I Might Have Been Chelsea Manning
In January of 2010, I was sitting in the lounge in my school’s English department completely freaking out about the fact that I had no clue what came after graduation. I was an English major with an emphasis in theatre. My job outlook was about as poor as they come. I was hoping that I’d get accepted into a graduate program in theatre and be off for a career in academia. The reality I faced if I didn’t get accepted was a bit scary. With no foreseeable job prospects, a backpack full of student debt, and with no other option than to move home into my parents house I was seriously thinking about doing something I never thought I would ever consider. I was contemplating joining the military.
I figured with a college degree, a good GPA, and a good track record I might be able to move up quickly. Maybe get a position in the military where I wouldn’t have to face combat. I thought about joining as a conscientious objector. Maybe I could grab a position at a desk doing research.
Though, I had a pretty typical conservative upbringing, my parents raised me with a good moral compass. My father is a pastor. My mom is a nurse. They both taught me to seek ways to improve the lives of others, not to seek ways to destroy them. My parents also raised me to always ask questions. They taught me to think critically about the motives and the integrity of everyone including, and perhaps especially, those in the power over me: the government. If I had been placed behind an intelligence desk and been witness to the war crimes and atrocities that the US government has committed, I have little doubt that I may have blown the same whistle that Chelsea did. I might have been Chelsea Manning.
But I have a lot more in common with Chelsea than a strong moral compass and an investigative mind. It was my willingness to question that led me to explore my own gender identity and subsequently come out as a trans woman and transition. Despite the end of legal discrimination against gay, lesbian, and bisexual soldiers with the fall of ‘Don’t Ask Don’t Tell’ you are still not able to be transgender and a member of the military. If anybody finds out about your gender identity you will be discharged. Had I entered the military, instead of going to graduate school, I know that I wouldn’t be here today. Instead I would have still been struggling with the depression and anxiety that comes from keeping a huge secret from the world. I might have been Chelsea Manning.
The day after being sentenced to 35 years in a men’s prison, Chelsea released a statement telling the world what a few observant folk, including blogger Zinnia Jones, already knew. In just four words Chelsea revealed her incredible burden: “I am Chelsea Manning.” It’s ironic that she used the same phrasing that her supporters had taken up in the past three years. “I am Bradley Manning,” became the chat, slogan, and unifying meme of the movement to support Manning throughout her arrest, incarceration, and trial. I can’t help but wonder if the support will be as strong now that the truth is out about Chelsea’s gender identity. There were organizations, marches, and stickers that plastered an old photo attached to the name she was previous known by. The movement was huge and seemingly growing every day. Will the political movement continue now that we know the person at the center of all the controversy is also a trans woman? I hope so.
I don’t blame Chelsea for staying silent about her gender identity over the past three years. It was advantageous to her to keep her mouth shut. Being transgender has long had the stigma of mental illness attached it. It was only with the most recent update to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (the fifth iteration of the book) that the word “phrase gender identity disorder” was removed and replaced with “gender dysphoria.” Cisgender allies have trouble understanding our experiences and the majority of the public isn’t even willing to try. To come out now, just before Manning enters the Federal prison system at Leavenworth, is a risky move. I wouldn’t have held it against her if she had decided to stay silent about it even now. But she didn’t. She has spoken loud and clear with those four words: “I am Chelsea Manning.”
Honestly, I don’t know if I would have had the courage that Chelsea showed. I like to think that I would have, but if I were facing 35 years in a men’s prison? I honestly don’t know. I’m a little ashamed to admit that fact, but it’s the truth. Chelsea is a braver and stronger woman than I am.
Now more than ever before Chelsea needs our support. If you were one of the people who supported her before today, please continue advocating for her release. I know I will be advocating for her, but she needs every voice she can get. I fear that since her coming out those who stood with her in the past will abandon her now. Her next years will be difficult ones, even more so if she is denied access to the necessary transitional health-care she needs. Write letters (both to her and to the president requesting for her pardon), organize a demonstration against war and the prison industrial complex and for an end to police profiling that targets trans people, particularly trans woman of color, or even just make a sign. Do something. Do not just sit there. Those of you who supported Bradley, stand with Chelsea. It’s the right thing to do. Let your voice rise, “Free Chelsea Manning.”
If you want to send letters of love and support to Chelsea Manning, here are the address at which you can do so:
Commander, HHC USAG Attn: PFC Bradley Manning 239 Sheridan Ave Bldg 417 JBM-HH, VA 2221
Unfortunately her old name is the only name that is likely to work to get the mail to her at this point.