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Don't Ask, Don't Tell: Chelsea Manning’s Gender Identity

Don't Ask, Don't Tell: Chelsea Manning’s gender identity

by Anne Russell
August 30, 2013

For the most part, gender minorities operating in the public sphere are recognised by their gender first and the content of their work second. This is why Rolling Stone articles on “Women Who Rock” kettle together artists as musically and lyrically diverse as Taylor Swift, Missy Elliott and Sleater-Kinney, as though ‘woman’ is a subgenre of music. Even at comparatively progressive activist events, cisgender women and transgender people—particularly trans* women—rarely dominate the overall speaker line-up. Rather, they are given separate sessions to discuss sexism and/or transphobia, implying that these issues are only problems for the oppressed parties in question.

In contrast, issues like mass surveillance and military crimes are framed as issues that everyone should be concerned about, evidenced recently by the scale of controversy around the NSA leaks and the recently-passed GCSB Bill. This is not to say that they are not important or damaging problems, merely that they receive much more cultural attention than the routine struggles of oppressed gender minorities. While the soldier formerly known as Bradley Manning was hitherto widely considered a hero in radical movements, figures like radical activist and trans* woman Sylvia Rivera are not widely known outside the trans* rights movement itself. It is arguable that the activist world, like everywhere else, is still somewhat divided into gendered categories, at least on a surface level: the cis men examine military documents while the cis women and trans* folk talk about unequal access to healthcare, cultural invisibility and sexual harassment.

Private Manning’s recent announcement that she is a transgender woman—to be known as Chelsea Manning from here on—thus represents a stunning collision of different activist factions. Manning released a statement last week announcing that she identifies as female, and wishes to undergo hormone therapy as soon as possible. This is not entirely new or unexpected information, as Manning’s chatlogs with informant Adrian Lamo in May 2010 read: “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.” Moreover, her lawyers attempted to use gender identity disorder as a defence in her trial. However, many of Manning’s supporters felt uncomfortable referring to her as female without the explicit go-ahead from her.

That time has come, and yet many commentators remain confused or hostile (trigger warning: transphobia) to the announcement. Manning's requests have been fairly straightforward—“I also request that, starting today, you refer to me by my new name and use the feminine pronoun”—but many media outlets, particularly Fox News and CNN, continue to use her historical name and masculine pronouns. Since swathes of information about transgenderism are merely a Google search away, this misgendering demonstrates how heavily entrenched transphobia and the gender binary remain in public discourse.

In the internet age, where everything is transformed into dialogue, much activism ends up primarily focusing on this discourse. The Daily Caller drew up a list of which media outlets used the correct name and pronoun, listing them as "Bigoted!" or "Not Bigoted!" The focus implies that getting Chelsea's pronouns and name right is the key marker of one's support for trans* rights. But Manning is about to go to jail for 35 years in the wrong gendered prison, where she will be denied necessary hormone treatment, and likely be targeted for assault and rape. Although respecting her identity linguistically is important, and a mark of how seriously one takes trans* identity overall, the material concerns of her already damaging imprisonment are much more pressing.

At this stage, it would be good to hear anything from her prominent cisgender supporters at all. At the time of writing, we are yet to receive any public statement from Wikileaks, Julian Assange, Amnesty International, Noam Chomsky, Daniel Ellsberg, Michael Moore, or Naomi Klein on Chelsea's gender identity—much less any pledge of funds or activism to help her with attaining hormone treatment. Many of these people may continue to fight for Manning purely on the grounds of her confinement, which they believe is unjust in itself. However, it is undeniable that the conditions of this confinement will be much worse now that transphobia and transmisogyny (misogyny that specifically targets trans* women) are added to the mix. Given that the inability to access hormone therapy in military prisons, along with the increased likelihood of rape by other prisoners—a problem already rife within all jails—constitute serious risks to Manning's health and well-being, ignoring this transphobia is akin to turning a blind eye if they stopped feeding her.

Unfortunately, transphobia and sexism are forms of oppression that many cisgender—particularly cis male—people tend to ignore or dismiss. Many people, even those who otherwise consider themselves social justice activists, are indifferent or hostile to taking an active role in dismantling cisgender privilege and power. To expect a quick rallying cry in support of Chelsea is perhaps unrealistic, but the slowness and inertia at work here merely speaks to how gender issues are often at the back of the queue within otherwise progressive activism.

The intersection of trans* issues and military might has created dilemmas for activists of all sorts. While many anti-militarists are unwilling or unable to come to terms with Manning's somewhat unexpected gender identity, many conservative trans* people believe is a traitor to the US. An op-ed piece appeared on Slate on August 23 titled "Trans* treason: Why Chelsea Manning is no hero for trans* soldiers”, expressing concern that Manning's activism would reflect badly on trans* service members. “People in our group can empathize with the strain that being transgender and closeted in the military causes, but we do not in any way, shape, or form think this excuses or mitigates what she did,” said Brynn Tannehill, a former Navy helicopter pilot and trans* woman. Such people are unlikely to work to reduce Manning's sentence, even if they support her being transferred to a female prison.

The middle class and socially normative sector of the LGBT movement has also opposed Manning's cultural prominence in the past for similar reasons. She was selected to be a Grand Marshal of the San Francisco gay pride parade, but the decision was quickly vetoed by the Board of SF Pride president, on the grounds that “[Manning’s] actions…placed in harms way [sic] the lives of our men and women in uniform”. Moreover, some prominent gay pride groups are often virulently transphobic themselves. Earlier this year, the largest transgender pride march in the world was shut out of Toronto’s main streets…by Pride Toronto Inc. Unlike same-sex marriage, the bulk of trans* rights issues cannot yet be easily be profited from by Kraft Foods or Ellen Degeneres. And although some have hailed the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell as a victory for LGBT rights, the repeal did not actually include the trans* community.

Journalist Glenn Greenwald wrote scathingly of SF Pride’s treatment of Manning, but, like many of his cisgender colleagues, has thus far kept a cyber silence on Chelsea Manning’s most recent announcement (on social media as well as in articles). However, it's possible that this could represent a crossover point for many involved in anti-war activism, where gender issues start to really matter. Transgender identity may no longer be an abstract issue for many Manning supporters, since now a person they know and respect is now openly transgender. Alan Burns wrote in his novel The Angry Brigade that: “The move from liberal to revolutionary is from a feeling of pity for others to pity for yourself because you find the system personally intolerable.” Will cisgender people who supported Manning from the beginning be moved by her gender struggles enough to try empathise with her, and fight for the struggles of trans* folk and trans* women everywhere? This time, will an injury to one truly be an injury to all?

Historically speaking, gender minorities have played significant parts in anti-war activism; for example, Women of Liberia Mass Action For Peace, a coalition of Christian and Muslim women, was largely responsible for ending the Second Liberian Civil War in 2003 (as detailed in the documentary Pray the Devil Back to Hell). Gender minorities have also been badly sidelined within anti-war or revolutionary movements, often prompting them to form or join their own rights groups. Sylvia Rivera said of the 1969 Stonewall riots that: “Everyone was involved with the women’s movement, the peace movement, the civil-rights movement. We were all radicals. I believe that’s what brought it around. You get tired of being just pushed around.” A primary reason for Occupy's collapse was the sexism and sexual violence that made gender and sexual minorities unwelcome onsite. Likewise, the rape charges against Julian Assange have made many feminists move away from Wikileaks as an organisation. Nothing slows down movement-building like the exercise of cis male power.

Trans* women are hit particularly hard by these sorts of oppression, getting driven out of feminist movements, queer rights movements and even being sidelined within trans* movements. It’s likely that they will need cisgender support now more than ever; much of the cisgender Right are already using Manning’s transgender identity to further discredit her and her military actions. Her struggles with gender identity may have played some part in her joining the military in the first place; studies show that transgender people in the US are proportionately twice as likely to enlist as their cisgender contemporaries. However, it is doubtful that her identity influenced her anti-war activism, since anti-militarism is not exclusive to trans* women. The implications of the right-wing backlash for the rest of the trans* community are frightening; as trans* woman Katherine Cross wrote eloquently on Facebook:

We will be tarred with the brush of a whispered misconception, with the anti-democratic gag reflex that sees Manning as a traitor; but now, she will be seen as a traitorous trans woman. For that, we shall all pay a price.

Will you, cisgender liberals and radicals, stand with us? Will you see the connection between the networks that link the militaristic tendencies of our incipient police state, and the system that polices and murderously incarcerates trans women? Will you find it in your hearts to acknowledge that there is more in heaven and earth than a heroic white cisgender man, and that a trans woman might be the face of Liberty?

Some have argued that Manning’s coming out as a trans* woman in the public eye is just as courageous as her leaking of American war crimes. Even if she ever manages to receive the required medical treatment, she will remain forever distinct in the public eye. If her high status within the anti-militarist movement lasts, she will still be portrayed by many as a trans* female war hero, rather than a war hero who is a trans* woman. Moreover, her announcement has opened up further discussion about trans* identity and the transphobic prison-industrial complex. Chelsea Manning’s actions in the military were brave and principled, but the battle to have one's gender identity recognised and respected is also fought and hard-won within one's own activist communities.

Chelsea Manning in a wig and lipstick.

A note about pronouns: while Manning’s instruction to use feminine pronouns is quite straightforward, some have expressed confusion about how to refer to her in the past tense. The correct pronoun is still ‘she’; even when the public thought of her as Bradley and a man, it’s clear she knew otherwise, and has known since childhood. One would not say “back when [gay person] was a straight teenager” if they have known they were gay since they were age five. The same follows for Manning; she has been a closeted woman for a long time, certainly during the time she reached political prominence.


Anne Russell is a Wellington-based journalist with a degree in political science and religious studies. Follow her on Twitter: @elvisfchrist.

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