The back of her head, her pale hair clipped short at the nape of her neck. These are the parts of Chelsea Manning’s body I am most intimately familiar with. This is as much as I could see of her, in a courtroom in the summer of 2013, over the course of two days —16 hours, less the frequent recesses to close the courtroom for the discussion of material the military attorneys wanted kept private, even if it had already been published by WikiLeaks, the New York Times, and the Guardian, due to Manning’s whistleblowing in Iraq in 2010.
It was in that courtroom trailer on the base at Fort Meade, the one place the public could see her, where she learned in August 2013 that she would be sent to a military prison in Fort Leavenworth for 35 years. Now, the only people who can visit her in prison are her attorneys and the people — her family and friends — who knew her before her arrest.
Disclosure — in the form of documents uploaded to WikiLeaks — was the central question of Manning’s court martial. But after her arrest, Manning herself was concealed from us.
At the opening and close of each day of her trial, Manning was brought into the military trailer through a white canopy tent. If you saw any video from the trial, you saw it. This procedure was the only visual proof of her body. It was often shown on a loop: her slight frame, upper arm gripped by a guard, the white draping in the background. Cameras were banned from the courtroom. Credentialed press who wanted use of their laptops were corralled in a separate trailer to watch the proceedings by video link. The woman at the center of the case was visible to only those who made the journey to Fort Meade, and even then, only a fraction of who she is.
In her absence, Manning’s gender and sexuality were shared for her, and were made suspicious.
On May 19, 2016, approaching the sixth anniversary of her arrest, Manning filed to appeal her conviction and sentence. By now, she has spent six of her 28 years imprisoned. “No whistleblower in American history has been sentenced this harshly,” the appeal states. The government “sought to make an example of her.”
I came away from the very small part of Manning’s trial I attended with a filled notebook, which I then sat on for nearly three years. I didn’t know how to write about someone who had been so forcefully made absent. I didn’t want to do so without her participation. On trial, she couldn’t speak openly for herself, to explain her politics, without potentially jeopardizing her defense. Only shortly after her sentencing did she release a statement through her attorney David Coombs, clarifying that she was a transgender woman, something discussed as her case wore on, something even directly addressed in her sentencing. But until we had Manning’s words that day, we didn’t even know her name.
In her absence, Manning’s gender and sexuality were shared for her, and were made suspicious. A few months after her arrest, the New York Timestold readers that Manning’s social circle included hackers, that her boyfriend was a drag queen. Now those friends wondered, the paper claimed, “whether [her] desperation for acceptance — or delusions of grandeur — may have led [her] to disclose the largest trove of government secrets since the Pentagon Papers.” Manning’s hacker and drag queen friends are not present themselves in this story. Neither, of course, is Manning.
Consider this absence and resulting projection of Manning’s gender and sexuality alongside one of the charges she faced: “wanton publication.” By copying files and sharing them with WikiLeaks, according to the government, Manning had “wantonly cause[d] to be published on the internet intelligence belonging to the US government, having knowledge that intelligence published on the internet is accessible to the enemy.” It was an unprecedented charge. Manning’s defense called it “a made-up offense.”
Alexa O’Brien, who covered the trial, wrote that the wanton publication charge “is intended to proscribe and chill whistleblowers and publishers empowered by the Internet’s low cost, accessible means of distribution.” Joanne McNeil, who also covered the trial, called wanton publication “slut-shaming data sets.” With a CD-R, she noted, Manning could quickly accomplish what took Daniel Ellsberg ages at a Xerox.
To put it in alarmist Millennial trend piece parlance, Manning’s crime was made akin to impulsive oversharing.
The panic around what Manning exposed — not what was contained in those files, but that there were so many — became twinned with the suspicions surrounding her identity. These were only magnified by how impossible it was at the time to know her. Her chat logs (which she was led to believe would never be published) stood in for her story. Her disclosures of diplomatic cables and the video WikiLeaks would go on to release as “Collateral Murder” were seen, perhaps distorted, through the “troubled” young person she had been cast as. The trouble, gleaned through media reports and portions of the trial, was her gender and her body.
“They are using her gender identity to suggest it fits into an offender profile.”
“Her trans status was certainly weaponised against her by the government during the trial,” wrote commentator s.e. smith. Anything believed (or assumed) about Manning’s gender and sexuality at the time was necessarily shaped by the possibility of her conviction, one carrying a life sentence.
And now, convicted and in military prison, Manning can speak of herself, for herself. You can’t meet her, but you can read her column and her blog. “When your own government’s policies send a message that you don’t exist — or that you shouldn't — it’s devastating,” she wrote on coming out as trans in the Guardian in 2014. A year later, in blog post at Medium, she described the pain and trauma she experienced when forced to undergo a “standard male” haircut every two weeks in prison. (The American Civil Liberties Union is representing her as she fights for her right to her gender, like anyone else.)
Suspicions that being queer and/or being trans could be used by the government as a sign of a threat bore out, as well — something now known due to additional disclosures Manning made public, this time through a Freedom of Information Act request. Manning learned she was used as a case study by the Obama administration, with the goal of identifying other potential whistleblowers before they leak documents. The program is called “Insider Threat.”
“They are using her gender identity to suggest it fits into an offender profile,” Manning’s attorney Chase Strangio told the Guardian.
“Act as your own filter for information,” Manning wrote on the anniversary of her arrest at the end of May. “Search for your own answers to questions.” Speaking to her vision through her struggles, she added this, which serves well as a reply to those who tried to write her life for her: “We cannot, and will not, understand the world looking at information filtered through one lens.”