Chelsea Manning Gives Us a a Rare Opportunity to Create an Anti-War Coalition of Feminists
I started writing this before Bradley Manning came out as Chelsea. At the time, I was trying to piece together the niblets and whispers of news about Manning's sexuality - that she was gay and also transgender. My use of Manning's three names - Bradley, Breanna, and Chelsea - is to respect the complex historical process that is gender identification.
Before going public, Manning had an online presence as Breanna on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. The New York Times quoted Manning as saying to a former hacker, "I wouldn't mind going to prison for the rest of my life, or being executed so much, if it wasn't for the possibility of having pictures of me … plastered all over the world press … as [a] boy."
Interestingly, no further comment followed. Mainstream news remained pretty much silent on this issue. It did not help matters, at least for me, that early on Manning's defence team raised her "sexual confusion" and "gender dysphoria" as a possible explanation for her whistleblowing. This complex matter of Manning's personal and gender choices and how it related to her public and moral stances obviously was too complex to be discussed by mainstream news outlets, or dealt with in a courtroom.
Feminists of all political types, races and genders have brilliantly argued since the early 1970s that the "personal is political", that there is a sexual politic to each moment; that the so-called divide between sex and politics, and the private and the public, is blurry and messy but also crucial. When it comes to transgender peoples, add in race and class and stir wildly.
So I will use these long-established anti-racist feminist insights and extend them to the realm of sexual choice and gender non-conforming people of all fashions. Paisley Currah, a transgender rights activist and researcher committed to the rewiring of law for transpeople; and Gayle Rubin, a long-time feminist and radical sex activist, make clear the necessity of opening our democratic hearts to the freedom of sexual beings in all their gendered variety and individuality.
Do not confuse all the cultural noise about sex with gender freedom. There is so much reporting of sexual scandal in our surroundings that one could wrongly assume that our culture is wildly free about sex or gender choices, rather than quite disciplining.
Whistleblower or traitor?
My embrace of Manning is as a whistleblower of keen ethical clarity, and as a member of a sexual minority and distinct gender identity who deserves equal rights and treatment. I am against all forms of terror - especially the kind that makes it hard to feel comfortable in our own bodies, whatever they may be. Manning was terrorised as a youth for being gay and now will probably suffer dearly for transitioning to a woman.
Manning's gift to the US public is to have exposed a militarism that is harmful, deceitful and devastating, alongside a full transparency of her personal/sexual self. That she has done so in a public statement read on the Today show by her lawyer David Coombs makes clear that her commitments are to the wider public, not simply to herself. In her own words, "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" … and have "felt so since childhood". We should embrace this public declaration with a careful scrutiny of our sexual and gendered culture and its anti-democratic lens.
Manning does not stand alone here. In 2011, a 23-year-old black transgender woman in Minnesota was convicted of second degree manslaughter in a transphobic incident, which her supporters say was an act of complete self-defense. She remains in a men's prison for her 41-month sentence. The day after Manning came out to the world, Islan Nettles, also a 21-year-old transgender black woman, was brutally beaten in Harlem and died the next morning.