Since Bradley Manning began passing along cables of highly classified NSA information to Wikileaks in 2009, his fate has gone largely unnoticed in the public sphere. His personal history and the never-ending hero/traitor debate obscured his deeds and their implications to a large degree, leaving the American public not quite sure where to stand on the man himself. Then, of course, there were other leakers, most recently the hacktivist cause célèbre Edward Snowden. But now, with Manning facing 35 years in prison as a federally branded traitor, he’s back in the news, though unfortunately his actions may be undermined just the same.
Many were surprised last week to learn that Manning will begin to live her life as a woman, an event the leaker announced via a statement to the Today show signed “Chelsea Manning.” Since then, a much-touted image has made its way across the Internet showing Manning in full drag, leading many to believe her transition is a completely unexpected turn in one of the most contentious whistleblower cases in American history. In many ways, though, this is just another distraction in that same case.
That Manning suffered gender identity issues during her time in the military (and indeed, since her childhood) has been public knowledge since at least 2011, when private chats between Manning and her former confidant Adrian Lamo saw widespread publication. Extensively revealing and heartwrenching, those text conversations not only show Manning’s distraught mental state at the time of her major leaks, but a long history of gender identity confusion and Manning’s plans to transition post-military life. Chief among Manning’s concerns was being paraded around in the media as a male once all this came back to her. Which, of course, is exactly what happened.
Manning’s confusion regarding her true gender was also used in court proceedings, with her defense calling Army psychiatrist Cpt. Michael Worsley as a witness to speak about that very issue in April this year. Also introduced into court proceedings were private emails between Manning and her superior officer in 2010 that include the same photo that’s been attached to most of the gender reassignment articles in the wake of Manning’s announcement. At the time of the emails, Manning had been assuming her female identity under the name “Breanna Manning.”
So, this is not some result of MKULTRA treatments, or a psychotic break induced over long periods of solitary confinement, or an attempt to assimilate into the female prison population. Rather, this is a deep-seated issue for Manning, one that she’s struggled with for 20-odd years, only intensifying that confusion by inserting herself into a hyper-masculine world in an attempt to cure it. Manning’s gender identity, at least to anyone familiar with the case, is well-known and objectively irrelevant. After all, that she was once considered a male bears no importance to the implications of the 700,000 classified documents she leaked to Julian Assange. Or, at least, it shouldn’t.
But, this being America, it will. Just as Manning’s “traitor” label was imposed on her by the federal government, so too will this “new” gender identity information be used to associate both the woman and her actions with the dreaded “other” Americans fear so badly. While we might be starting to accept gay rights on the large scale, transgender rights and a generally positive public perception for trans individuals seem regrettably to be a long way off. And with such an easily marginalized group making the media rounds nowadays, Manning’s influence is bound to fall by the wayside more readily now that the bigoted and intolerant among us have something “crazy” to pin on someone they eagerly view as a terrorist.
Which, no doubt, is just what the federal government is hoping for — after all, applying the “sexual deviant” label to inborn enemies as a way to publicly negate their actions is nothing new to modern Western democracy. Consider, for example, William Martin and Bernon Mitchell, two NSA workers who, in 1960, boarded a plane to Moscow. Afraid of potential government secrets going public, Pentagon officials rapidly spread rumors that the pair were homosexual lovers, even going so far as to say that Mitchell experimented sexually with dogs in his younger years. Their defection, the logic goes, could only be due to some type of sexual perversion not welcome in American society. Nothing to see here, folks — move along. Forget entirely, of course, the fact that the pair were straight and went on to marry Soviet women.
Legendary codebreaker Alan Turing is another example, having been driven to his death by the British government after having basically secured an allied victory in World War II thanks to his developments in deciphering enemy communications. Turing saw prosecution in 1952 as a result of his homosexuality, the conviction stripping him of his deserved security clearances, ruining his career, and invalidating his connection to much of his own work for years to come. Simultaneously on U.S. soil, Americans were gripped by Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s so-called “lavender scare,” focusing on forcing “sex deviants” out of government positions dealing with sensitive national information.
With that history in mind, Manning’s announcement seems to be a preemptive strike on any planned releases about her gender orientation in order to retain control of the identity she has struggled so hard to accept. Unfortunately, though, that announcement will lead to tangible amounts of transphobia, discrediting of the information she leaked, and distracting discussions about whether American taxpayers should be the ones footing the bill for Manning’s long-awaited transition. None of these things inherently change the consequences of the information contained in Manning’s WikiLeaks cables.
Perhaps if we were already as socially advanced as we ought to be in 35 years, we’d see that. Unfortunately, though, we’re still the rubes.