feature image via Reuters/Pawel Kopczynski
After being sentenced to 35 years in prison on a number of charges after collaborating with WikiLeaks to make classified government information public, the soldier who has ignited controversy and conversation about the difference between whistleblowing and treason has come out as Chelsea Manning, a trans woman. In Manning’s official statement made exclusively to TODAY, she thanked her supporters and talked about how she’d like to be referred to in the media and her future:
Subject: The Next Stage of My Life
I want to thank everybody who has supported me over the last three years. Throughout this long ordeal, your letters of support and encouragement have helped keep me strong. I am forever indebted to those who wrote to me, made a donation to my defense fund, or came to watch a portion of the trial. I would especially like to thank Courage to Resist and the Bradley Manning Support Network for their tireless efforts in raising awareness for my case and providing for my legal representation.
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. Given the way that I feel, and have felt since childhood, I want to begin hormone therapy as soon as possible. I hope that you will support me in this transition. I also request that, starting today, you refer to me by my new name and use the feminine pronoun (except in official mail to the confinement facility). I look forward to receiving letters from supporters and having the opportunity to write back.
Chelsea E. Manning
This isn’t a surprising announcement; based on some of the private online chats of Manning’s that were exposed during the investigation, it was implied that Manning wasn’t happy or comfortable with her gender presentation at the time, or with the prospect of the whole nation seeing her “as a boy” during the prosecution. And Manning’s gender identity was even used in her defense; Manning’s lawyers argued that the heteronormative, cissexist and DADT-compliant culture of the armed services contributed to Manning’s feelings of depression and isolation and may have been a factor in her decision to leak documents. They used an email that Manning had sent to her supervisor titled “my problem” that included a photo of Manning wearing makeup and a wig to support this argument in court. (A note: although this information has been available for some time, Autostraddle didn’t feel it was ethical to make a judgment of Manning’s gender identity based on documents she had never meant to be released publicly, and so had used masculine pronouns until today’s announcement. Feminine pronouns will of course be used for Manning from now on.)
Also unfortunately unsurprising is that many of the news outlets covering this story have been handling it very poorly, with egregious misgendering of Manning and a fundamental lack of understanding of basic facts about trans* identity. Trans Media Watch has encouraged readers to send their style guide to any publications they see engaging in problematic reporting and/or misgendering Manning. Gawker has published an article exploring the responsibility of media outlets in the wake of Manning’s sentencing and coming out:
Though the media and their sources both want to see news come to light, there is one big difference between them: the media is a powerful institution. Sources are not. Sources are disparate individuals with varying interests. The media is a vital social structure with well-established legal protections, and with the means to fight back strongly against any threats against it. “Never quarrel with a man who buys ink by the barrel,” goes the other old saying. …What this all means is that while the media and the source are equally morally responsible for the publication of a story, the media is (relatively) protected—by law, by resources, by institutional privilege, and by the ability to drum up public outrage—and the source is not protected at all, except by anonymity. If they are discovered, they are out of luck. So Chelsea Manning is sentenced to 35 years in prison, and all of the news outlets around the world that published hundreds and hundreds of stories based on the information that she disclosed shrug and carry on with their day.
While most media outlets probably won’t respond to the call to engage with Manning’s story in a politicized way, it does highlight how much Manning has given up for the information she shared. And given the fact that she’s now having to discuss her gender on a largely unforgiving global stage, it seems like very little is being asked of media outlets when she requests that they use her name and talk about her gender accurately (especially since the AP style guide already calls for this).
The prospects for Manning as she faces her prison sentence are fairly grim. As Mey outlined, trans women are rarely afforded the right to be imprisoned with other women, which Manning reminds us of as she asks supporters to use her former name when sending mail to her confinement facility. Although Manning expressed a desire to start hormone therapy in her statement, the Army has stated they won’t provide it, and it seems unlikely she’ll be allowed to be housed in a women’s prison. The ACLU has already issued a statement on the Army’s policy in this case, saying:
In response to Chelsea Manning’s disclosure that she is female, has been diagnosed with gender dysphoria and will be seeking hormone therapy as a part of her transition during her incarceration, public statements by military officials that the Army does not provide hormone therapy to treat gender dysphoria raise serious constitutional concerns.
If the ACLU moves forward with their case that denying Manning hormone therapy may be unconstitutional, Manning’s case could become groundbreaking in another way; as the most high-profile incarcerated trans woman in America, and possibly providing precedents that would be helpful to incarcerated trans women who aren’t household names, like CeCe McDonald.
Hopefully, Manning’s supporters — from the numerous support sites and blogs started in her name to the people who protested outside her sentencing — will continue to support her, and to petition Obama for her pardon. As of right now, it’s unclear whether they’ll continue to stand by her. Bradleymanning.org has posted a story titled “Heroic whistle-blower addresses gender publicly: ready to move on to next phase of her life,” which contains Manning’s statement and uses her correct pronouns, but the site overall still contains many references to the name Bradley and masculine pronouns. The Free Bradley Manning Facebook page has not updated its name or pronouns and hasn’t made any comment since Manning’s announcement.
Chelsea Manning’s future in a confinement facility doesn’t look bright. Efforts to get Obama to pardon her are unlikely to succeed, and even if she doesn’t serve her entire 35-year-sentence, she will probably be in prison for the next 7-10 years. There is no reason to believe that her gender identity will be respected or acknowledged in prison, or that she will be able to access the medical treatment she’s asked for. But at least Manning, whose freedom has been restricted for so long now and will continue to be, has been able to tell this truth on her own terms.