves in trying to know what to call Manning. While MSNBC, Slate, and the Huffington Post were quick to revise their use of names and pronouns with Manning, others were less willing to take that step. CNN and USA Today, for example, wanted more “evidence” before going forward, as if Manning’s own words were not enough. Others, such as the Associated Press – who should have used their own stylebook – and NPR went back and forth.
Transgender and GLBT organizations have also stumbled. Controversy brewed in San Francisco over whether Manning could be a Grand Marshall, while other organizations tried to grasp a change from Manning as a gay man to a transgender woman.
Like I said above: Manning made it clear in her letter that she’s Chelsea Manning. She’ll be doing what she can, now that the trial is done, to move forward. Sometimes it takes something this dramatic to move a person forward, and I’m glad that she’s choosing to live a happy – even if imprisoned – life, rather than less lively options.
For better or worse, Manning’s fame, or infamy, depending on your opinion of what she did, make her one of the most well-known transgender people of the modern era. Her name may be uttered as we speak of Chaz Bono or Laverne Cox of Orange is the New Black. Agree with what she did or not, she’s Chelsea E. Manning, and she’s a female, and she’s part of the transgender community.
We don’t have to consider the nature of what she did, or if it was right or wrong: We need to understand that how she’s treated as a transperson is how we’re all treated. Her struggle is ours.