What Chelsea Manning Has Won

The leaker changed how the military treats transgender people.

on August 21, 2013 in Fort Meade, Maryland.

Photographer: T.J. Kirkpatrick/Getty Images

Last December, when Chelsea Manning turned 27, she received birthday greetings from Michael Stipe, JM Coetzee, Slavoj Žižek, Terry Gilliam, Edward Snowden, and Lupe Fiasco: not a bad group of friends for any young woman. Vivienne Westwood sent her a card, too, a handsome graphical map of red and green, marked up with scribbles of support in the loose but confident scrawl of a fashion designer. Manning received it, of course, in Fort Leavenworth military prison in Kansas, where she is serving a 35-year sentence for leaking classified government documents to WikiLeaks as a soldier in the U.S. Army. She replied to Westwood, “I am working a lot, studying, working on the appeal and a lawsuit on fundraising, writing articles and trying to stay healthy.” In February, in her capacity as an article-writer, Manning landed a new gig: contributing opinion writer at the Guardian US, focused on “war, gender, freedom of information.” Days later, the United States military approved hormone therapy for Manning’s gender transition, a first. And last Wednesday, in Washington, the U.S. Army Court of Criminal Appeals issued an order saying that references to Manning in all future decisions, filings, and orders should use female or gender-neutral pronouns. The United States government is unlikely to champion her as a whistleblower—but Manning and her attorneys have managed to make the government see things her way when it comes to her gender, which is its own accomplishment.

Manning has long presented herself as a kind of public moralist. When she pleaded guilty, she did so by reading out a statement explaining her actions. It ran to some 35 pages, and took more than an hour. After her sentencing, she made a formal request for a presidential pardon. She wrote that the decision to leak secret documents was made “out of a concern for my country and the world that we live in.” Her time in Iraq made her “question the morality” of America’s military activity since 9/11. “I realized that in our efforts to meet the risks posed to us by the enemy, we had forgotten our Humanity,” she said. 

Last September, after publicly coming out as transgender, Manning sued the U.S. military, charging that the denial of her medical treatment for gender dysphoria was a violation of her constitutional rights. The suit said that, without treatment, Manning each day “experiences escalating anxiety, distress and depression. She feels as though her body is being poisoned by testosterone.”

In December 2014, the month of her 27th birthday, Manning wrote an op-ed in the Guardian (she had previously been published in that newspaper, and in the New York Times), about her identity and the violations of her rights as a trans person. She wrote of “unfinished business when it comes to protecting civil rights for many people,” from immigration reform to police brutality and racism to rampant discrimination faced by people like her. “We’re banned from serving our country in the armed services unless we serve as trans people in secret, as I did,” she wrote. She argued for self-recognition, the “absolute and inalienable right to define ourselves.”

Chase Strangio, an ACLU Staff Attorney who represents Manning in her gender dysphoria case, told me that in Fort Leavenworth, Manning is not allowed to browse the web. But she consults print news, remains “a voracious reader,” and has access to new gender theory texts, too.

Manning’s relationship with the Guardian is one kind of recognition. (The Guardian, which won the Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of the N.S.A.’s mass surveillance program—revealed by Edward Snowden—has a special relationship with leaks.) She will not be paid for her contributions. Strangio said that she believes this is by choice.

The journalist David France sees the agreement with the Guardian as indication that Manning has “kind of figured it out.” France, who directed the documentary film “How to Survive a Plague,” and has corresponded with Manning, told me that Manning can only be visited by people she had named before her imprisonment, not by new friends, lovers, or journalists. She cannot be photographed, cannot give interviews on camera.

 “Through the Guardian,” he said, “we can finally get a regular impression of Chelsea now, through her own voice, which is terrific. There’s so much she can tell us, about what her life is like. I think she’s very insightful, I think she’s very a keen observer of life. It’s interesting to start hearing from her now. We’re starting to see Snowden make his appearance. We’re actually starting to hear from these people, which I think is good for the dialogue.”

Strangio, Manning’s attorney, believes that Manning’s “work around trans justice is inextricably tied to her larger critique of the government with foreign policy.” Manning published a new op-ed Monday in which she demands that the CIA be held accountable for torture. On her author page, she is described as “a United States Army intelligence analyst [who] writes for the Guardian in her personal, civil capacity.” Manning’s author photo is a color portrait by Alicia Neal, a Philadelphia artist whoseday job is image-quality editor for a cable service provider. It is, Manning told Amnesty International in December, the closest approximation to “what I might look like if I was allowed to present and express myself the way I see fit, [as] a woman in public.”

Manning announced that she was a transgender woman the day after she received a 35-year sentence. In her statement, she wrote: “I want everyone to know the real me. I am Chelsea Manning. I am a female.” She expressed her hope to begin hormone therapy, and to be referred to in the feminine pronoun.

The government has now granted her that much. Nancy Hollander, the lead counsel in her appeal, sees this as a “only a small step in a long legal fight,” but still “an important victory for Chelsea, who has been mistreated by the government for years.” Strangio said in a statement that this was no trivial thing: “at least the government can no longer attempt to erase Chelsea’s identity by referring to her as male in every legal filing.” Some recognition, some validation, some small ray of sunlight at Leavenworth.