When Chelsea Manning first appeared as a trans woman, the announcement came like a lightning bolt, electrifying an already charged political landscape. All of a sudden, those of us in the trans community had to brace against the inevitable backlash from what was now the most famous trans woman in the world being branded a “traitor.” What I was not quite prepared for was for her to become a hero, even a saintly figure, to so many of us.
Rumors had been circulating about her gender since 2010, when journalist Xeni Jardin, writing for Boing Boing, published chatlogs of a conversation between Manning and the hacker Adrian Lamo. In the process, her words “the CPU is not made for this motherboard,” in veiled reference to her gender, were put out into the media sphere.
After a trans person tweeted at Jardin that she’d just “outed Manning,” the journalist wrote a follow-up piece explaining how she had no idea that the somewhat coded language, or even Manning’s use of the word “transition,” might refer to Manning talking about a transgender identity. To Jardin’s everlasting credit, she gave an honest account of her reasoning and interpretation of the logs before editing the original piece to remove “specifics of personal issues not directly related to the whistleblowing/national security concerns at hand.” But it was in the water now, and though the revelation remained out of view from mainstream observers, it was fair to say that many trans women looked at the logs Jardin had published and saw our own faces staring back at us.
Of course, not everyone welcomed the suggestion that Manning was Chelsea, even in seemingly open-minded communities. “I mentioned in the comments on Queerty, I think it was, that we don’t know for sure that Manning is a man, so we should hold off placing anyone in the pantheon of gay heroes,” April Daniels, the young adult fiction author and trans writer, told me. “The comments shutting me down were swift and aggressive. Lots of really stern words that amounted to a polite ‘fuck off how dare you.’” For Daniels it was the first time that she realized she “couldn’t trust places that said they were LGBT, because they would always forget the rest of us were in the acronym, too.”
But for the trans community, the familiarity in Manning’s logs was too much to ignore. The odds that she was a #girllikeus, to borrow the Janet Mock-inspired hashtag, were suddenly very high indeed. We had to prepare for what that meant in a militaristic society where treason is a literal death sentence. We had to prepare for the fact that the face of the ultimate civic betrayal would be a trans face.
In August 2013, Manning publicly removed all doubt. But we were prepared to defend her.
There is a certain irony in the fact that Julian Assange, a man whose glory was built on the back of Manning’s War Logs leaks, has been rehabilitated by a political right that once demanded he be shot. Meanwhile, Manning remains a fetish object of hatred for them. That has everything to do with the values that each committed themselves to in the years since the War Logs. The embassy-bound Assange asserted himself like a vengeful internet troll; Manning’s prison dispatches revealed a woman whose commitment to radical politics was both sincere and principled.
Assange, though under a de facto house arrest, retires to plum, Wi-Fi-equipped digs every night. Manning has had to endure torture in an actual prison — from being denied necessary transgender health care to solitary confinement, both, in their measure, contributing to her being a suicide risk. No one could begrudge Manning if she felt bitter, yet her writing has been a candle of hope. “I am scared and I don’t know what to do, but I feel a lot of responsibility,” she wrote in a post-election essay posted to Medium. The messages she transmits through the layers of carceral bureaucracy, via her lawyers, onto Twitter and Medium, are statements of principle that never forget the neediest among us.
“How will we protect ourselves and unite together?” she asks at the end of that Medium post; there is no swagger here, no score-settling, only a vulnerable responsibility. In response to leaked text of a disastrously anti-LGBT executive order being mooted by Trump in January, Manning tweeted: “Now, each morning we wake up and ask ‘What next?’ Answer: We keep going <3”
“The word ‘inspiring’ gets thrown about so much vis-a-vis trans matters,” says trans author Casey Plett. “Often, though, not always, by cis people writing about such trans matters. But I think Chelsea Manning has been an inspirational woman to us in the truest sense of the word. Or, at least, I’ve heard many trans women express admiration for her resolve and determination to do what she could in her position to right injustice.”
When you consider the conditions she has lived under, between torture and her life’s uttermost intimacies being held up to the glaring lights of angry public scrutiny, Manning’s optimism seems almost superhuman. A trans friend of mine, Cassandra Kleinpeter, put it rather well: “Her courage has been such an inspiration to me in my own journey. If she can be true to herself with all the adversity she’s faced for making a moral choice in an immoral system how can I do any less?”
While Julian Assange was abetting the campaign of Donald Trump, who exploited every terrorist atrocity he could to whip up fear and hatred, Manning got a dispatch out to The Guardian where she decried those who used ISIS’s terror to stoke Islamophobia and erode our privacy rights. In the aftermath of the bloody Bataclan massacre in Paris, Manning found the courage to speak in defense of those values that terrorists and their unwitting handmaidens on the political right seek to erode:
“I don’t have all the answers – but I do know that blaming minority groups, refugees and immigrants, investing in gigantic surveillance platforms and calling for expansive legal authority and the creation of a neo-Gestapo and panopticon-style police state aren’t one of them.”
Manning has become an infosec high priestess who expresses a keen interest in struggles at the intersection of technology and politics. She is often ready with a comment on free speech or policies surrounding whistleblowers, and she’s just as willing to tweet extensively about the Trump administration’s attempts to empower ISPs while eviscerating our privacy, or talk about health care, prisons, and the rights of minorities. If anyone had a right to cutthroat radical politics, red in tooth and claw that justified all means in service to its ends, it would be her. Yet justice’s sword, to her, is an instrument of “wisdom” rather than vengeance.
Lauren McNamara, a trans activist and videoblogger who opines under the name Zinnia Jones, knew Manning online long before she blew that fateful whistle; she confirms the character that so many other trans people would later come to admire. “Even from our first conversations,” she said in an interview for this piece, “it was plain to see that a strong moral stance was fundamental to her understanding of her role in the military, a stance which ultimately drove her to do something she believed was necessary even at great personal cost to herself.”
There was a clear sense, McNamara said, that many cisgender people saw transphobia as a way to punish or express disapproval of Manning. “Good” trans people would be gendered properly and receive health care, went the implication; “bad” ones would be punished by having their very humanity denied. “When I spoke with news outlets after Chelsea came out as a trans woman,” McNamara told me, “I frequently encountered a tendency to treat her gender as being contingent upon their personal approval or arbitrary editorial decisions. It was common to hear from people who objected to her receiving appropriate medical care, or refused to recognize her as a woman, on the basis that she was a ‘traitor.’”
And there it was, what we’d all been preparing for: the fight to argue that our humanity should be ground in something more solid than the caprice of a cis mob’s approval. Thus, to defend Manning’s dignity was to defend us all.
Often, famous trans women are cultivated by a media that wishes to exploit their bodies for maximally lurid gains. Caitlyn Jenner’s inoffensive, initially apolitical coming-out was greeted with reams of glossy, sympathetic coverage. Our legs are spread — literally as well as metaphorically — while our mouths are taped shut if we have anything meaningful to say. Thus we periodically see a newly out trans person revealing the most intimate, depoliticised details of their transitions to a salivating press, before they mysteriously disappear. The best of us — Laverne Cox and Janet Mock, among our number — are those who tell their own story while colossally astride the cis stage, making it theirs. They don’t back down from being political in a discomfiting way.
That’s a dangerous place for any woman to be. Since the days of Hypatia, Saint Catherine, or Mary Wollstonecraft, the outspoken woman has been threatened with being separated from her tongue. The endurance that Manning embodies in the face of attempts to break her is no small part of why we admire her; so many of us hope to hold her up against myriad attempts to grind her down.
While Jenner was at this point in her life merely famous for being famous, Manning has claim to being something of a historical figure who would rightly appear in a textbook. And unlike Jenner, she didn’t ostentatiously spit on those who didn’t share her background. Jenner, clothed in the immensity of wealth’s solipsism, only ever seemed to vaguely understand the plight of white trans people there was a weary sense of obligation on our parts, particularly as her myriad rhetorical stumbles congealed into ugly, reactionary politics that pledged fealty to the likes of Ted Cruz — no friend of LGBT people.
Meanwhile Manning developed an appreciation for the struggles of others, as well, in all their intersectional complexity, shaped, at least in part, by how she came to understand what happened to her.
“What Chelsea did for the world,” Casey Plett added, “combined with her own struggle to be trans in a military prison makes her, I think, a particular representative of that interconnected struggle and maybe why she has struck a deep chord for many of us.”
As programmer and trans activist Lynn Cyrin would have it, “[Manning] got imprisoned for an undue amount of time given the ‘crime’ committed, and then was subject to the psychological torture that’s unfortunately business as usual for trans people in the criminal justice system.” In a context where “the criminal justice system is broken, society is oppressive, and shit is just generally Bad,” she told me, “Chelsea’s imminent release is, at the very least, a step towards things in the world being slightly less broken.”
There remains the hope that, in the sober light of historical hindsight, Manning will be remembered as a courageous woman who blew the referee’s whistle in defence of democracy. For many trans people, who as a group indisputably lean left, Manning exposed the dark heart of American imperialism at a time when it was urgently needed, while also exercising the prudence necessary to prevent loss of life from her actions.
Not every trans woman supports Manning’s actions, of course; she has her detractors, particularly among the many who’ve served in the military and feel she was indecorous at best with her leaking. To some in this band of sisters, she harmed the cause of trans acceptance in the military by becoming the picture of disloyalty. In the estimation of one trans woman veteran’s advocate I spoke to, “She added a solid year to the timeline for getting open transgender service implemented. [S]he was part of [then-Secretary of Defense] Hagel’s reluctance to tackle the policy issue.” She adds that friends of hers “with security clearances were subjected to harassment and loss of their jobs, because of what [Manning] did.”
Without discrediting the real experiences underlying these words, the core of the problem is less Manning herself than the prejudicial way she was made to represent all transgender servicepeople who already felt they had to work twice as hard to prove their loyalty.
Yet if the wider community is forced to have her represent us, then there are just as many trans women who are quite happy to have her as our face rather than, say, Jenner. However one feels about her actions, she moved the world on its axis and she’s one of us. She had a story we could see ourselves in — the nerdy, shy lass awkwardly confessing her strange gender-feels on IRC while struggling to keep her head above the water.
Thus, Manning became “Chelsea” to so many trans women, spoken about like a sister of blood. Her name was invoked to dispel the demonism of those who insisted on slandering her with her old, dead name as a means of undermining and insulting her. It expressed kinship and conviction. We followed updates on her status in prison with trepidation and a faint flicker of hope that seemed like an homage to Chelsea’s own peaceful candle. We read her every dispatch, treating it like a precious missive from the other side of some unimaginable divide.
She is not a saint, of course. Who on Earth is? Plett was at pains to make that point when she spoke to me, “Chelsea, if you’re reading this, I’m sorry, I don’t mean to reduce you to a political synecdoche! I think you’re wonderful and brave and I’m so glad you get your freedom back and I hope you get to meet at least some of the gaggle of us who are grateful for what you’ve done.”
And on many levels, I think, that speaks for most of Manning’s trans supporters. We appreciate that and welcome the day she returns from Hades to the embrace of her community on the outside. Then she will just be one of us in the colloquial sense — one of the girls like any other, human and frail again as we all must be.
The greatest gift we could give her is the ordinariness that is normally accorded to anonymity among the masses, a sense that she is not a holy woman whose every appendage is an icon to be treasured in some reliquary. “One of us” will have to mean something Chelsea Manning can rest in, can be herself in, can be flawed and silly in. That’s what she deserves, and it is what I hope to play some small part in giving her.