By Katey Pants, Special for PQ Monthly
One of the most reviled and invisible public figures of our time is Chelsea Manning. For those of you living under a rock or if you loathe international news—Chelsea Manning is a trans woman who was a former member of the United States military. She served in 2009 during the Iraq war as an intelligence analyst. During her time in Iraq, she was privy to a number of classified documents and military actions. Morally and ethically challenged by actions carried out by the United States military in Iraq, she decided to whistle-blow on a number of them—she leaked videos of the 2007 Baghdad Airstrikes, 250,000 US Diplomatic cables, and Iraq and Afghan war logs that were published through WikiLeaks.
These published pieces were thought to be a part of the catalyst for the Arab Spring, which led a number of countries in the Middle East and northern Africa to critically challenge oppressive leadership. In 2010 she was arrested for these leaks and was charged with 22 counts of violating the Uniform Code of Military Justice and for “aiding the enemy” under the Espionage Act—which carried the threat of the death penalty. Years later she was sentenced to 35 years in prison. In her 2010 statement about her arrest and her actions she stated:
“It was not until I was in Iraq and reading secret military reports on a daily basis that I started to question the morality of what we were doing. It was at this time I realized in our efforts to meet this risk posed to us by the enemy, we have forgotten our humanity. We consciously elected to devalue human life both in Iraq and Afghanistan. When we engaged those that we perceived were the enemy, we sometimes killed innocent civilians. Whenever we killed innocent civilians, instead of accepting responsibility for our conduct, we elected to hide behind the veil of national security and classified information in order to avoid any public accountability.”
During her service, her arrest, detainment, and trial, she was talked about as Bradley Manning. Those who cared about her and those who reviled her, however, knew she was not just a gay man serving in the military—but a trans woman. This was a queer person. Simultaneously happening was the debate around and ultimately the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell (DADT). Now, if you have really been living under a rock, DADT was the homophobic policy of how LGBT folks could approach disclosing their sexuality—i.e. don’t ask people about their sexuality and don’t tell people about yours.
It was interesting, telling, and saddening to watch these two debates about the future of Chelsea and the future of queer people in the military be so compartmentalized. I remember plenty of times trying to bring it up—one conversation after another with those who don’t share my worldview—and I was told, “These are separate,” “This is different,” “This has nothing to do with Chelsea Manning, this is about our rights.”
I have been confused about the lack of dialogue or really any sort of action from the greater LGBT community—especially groups whose voice can often be heard. The coverage of her gender identity, the clinical uses of gender identity disorder, and how her actions in relation to her being trans—all these gave the world the impression that this was not a critical person with impeccable ethics but instead an insane trans woman. Not a word came from the gays with power when highly-pixelated, dehumanizing photos of her in a wig were paraded around the internet so people could gawk at this woman who would now be portrayed a national traitor.
Not a word came from the gays with money when The United Nations rapporteur on torture accused the United States government of cruel and inhumane treatment of Manning—she was held in solitary confinement for a year without being formally charged of a crime. And not a word from any mainstream LGBT organizations was heard when she was denied a speedy trial even though her legal proceedings lasted over twenty months. Afterwards, the judge in the case gave Manning credit for time served as her confinement was ruled as excessively harsh and unlawful. No large scale letter writing campaigns, no large scale outcries of support, no fundraising drives, nothing.
There are a lot of reasons why she is invisible. We are told there is no connection between her experience in the military and the fight over DADT as interconnected political topics. But there is a connection. There is a problem when the focus of gay rights is simply being able to access mainstream institutions. It is easier to talk about DADT because it’s a simple narrative about what good gay people should be doing. It starts its axiom with a narrative of sameness instead of a philosophy of difference. A narrative of sameness has an understanding that we as queer people must ignore the complexities of our identities and make appeals for our basic humanity by demonstrating to straight people that we are just like them. A narrative of sameness also eclipses peoples’ experiences and lives that live outside of the norm and erases those who never wish to or will never have the chance to live in the norm.
Chelsea Manning was and is ignored because her story and her as a figure do not serve a mainstream narrative of sameness—that all queer people in the military are simply experiencing distress about coming out. She was and is ignored because a narrative of sameness cannot and does not criticize morally and ethically oppressive institutions instead—it just looks for ways to be integrated into them. Most importantly, Chelsea Manning is ignored because she is a trans woman and in the framework of good gays versus bad queers, trans women are often cast as the undesirable, the embarrassing, and the unwanted. And by ignoring her, mainstream LGBT groups have created an effective political strategy that is inseparable from nationalism and hetero-normativity.
It is easier to talk about DADT because it assumes we all are just looking to be just good patriotic Americans. In her 2010 statement about her actions, Manning wrote: “Patriotism is often the cry extolled when morally questionable acts are advocated by those in power.” This is a direct cry for queers to challenge oppressive institutions and war machines. It is saddening and poor political strategy to have only a narrative of sameness for a number of reasons—one of them is that it creates a lack of solidarity for queers who do not wish or never will fit into the norm. Another is that is creates the division of good American gays versus poor perverted queers. When we ignore Chelsea Manning, when we ignore queers criticizing the police and prisons, when we write off queers criticizing the institution of marriage, what we are essentially doing is erasing real lived experiences of queers across the world and replacing them with a fictitious image of one kind of gay person.
As queers, understanding intersectionality and solidarity across race, class, and gendered lines is of the utmost importance. Mainstream LGBT organizations must immediately put an end to the narrative of sameness and take a look at building a philosophy of difference. A philosophy of difference understands that freedom isn’t built off of the backs of those living further outside of the margin. A philosophy of difference can hold a multiplicity of truths, criticisms, experiences, and realities. It doesn’t need to appeal to oppressive systems for its humanity because our existence wills it. And a philosophy of difference includes solidarity. Chelsea Manning needs us to scream loud for her every day. She needs our letters, she needs our political pressure, and when we push for her freedom, we are opening the doors for so many other queer people to come forward to be real about their experiences in challenging the morals of the institutions around us.