Chelsea Manning, who leaked hundreds of thousands of military and diplomatic records about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to Wikileaks, is revered by some. ‘The biggest hero that ever lived,’ says Vivienne Westwood. To others, like Donald Trump, Manning is an ‘ungrateful traitor’ who should still be in jail.
To Trump’s fury, one of Barack Obama’s final acts as president was to release Manning. The former US army intelligence analyst is using that freedom to tour the world on a speaking circuit – but there’s something the former US soldier is not so eager to talk about: sex and gender.
A day after Manning was sentenced back in 2013, Bradley became Chelsea. ‘I am a female,’ Manning said of the transition. Nearly a decade on, Manning seems to think that life-changing decision is one of the least interesting things in a remarkable story. For a trans person like me, who worries that the trans issue dominates the headlines too much, it’s a refreshing attitude.
Manning is in London this week promoting Readme.txt: a memoir. A diminutive figure, Manning passes remarkably well as Chelsea. Had Manning’s transition not been public knowledge, few in the room at the Conway Hall would have guessed that Chelsea was born Bradley.
‘I always knew that I was different,’ Manning said. ‘Everyone was telling me constantly. I was dealing with constant negative feedback from people growing up that I was extremely effeminate; that I was different. I was receiving all this different energy from people and feeling really out of place or out of step with things. It wasn’t until my late teens through the internet that I started to understand this thing (gender dysphoria).
‘I went through years experimenting with gender presentation, and who I am, and trying to figure this out. It was very difficult because the average person didn’t know what a trans person was in the 90s,’ Manning said.
It’s a journey I can relate to, but Manning didn’t want to dwell on this subject. There were a few trans people scattered around the audience, but most people in the room had come to listen to what Manning had done in the military rather than a change of name.
Manning’s justification for leaking classified materials was cryptic. Manning self identified as a transparency campaigner but there was no long explanation for the act that led to Manning being locked up. When it was put to Manning that ‘the government said you put lives in danger’, Manning responded: ‘My job was to kill people. I put lives in danger all the time.’
Manning’s troubled early life forms a key part of the memoir. ‘I had this fraught relationship with my father. He was constantly mad at me. I just wanted him to appreciate me and tell me that he loved me. The only thing that seemed to really catch his attention was to be good academically,’ Manning said.
The couple divorced when Manning was 13 and the family was split between two continents. Manning’s British mother gained custody and they moved to the UK. But life was no easier in Wales: ‘I never really assimilated; I had an American accent … people were blaming me for American foreign policy – like I’m 13!’
After completing secondary school, Manning went back to the US, to a father who had remarried. The disruption continued:
‘I didn’t really fit in. I was a gender non-conforming person and eventually I got kicked out of the house. I borrowed my father’s truck – actually I took it and headed out to stay with my sister; then to Tulsa, Oklahoma. I tried to stay at my best friend’s house which lasted about a week. I drove out to St Louis. I got there and I wanted to see how much further I could go. I saw a sign for Chicago and that was where I settled for a few months.’Chelsea Manning
Living with an aunt, Manning tried to combine work with studying for a physics degree before eventually joining the military. In 2009, Manning, by then an intelligence analyst in the US Army, was sent to Iraq. A few months later, disturbed by the conflict, Manning leaked the first of some 750,000 documents to Wikileaks, including videos of U.S. airstrikes that killed civilians.
It wasn’t long before Manning was caught. ‘Military prison was the only place I really fit in; I spent so long there,’ says Manning of the years spent behind bars. Freedom came in 2017, in the dying days of the Obama presidency. Two years later, Manning was back behind bars, remanded for refusing to testify in an inquiry into Wikileaks. Released in 2020, Manning is free, but Julian Assange, the founder of Wikileaks, is facing extradition from London to the US, where he is charged with violating the Espionage Act.
‘You are a brilliant analyst,’ gushed one audience member. ‘What will be the best strategy to free Julian Assange?’
The ongoing legal wrangle over the attempt to extradite Assange made it difficult for Manning to answer. But whatever Assange’s fate, Manning is troubled about the direction the United States is heading in. ‘The tinder is so extremely dry. Going to the shopping market, people are scared … political violence could break out at any moment. Americans are hesitant to talk about it. If I were an intelligence analyst examining a country (and I looked at the US) I would say that this is a red flag for a major civil conflict. This country is very unstable and there is about to be extreme factional violence in the very near future, and this is what the United States is. It’s not a guarantee that happens but it’s very high risk. There is extreme polarisation … there is no ability to have a (constructive) conversation in America,’ Manning warned.
Manning had not dwelt of gender dysphoria – political chaos is a far bigger concern. Those chucking rocks in the trans gender debate could learn something from that approach.
Debbie Hayton is a teacher and journalist.
* This article was first published by The Spectator on 22 November 2022: What trans activists can learn from Chelsea Manning.
One reply on “What trans activists can learn from Chelsea Manning”
Although I understand Debbie’s admiration for Manning, she apparently believes in “gender identity”. Otherwise, she would not have said, “I am a female.” When the day comes that trans people alter their remarks to something more honest, like, “I am a male, but I feel female, so I am living my life that way”, that’s when I’ll have more respect for them.
That’s not to say, of course, that trans people shouldn’t pass in public if they are able to, but Manning was already a public personality at the time she transitioned.