The transgender activist spoke as part of the Luskin School of Public Affairs’ lecture series on campus.
Not all decisions are clear.
This was a central theme of last night’s Luskin Lecture in Royce Hall, featuring transgender speaker Chelsea Manning. Manning is best known for controversially leaking classified military intelligence while serving as an intelligence analyst in the Army. She subsequently served seven years in prison and came out as a trans woman before having her initial 35-year sentence commuted by then-President Obama in 2017. Last night, Manning discussed an array of topics, including being trans in the military, the motivations behind her decision to leak the intel, and her observations about society after being released from prison.
The decision: coming out (but also staying in the closet) as a trans woman in the military.
After being kicked out of her house, being homeless, and burning out from college, Manning enlisted in the military in 2007. She felt a sense of not knowing who she was, of desperation for a place to feel safe and build a new foundation for herself. “Trying to figure out who I was, I was 18, I had no clue,” Manning said. She thought that joining the Army would suppress her self-described “gender feels,” and the move fit with the societal and familial expectations of hypermasculinity that she felt the need to conform to.
However, when she got to the closed environment of the military, it became impossible to hide her true self. “You can’t hide who you are,” Manning recollects. Despite not being able to explicitly come out under the restrictions of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, Manning’s colleagues “definitely knew or at least suspected” that she was queer. Despite being able to implicitly “flout it” around her Army peers, Manning described being trans in the military as difficult. Beyond still trying to figure herself out, the looming governmental consequences of coming out caused Manning to “work in a constant state of fear.” She was “living on the cusp of losing it all—again.”
The decision: leaking U.S. military intelligence to an outside source
When Manning enlisted, military intelligence was evolving into a statistics-based field, so she went into her nearly year-long training with an analytical mindset. After being deployed to Iraq, she “had the slow realization that what [she] was working with was real.” She was “confronted with the reality that those are peoples’ hopes, dreams, livelihoods, relationships… humans are so predictable, but we’re still human, not math problems to be solved.” She felt a responsibility for these peoples’ stories, and recounted thinking to herself, “that’s something we can’t lose.”
Manning also questioned the system of institutional power structures that “decide what is and isn’t classified based on arbitrary criteria.” She expressed her dissatisfaction with the lack of governmental transparency into classified information. More recently, she is “beginning to question the premise of institutions that decide what is and isn’t classified based on arbitrary criteria.” Manning stated, “It’s not about one bad apple [Iraq and Afghanistan], it’s about the whole thing, the whole structure.”
Manning attempted to share her information with the New York Times, Washington Post, and Politico, but was ignored or rebuffed by each publication. Following her core values of responsibility to help people in need and of thinking on her own, she released classified intelligence related to U.S. military actions in Iraq and Afghanistan to an unknown WikiLeaks affiliate. Reflecting on this 2010 bid to help Iraqi and Afghan civilians despite the risk to American soldiers, Manning said, “I made a decision based on the facts, the situation I was in… I ran out of time and options. I acted on my values, and on what I had available to me. I can’t change that.”
The decision: becoming a role model
While serving her 35-year sentence for a bevy of charges related to that decision, including espionage and disobeying orders, Manning felt a sense that she was never going to get out of prison. She only dared to hope to get better access to healthcare related to her needs as a trans woman, and to have more contact with the outside world. She was given a chance to return to the outside world “based on the whim of a human being with a pen [Obama]” upon her commuted release in 2017, just seven years into her initial sentence.
She’s had to do this in a completely different world than the one she knew before. In this new world, Manning has seen military weapons and tactics being “imported to the streets of our most vulnerable communities” by police forces. Manning also implores people to embrace intersectionality as the way to bring people together within the queer community, since “we’re all being affected by the same systems of power… we’re not islands in this archipelago, we’re all on the same boat.” Both statements earned rapturous applause from the audience. Manning now goes around the country, giving lectures like the one last night, and is running for a U.S. Senate seat in Maryland.
Manning’s story has inspired droves of people in the fight against oppressive power structures and for increased governmental transparency. Responding on an audience member’s question toward the end of the event, Manning said, “I’ve never wanted to be a role model, I’ve always wanted a role model… as a trans person growing up in Oklahoma and not even knowing I was trans, the idea of being who I was was so alien in this society.” However, one needs to look no further than the woman that implored Manning to help student protestors apparently detained outside the event to see that this transgender woman has indeed become an unwitting role model. Whether you like her or not, whether you agree or disagree with her past actions, it seems that Chelsea Manning is here to stay.
All quotes obtained firsthand. The Luskin School of Public Affairs and OutWrite Newsmagazine neither condone nor condemn the actions of Chelsea Manning.