On Thursday, Chelsea Manning (formerly known as Bradley) confirmed what has long been suspected by folks following her story, she is not a gay man, she is a transgender woman. If only her confident-sounding official announcement could have been made in happier circumstances. On Wednesday, Manning was sentenced to 35 years in prison for various charges — including violation of the Espionage Act — related to her leak of hundreds of thousands of documents related to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Guantanamo Bay, and numerous private diplomatic communications.
During the 1,293 days between her arrest in May, 2010 and this statement, there were hints at Manning’s status, but no confirmation. Now Manning herself has stated her preference, which is all that matters. The often oft-amusing Erin Gloria Ryan wrote a good enough Jezebel post on respecting Manning’s transition and not being horrible about it. But Ryan didn’t really delve into the the reason Manning faces such a long time behind bars. Indeed, Jezebel itself (and this is a sign of a bigger problem for the blog, with rare exceptions) seems to be unable to translate caring about feminist issues such as being an ally to the trans community into bigger issues like embracing more radical politics than the dreaminess of the Commander in Chief.
Certainly Manning’s status is not unimportant, especially now that she is set to begin her sentence with the knowledge that the military will not be respecting her gender identity. (Not to mention her torturous treatment during some of her pre-trial detainment.) Also, her less-than-hetero status has been used by critics ever since her name appeared in the press. Back in 2010, conservative commentator Ann Coulter decided that Manning leaked the information because she was a gay man “in a snit” and therefore couldn’t be trusted with sensitive intel. Other right-wingers like actor Adam Baldwin reacted to the confirmation of Manning as Male-to-Female by charmingly wondering “which came first: Manning’s insanity, or his treason?” Manning’s identity seems awfully convenient for folks who already thought “he” had done wrong by leaking.
But even now, to focus solely on Manning’s MtoF status is myopic. She is more than a trans woman who warrants support because there’s no real reason not to use someone’s preferred gender. She didn’t leak because she was suffering great stress partially due to — but not entirely because of — her difficulties adjusting to the military. She definitely did not leak because she was trans. She leaked because, in her own words, she changed her mind about the war on terror after seeing how up close. She committed an anarchic, arguably reckless act fueled by very clearly expressed principles of opposition to government secrecy, the occupation of Iraq, and the deaths of innocent civilians. She saw things during her stint as a military analyst in a warzone, and she thought people should know some of the things she knew. She wanted a more transparent society.
Yes, you might argue she could have leaked more judiciously. She certainly shouldn’t have trusted hacker and eventual-rat Adrian Lamo with her confession of criminal guilt. But to talk about Manning should be to talk about concepts arguably even more radical than complicated aspects of gender. Government leaders, police, the military, all have special privileges and immunities not granted to the average person. Individuals in the U.S. and more violently abroad bear the brunt of that privilege often. Iraq is a fucking mess, thanks in large part to the United States. Afghanistan, too. Drone strikes throughout the Middle East kill and psychologically torture civilians, and breed more resentment of the United States and more terrorists. Manning’s release of war-logs helped paint a much clearer picture of how these wars are fought, something U.S. society, with its constant refusal to depict the real, bloody cost of conflict, sorely needs. By pushing hard against the stifling, dusty room of government secrets, Manning changed the world and let some sunshine in. She may have even helped jump-start the Arab Spring. And her actions lead to Snowden (even if he looked at her partially as how not to leak). Snowden in turn sparked the current, snowballing debate about what powers the national security sector has, what powers it claims to have, and what Congress, and the President, and the public should do about it.
Knowing the questions her actions raise, it doesn’t make sense to ignore Manning’s status as a political figure. Jezebel has broached the subject of less-sympathetic prisoners who were also trans slightly more cautiously in the past. (Though there’s nothing wrong with expressing some empathy for anyone caught up in the United States’ fucked up, enormous prison system, guilty, violent, or not.) Support her or not (and I argue you should), Manning is a woman who committed a bold and lawless act. She is not just a reason to discuss the rotten treatment of trans individuals by society, the military, or the prison system. That conversation is important, but it’s not the one Manning sacrificed her freedom to start.
Let’s respect Manning by referring to her by chosen name and prefered pronoun. But let’s also respect the woman who is now stoically facing 35 years in prison by continuing to talk about what she did, and how we’re going to respond to the next whistleblower.