How whistleblower and trans activist Chelsea Manning is moving forward
Chelsea Manning originally found herself in the national spotlight after releasing hundreds of thousands of classified military documents to WikiLeaks in 2010. Manning, who was then known by her birth name, “Bradley,” discovered documents and videos she found profoundly disturbing — including videos of civilians being shot and killed by U.S. forces — while serving as an intelligence analyst stationed in Iraq.
"I believed if the public, particularly the American public, could see this it could spark a debate on the military and our foreign policy in general [that] might cause society to reconsider the need to engage in counterterrorism while ignoring the human situation of the people we engaged with everyday,” Manning said in a 2012 statement to the court during the trials that followed the leaks.
In July of 2013, Manning was convicted to 35 years in prison on charges of espionage and theft — a sentence much harsher than those given to other whistleblowers in U.S. history. Manning’s lawyers filed an appeal in 2015 and then-President Barack Obama commuted the sentence in May of 2017.
The day after she was sentenced, Manning came out as trans. She petitioned to be legally recognized as “Chelsea Manning” and to start hormone therapy as soon as possible, and chronicled her experiences identifying as female in an all-male facility and efforts to access gender-related treatments while imprisoned.
Since her release earlier this year, Manning has been speaking about issues like gender identity and surveillance in the press and at colleges and universities. On November 15, I had the chance to see her speak at Wesleyan University. Manning, who was invited to speak by the Wesleyan Democratic Socialists, spoke at an event co-hosted by a variety of student groups. She opted to speak to Wesleyan’s community about issues beyond the hallmark aspects of her experience. Specifically, she spoke about institutionalized violence against trans people, arguing that a systemic change in policy and attitude is in order.
Manning spoke extensively about "administrative bullying," which she defined as the inability of administrators of institutions to shrug off the discriminatory policies embedded in those institutions. Manning said she frequently encountered this practice while trying to navigate prison as a trans woman. Prisoners can be written up by guards for things as simple as taking an extra sugar packet back to their bed or drawing a sexual image in their private diary, Manning said, and the enforcement of these rules is relatively subjective. As such, non-cis/het women inmates tended to suffer more at the hands of guards primarily because of their “otherness.”
Manning’s personal experience with administrative bullying came to a head when she attempted to get new documentation with her proper name. After she transitioned, Manning had to jump through a plethora of administrative hoops to obtain a new photo ID, which she needed because her only documentation at the time was the name change order that was issued to her right before she was imprisoned. It takes a lot of time, money, and resources to navigate the process of changing documentation, and many trans people do not have any of those things. For example, in order to get a new ID, Manning needed to present multiple alternative forms of identification — which is obviously a catch-22 as she didn’t have these alternative forms. Manning said this process is an example of a deliberate form of “policing through our paperwork.” In this way, she added, trans existence itself is a form of resistance in a world that tries to use administrative policy to “other” and exclude people.
Manning also reminded the audience that even progressive communities and groups often take an incrementalist approach to social justice, which often proves detrimental to marginalized individuals. Social movements often fixate on a particular, attainable goal in order to attract supporters. Those supporters then tend to see that singular goal as the end point for the entire movement. This is a dangerous attitude to have, as marginalized folks who may not benefit from that first, singular goal are often left behind. For example, the queer rights movement did not end with Obergefell, the Supreme Court case that legalized same-sex marriage, as that single victory, though important, doesn’t solve the myriad issues caused by homophobia and transphobia in this country. Marriage equality doesn’t address the disproportionate rates of homelessness among queer people, the poor treatment of queer people in prisons and schools, or the aforementioned difficulty of changing documentation when undergoing a gender transition. Incremental steps like achieving same-sex marriage are important and necessary, but we cannot allow our activism to end altogether when such incremental goals are achieved.
So what’s next for Manning? “I don’t have an agenda,” she told her Wesleyan audience, adding that she hadn’t previously thought she would be out of prison by now. While elated to be free, she’s also terrified, she said, because “this is not the world that I recognize.” She sees herself as more of a motivator than a political figure and plans on continuing to use her mantra “#WeGotThis” to boost morale among fellow trans people and her supporters, and urge the community to come together even when things seem bleak.
As we continue to push for a better and brighter nation, this morale boost is important. We will keep trying to reform these flawed institutions and keep in mind that Manning is right: #WeGotThis.
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