News & Politics

Are Rumors Accused WikiLeaks Source Bradley Manning Is Transgender Behind Harsh Treatment?

The implication that Bradley Manning's sexuality has something to do with the crime he's accused of is wrong and dangerous.

Private Bradley Manning has been a controversial figure since his arrest in May 2010, after being accused of the largest leak of classified documents ever to the website WikiLeaks. Manning is accused of leaking much of the 500,000 documents WikiLeaks published as the War Logs, as well as the shocking “Collateral Murder” video showing U.S military knowingly firing on unarmed civilians from an Apache helicopter.

These leaks provided valuable information about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in a time when war reporting has often been compromised through the practice of embedding reporters within military units. For this act of whistleblowing, Manning faces charges that include “aiding the enemy,” theft of public records, transmitting defense information on the Internet, and computer fraud. If found guilty, Manning could face life in prison.

One rumor has persistently followed Manning: that he is a pre-hormone treatment transgender woman. A year ago, Boing Boing posted chat logs purportedly between Manning and hacker Adrian Lamo in which Manning apparently makes references to a desire to undergo medical transition. In the logs, Manning says that “the CPU is not made for this motherboard” (a reference to the common understanding of transgender people as being “born in the wrong body”), frets about the “possibility of having pictures of me... plastered all over the world press... as [a] boy” and wonders how to “figure out how on earth im going to transition.” From there, besides a typical rubbernecking Gawker reiteration, the story largely officially died, though it continued to circulate online.

Over the weekend, however, New York magazine upped the ante again by publishing a feature article focusing on Manning’s sexuality and gender identity in which an anonymous counselor claims that Manning had talked to him on the web about being transgender:

“Bradley felt he was female,” the counselor told me. “He was very solid on that.” Quickly, their conversation shifted to the practicalities: How does someone transition from male to female? “He really wanted to do surgery,” the counselor recalled. “He was mostly afraid of being alone, being ostracized or somehow weird.”

The story implies that Manning’s supposed sexual and/or gender identities are in some way related to his behavior in leaking the documents. This mode of insinuation suggests that being gay or transgender is “disturbed” or “confused” and causes criminal behavior—a demonstrably false idea. As Glenn Greenwald recently pointed out, “the notion that these reactions to wholly unjustified, massive blood-spilling is psychologically warped is itself warped. The reactions described there are psychologically healthy; it's far more psychologically disturbed not to have the reactions Manning had.”

If, as the saying goes, there’s no honor among thieves, then apparently there is no confidentiality for leakers, either. The American Psychological Association’s ethics code requires psychologists to disclose personally identifying information on their clients only when required by law or when they or the client may be in danger. By contrast, licensed or not, this counselor’s behavior in speaking to New York is at the very least unethical.

A 2008 U.S. Army Counter-Intelligence report leaked through WikiLeaks declared the intention to pursue the “successful identification, prosecution, termination of employment, and exposure of persons leaking the information.” It is hard not to wonder if the Manning rumors are being fueled by counter-intelligence, for as a form of smear, exposing a person as transgender effectively licenses open season in the media. Lisa Harney's blog Questioning Transphobia says, “if you are trans then your life and your privacy are open for public consumption. If you commit a crime, you are a trans criminal whose crime is based on being trans.

But if Manning is transgender, then he would be far from alone. A recent study from the National Center for Transgender Equality found that 20 percent of the transgender U.S. adult population has served in the military, twice the 10 percent rate of the general U.S. population. Autumn Sandeen, a transgender activist and Army veteran, points out that “a lot of transgender people have served in the military services and haven't engaged in the kind of behavior Bradley Manning has been accused in engaging in. If being transgender was correlative or causative for the behavior Manning is accused of engaging in, we'd see a lot more of this kind of behavior in the military services based on how many trans veterans have served in the military. Arguments that attempt to connect Manning allegedly being trans with Manning allegedly releasing classified documents to Wikileaks in my mind is likely going to result in some sort of fallacious conclusion being drawn.”

Though Sandeen is right that there is little chance Manning’s being potentially transgender influenced the leaking, it is possible that it may be an influence in the severe imprisonment conditions he was subject to after being brought from Kuwait to the Quantico brig. Quantico brig officer Lt. Brian Villiard confirmed to Salon in December that the still untried Manning was subject to 23-hour-a-day solitary confinement and not allowed a pillow or sheets for his bed. In a statement released through his lawyer, Manning detailed the extent of this punitive imprisonment, saying that he has been placed on suicide watch and denied even his glasses. In one particularly harrowing passage, Manning claimed he was stripped naked daily by guards:

"The guard told me to stand at parade rest, with my hands behind my back and my legs spaced shoulder-width apart. I stood at parade rest for about three minutes … The [brig supervisor] and the other guards walked past my cell. He looked at me, paused for a moment, then continued to the next cell. I was incredibly embarrassed at having all these people stare at me naked."

After extensive protest by progressive groups, Manning has been transferred from Quantico to Fort Leavenworth in Kansas earlier this year while he awaits trial. Though Manning's conditions there have dramatically improved (he is no longer stripped nightly, has a pillow and sheet and access) it remains an open question if Manning's treatment at Quantico will ever be subject to inquiry.

Indeed, the kind of treatment Manning experienced at Quantico reads like a milder form of the infamous Abu Ghraib torture. Even with the official repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, the homophobic and transphobic culture among the military may explain this bizarre form of punishment. Right from the beginning of the War on Terror, the conflation between the terrorist enemy “outside” with the GLBT enemy “inside” by the military culture has been clearly in evidence. In 2001, the Associated Press ran a photo of a bomb about to be dropped on the Taliban on which soldiers had painted “highjack this fags.” More recently there has been some controversy over videos that high-ranking Navy officers showed to crews to “boost morale,” featuring homophobic slurs and simulated masturbation and shower scenes.

If Manning was definitively known to be trans (and the Army must surely be aware of the rumors), such treatment would be doubly humiliating given that it is not merely being publicly exposed but being exposed with the wrong body. As Harney points out, “when sent to prison, punishment for trans women is nearly always harsher -- being housed with men, being subjected to sexual violence, being subjected to a complete invalidation of one's selfhood. It's all about violation, about ripping away who we are to expose our transness and dressing it up as spectacle and perversion.”

If the chat logs are true, then the Manning scared of being publicly perceived “as [a] boy” is being doubly humiliated with this treatment, since as the APA’s diagnostic manual makes clear, gender incongruence is marked by “a significantly increased risk of suffering, such as distress or disability” with assigned-at-birth sex. If Manning is genuinely transgender, then such body dysphoria would mean that daily forced nudity would constitute a form of torture.

Regardless, at this point, even as more evidence mounts up, Manning’s putative identity remains largely speculation — just as Manning's “guilt” itself remains a matter of speculation until we have a trial. Sandeen suggests that at this point, it remains premature to discuss Manning in these terms: “If he started asking to be called by a female name, or be housed with the female prisoners, well then it’s germane to the story, but it’s not at this point. [. . ] I don’t think it should be discussed at this point unless it becomes part of the story, and a significant part of the story at that.”

That there is such a heavy focus on Manning's psyche in the first place shows the skewed nature of the debate around WikiLeaks. As Greenwald has made clear, ”the numerous acts of corruption, deceit and criminality Manning allegedly exposed are ignored or even sanctioned, while the only punished criminal is -- as usual -- the one who courageously brought those acts to light.”

So it is not surprising that after over a year, the rumors surrounding Manning remain. Though Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell is soon to disappear, transgender service people will remain still officially unable to serve in the military--a situation that may see transbaiting become the new queerbaiting. Whether or not Bradley Manning actually turns out to be transgender, this may only be the start of the story.

Emily Manuel is editor-in-chief at and a freelance writer.