The widely-published image of Chelsea Manning, released in dithered grayscale by the Army, strikes me as an apt metaphor for the layers of meaning in this case. We all live under the Tyranny of the Binary, the impulse to divide everything into black-and-white absolutes. It coerces people who see shades of gray to choose one extreme or the other. In the past week, the political positions on Manning have quickly accreted into two polarized views by the most vociferous partisans: Bradley the Traitor, and Chelsea the Hero. I hope most people see it as a little more nuanced than that.
I’ve vacillated between sympathy and facepalm since Manning’s decision to announce a gender transition at this moment of white-hot scrutiny. It’s causing the trans community to scramble in the same way the State Department had to scramble in the wake of the earlier revelations. We’re having to address several issues that are difficult to explain all at once, as they are among the most polarizing issues we face. These include trans prisoners, taxpayer-funded trans health services, disease models of gender diversity, trans people in the military, and trans depictions in the media.
It was obvious to me from the moment Xeni showed me the chat logs between Manning and Lamo in 2010 that Manning was trans. I asked Xeni to quote me anonymously for a 2010 Boing Boing post speculating on Manning’s gender identity because I knew I’d catch a lot of flak in my community if my name got used.
I had hoped I wouldn’t need to write about this ever, because airing disputes within marginalized groups is rarely politically expedient. We’ve had a pretty good run in terms of mainstream media depictions of trans people over the past few years, focusing the kind of friendly, non-threatening, assimilated people that many non-trans people can support: “Why, they’re a lot like us!” Many activists have spent their lives getting trans people to this place, including yours truly, and revelations like Manning’s have the potential to derail that progress among people inhabiting the vast middle ground between complete condemnation and full support.
The recently published selfie taken by Manning sitting all alone in a parked car, unsmiling, with heavy makeup and platinum blonde wig, as well as Manning’s accompanying email, felt very familiar to me. Because I created and maintain one of the earliest informational sites on gender transition, Manning’s is a story I have read many times in the last 20 years. I’ve answered thousands of emails from trans people in similar states of despair. I’ve heard of the sadness of having to remove that makeup, being extra mindful to get every last trace of mascara, packing away the wig and makeup or maybe even throwing them all away in a self-hatred-fueled binge/purge cycle. I had to hide my email address on my how-to site because I was answering as many as 200 emails a day from people in similar distress, reaching out like drowning victims. I still feel guilty that I’m better equipped to teach large groups of people how to swim rather than to save struggling individuals in crisis. It’s a grim math equation, but people in Manning’s situation can drag you down with them emotionally if you engage personally, leaving you too tired to help others who aren’t struggling as much.
Manning’s pre-military pictures experimenting with gender expression show these feelings were present long before enlistment. From our earliest memories, most trans people recall moments when they realized their identities were considered wrong or diseased by others. It’s easy to internalize that and become very secretive. Trans people often create lives for ourselves that attempt to suppress those feelings and that part of us. Joining the military is not uncommon, nor is committing to personal relationships where transition would mean the end.
If you live in a gender hell of your own making, the feelings you are trying to suppress can manifest in other ways, often unhealthy ones. An insightful therapist named Anne Vitale has questioned the disease model of “gender identity disorder,” which suggests a problem within an affected person. She has instead suggested the concept of Gender Expression Deprivation Anxiety Disorder (GEDAD), where the real culprit is the suppression of one’s identity and expression in response to external pressures or self-hatred. This to me explains a number of similar phenomena, such as anti-gay religious or political leaders who are later revealed to be gay.
Though thousands of trans people have served honorably in the military and have held military and civil positions requiring high security clearances, many of them have had to do so without divulging their trans identities. While “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” (DADT) has been repealed, that movement quickly lost momentum when it came time to seek the same rights for trans people. SLDN/Outserve, the largest LGBT servicemembers’ advocacy organization and an important factor in lobbying efforts to repeal DADT, imploded earlier this summer. Fewer funders wanted to continue the fight, culminating in a messy dismissal of the trans executive director and dissolution of the organization.
Kristin Beck, a Navy Seal who transitioned after retirement, minced no words in her initial response about Manning: “Some say hero? some say traitor? I just say ‘misguided, egotistical Liar and thief’ which can be applied to both hero or traitor depending on a few factors.” Beck later wrote a more measured response about Manning and the current status of trans people in the military.
It’s hard for me to see Manning as an unalloyed hero. Setting aside Manning’s data dump, just prior to arrest Manning was engaging in some very problematic and desperate behavior. Manning assaulted Specialist Jihrleah Showman, leading to loss of both security clearance and weapons privileges. Many articles implied the assault and the gender issues were connected. Gender identity distress does not absolve anyone of personal responsibility. There’s really no excuse for that kind of disgraceful behavior toward a superior, but people respond to stress and hopelessness in different ways. If Manning couldn’t get relief after disclosing a huge personal secret, maybe assaulting a superior and disclosing state secrets seemed like the only way out of a self-imposed gender hell. I’m not sure I completely buy Manning’s defense that this was initially done on principle. Despite the assertions to the contrary, Manning’s actions have the hallmarks of attention-seeking behavior, a sort of trolling done online by people struggling with personal issues. They also have the hallmarks of desperation and hopelessness of someone who felt they had exhausted all other options.
Manning’s intent ultimately doesn’t matter. While I believe the end justifies the means in this case, and that it forced a much-needed conversation about U.S. military policy, I am uncomfortable with how a much-needed conversation about difficult trans issues suddenly became entwined in this controversy. Maybe eventually I’ll feel the same way I do about the data dump, but for now I feel like Manning’s gender revelations are moving people toward extremes rather than along the steady path of progress trans people have enjoyed for some time.
But hey, progress happens in fits and starts. Let’s go ahead and have the conversations, difficult as they may be. Here’s hoping the U.S. military will be completely out of Afghanistan long before the end of Manning’s term, and that Manning and our country and the trans community will all be in a better situation then, too.