Eyewitness: The truth about Chelsea Manning's sentencing hearing

Bradley Manning: Sentenced to 35 years in jail, and now wants to be known as 'Chelsea'
Bradley Manning: Sentenced to 35 years in jail, and now wants to be known as 'Chelsea'

By Jackson Davidow

Everyone would agree that the groundbreaking trial of US army private Chelsea Manning was highly complex. Indeed the soldier, now about to serve 35 years in prison for transmitting 750,000 classified military documents to Wikileaks, has a complicated personal history that is nearly impossible to package up and sell to the media to be represented in a favourable light.

Yet a great deal of this controversy has pivoted around the inadequate representations of the private's queer sexual and gender identifications.

On August 13th I attended the sentencing hearing in Fort Meade, Maryland alongside the Bradley Manning Support Network (BMSN). I was appalled to observe that it wasn't Manning's whistleblower activities that were on trial; rather, it was her (then) possible transgender identity.


This week, following the disgraceful 35-year sentence, Manning has crucially come out as a trans woman, Chelsea. Over the course of this endless trial it was unclear which gender pronouns Manning preferred. Though some feminist and trans scholars insisted on using feminine pronouns and the name 'Breanna', as Manning did previously in certain contexts, she never publicly made a statement until now about her preferred name, pronouns, or gender identity.

Her lack of comment on this issue might have been a defence team strategy to minimize incarceration time. In fact, one reason why Manning's legal team turned down a jury trial in favour of one with a military judge was likely related to her open queer identification before 'don't ask, don't tell' (DADT) was repealed in September 2011.

Furthermore, Manning has been subjected to outrageous programs of solitary confinement, torture, and humiliation since her arrest in May 2010. At Quantico brig she was purportedly the sole prisoner to be ordered regularly to strip naked with hands behind her back in 'parade rest' position.

The court sessions I witnessed were upsetting because both prosecution and defence teams emphasized how the intelligence analyst's deviant queerness was responsible for her unstable mental health, which allegedly led to the document leaks.

In our age where non-normative gender identity is no longer a disorder, where DADT has been razed and even certain mainstream transgender groups are lobbying for the right to serve their country alongside their cisgender counterparts, it is deeply concerning that Manning's queerness has been yoked to negative notions of pathological mental instability, incompetence, and malevolence.

Queerness shouldn't be equated with any of these things, and neither should whistleblowing. Neither queerness nor whistleblowing is the problem here. The problem is the abusive US military and its self-perpetuating imperialist, homophobic, sexist ideologies that continue to dig it into such a deep hole. 

As many LGBT Americans increasingly gain a complete range of legal rights, they are becoming more acutely integrated into nationalistic agendas and belief systems within the framework of what queer scholar and activist Jasbir Puar has called 'homonationalism'. The fact that powerful gay rights groups like the Human Rights Campaign and GLAAD have refused to support Manning, all the while aggressively promoting assimilative LGBT participation in the army, perfectly evidences this case of American homonationalism.

While American relationships with Russia deteriorate due to how Vladimir Putin granted temporary political asylum to National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden, we are bombarded with a host of anti-Russia propaganda. Simultaneously, LGBT communities internationally are casting light upon the horrendous state of gay rights under Putin's government.

Is this purely a coincidence? Regardless, it is critical to re-examine how we as queers are enveloped in these homonationalist programs. Though I condemn the treatment of LGBT citizens in Russia, I equally condemn the US military's handling of this queer whistleblower. At Fort Leavenworth, where she will likely serve time, she will have access to neither hormones nor sex reassignment surgeries.

I sat four rows behind Manning. A mere 5'2” and 105 lb, she was dressed pristinely in a male military uniform. I was wearing blue-jean cut-offs and dirty Doc Martens and hadn't showered in three days. To demonstrate my solidarity, I borrowed a t-shirt that had the simple word 'Truth' written in white from the BMSN. At one point earlier in the trial these t-shirts were forbidden on account of how this seemingly benign message might disrupt testimonials, yet now they were acceptable again.

I'm not certain what 'Truth' was supposed to mean.

That Manning is innocent and a hero? That she was instrumental in exposing some of the most important truths of the twenty-first century? That the conduct of the US military has been truly despicable?

Both Manning and I fidgeted and ground our teeth as the sessions stretched on.

What is the truth?

The truth is, queer rights are human rights.

The truth is, this is a key moment for whistleblowing to enter our discourses in queer organizing.

The truth is, I wanted more than anything to walk over to Manning and give her a hug and say "you are so incredibly brave".

Jackson Davidow lives in Boston, MA, where he is a PhD student in the history, theory, and criticism of art program at MIT.

The opinions in politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.

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