Zillah Eisenstein

My writings, thoughts, and activism.

Whistle Blowers on Wars and Gender


Whistle Blowing; on Wars and Genders


Zillah Eisenstein

August 25, 2013


My use of s/he, he and she; and Manning’s three names: Bradley, Breanna, and Chelsea is to respect the complex historical process that gender is.  This in no way is meant to deny who Chelsea is today.


I started writing this one-month before Manning came out as Chelsea; at the time when I was first trying to piece together the niblets and whispers of news about Manning’s sexuality—that s/he was gay and also transgender. To people who were not paying close attention the revelation that Bradley preferred to be called Chelsea might have come as a surprise, but not to me.


Before going public, Bradley Manning had an on-line (digital) presence as Breanna on Facebook, twitter, and You-Tube.  http://www.tumblr.com/tagged/breanna-manning And the New York Times quoted Manning as saying to a former hacker: “I wouldn’t mind going to prison for the rest of my life, or being executed so much, if it wasn’t for the possibility of having pictures of me…plastered all over the world press…as (a) boy”.  Interestingly, no further comment followed. Mainstream news remained pretty much silent on this issue.  It did not help matters, at least for me, that early on Manning’s defense team raised his “sexual confusion” and “gender dysphoria” as a possible explanation for his whistleblower actions.  This complex matter of the personal and gender choices of Manning and how it related to his public and moral stances obviously was once again too complex and complicated to be discussed by mainstream news outlets, or dealt with in a courtroom.


Feminists of all political types, and races, and genders have brilliantly argued for decades—since the early 1970’s that the “personal is political”, that there is a sexual politics to each moment; that the so-called divide between sex and politics and the private and the public is blurry and messy and also crucial.  When it comes to transgender peoples add in race and class and stir wildly, like always.


So I will utilize these long established anti-racist feminist insights and explicitly extend them to the realm of sexual choice and gender non-conforming people of all fashions. Paisley Currah, a long time transgender rights activist and researcher committed to the rewiring of law for transpeople and Gayle Rubin, long time feminist and radical sex activist make clear the necessity of opening our democratic hearts to the freedom of sexual beings in all their gendered variety and individuality.


Do not confuse all the cultural noise about sex with gender freedom. There is so much reporting of sexual scandal in our surrounds that one could wrongly assume that our culture is wildly free about sex or gender choices, rather than quite disciplining.  Amidst all the exposure of our heterosexist politicians and their sexual forays is a lack of embrace of gender minorities who occupy every racial, cultural, and class identity.


Transparency for Chelsea Manning


My embrace of Chelsea Manning is as a whistleblower of keen ethical clarity and as a member of a sexual minority and distinct gender identity who deserves equal rights and treatment.  I am against all forms of terror—especially the kind that makes it hard to feel comfortable in our own bodies, whatever they may be.  Manning was terrorized as a youth for being gay and now will probably suffer dearly for transitioning to a woman.


Manning’s gift to the US public is to have exposed a militarism that is harmful and deceitful and devastating alongside a full transparency of his personal/sexual self.  That s/he has done so in a public statement read on the Today show by her lawyer David Coombs makes clear that her commitments are to the wider public, not simply herself.  In her own words: “As I transition into this next phase of my life, I want everyone to know the real me. I am Chelsea Manning.  I am a female”…and have “felt so since childhood”. http://www.today.com/news/i-am-chelsea-read-mannings-full-statement-6C10974052  We should embrace this public declaration with a careful scrutiny of our sexual and gendered culture and its anti-democratic lens.


Chelsea Manning does not stand alone here.  CECE McDonald, a 23 year old Black transgender woman in Minnesota was convicted of second degree manslaughter in a transphobic incident in June 2011; an incident that her supporters say was an act of complete self-defense.  She remains in a man’s prison for her 41-month sentence.  The day after Chelsea Manning came out to the world, Islan Nettles, also a 21 year old transgender Black woman, was brutally beaten in Harlem and died the next morning.


And, then there is the TV character Sophia Burset who is a transgender Black woman in prison in the hit series Orange is the New Black.  http://guardianlv.com/2013/08/orange-is-the-new-black-humanizing-the-transgender-community/ She has to struggle to maintain her right to hormonal therapy given prison cutbacks in medical care. She is in a women’s prison, and is played by Laverne Cox, a transgender Black actress.  There is also the Sylvia Rivera Law Project that has been working for the past ten years to support incarcerated transgendered people. http://srlp.org


Manning has initiated a rare moment of opportunity that makes mainstream silence a bit more difficult.  She is a patriot and demands a radicalism for sexual and gender rights for Chelsea, and for anyone wishing to simply be who they are regardless of institutionalized gender.  These alliances and allegiances are complicated and complex.  The extra-legal nature of misogynist, heterosexist,  and transphobic gender rules increases the problems that Chelsea Manning will now face in a military prison for men.


Bradley/Breanna Manning’s Story and Revelations


Manning as a young boy/man came from a background with limited familial support so s/he joined the military to get an education, despite being only 5 foot 2 inches and a closeted gay. S/he also hoped that if anything could curtail the desire to become a woman, military life could.  S/he is described as smart and technically brilliant. S/he was horrified, maybe somewhat naively, by the cruelty and deceit that s/he discovered were integral to the Iraq war, while simply doing her job.  Once s/he saw the carnage of wanton murders and the lies to cover them up s/he felt compelled to tell the American people.  S/he was sure that if we knew what was wrongly going on, we would act to stop it.


Living as Bradley/Breanna, Manning leaked seven hundred thousand documents thereby exposing aspects of an illegal war and the torture and killing of unarmed civilians. S/he is sure that no one would support these actions if given the choice—and bravely decided to risk everything to give the US public a choice.


The amazing reporter Alexa Obrien https://twitter.com/carwinb who followed the Manning trial each and every day with multiple tweets and constant urgency and compassion says that Manning is more a moral person, than political one. She says that Manning is hard to sell to the American public because she is not easily packaged for US media.


The difficult sell is because Chelsea Manning reveals just how complex human beings are.  She knew she was gay since her early teens and then started to feel uncomfortable as a man. She started to cross dress a bit and came out as a woman to her master sergeant Paul Adkins saying that s/he suffered from “gender dysphoria” and attached a photo dressed as a woman.  Hormone replacement therapy information was found in Breanna/Bradley’s room.  Bradley’s commanding officer Captain Steven Lim knew he had been calling himself Breanna.


In an interview with Amy Goodman on Democracy Now Alexa Obrien reveals that the largest leak by Manning was in January 2010, around the same time he was on leave in the US and started to dress as a woman.  http://www.democracynow.org/appearances/alexa_obrien I assume that the start of his journey to personal truth and transparency to others of being a woman is complexly webbed with his commitment to transparency related to war crimes.


I will risk myself here and say that rather than “confusion” that it appears that personal/sexual and political-moral clarity may go hand in hand.  Whereas Manning said s/he had been “troubled” and that this may have led to wrongfully harming others it is more likely that the terror s/he faced for being a woman in a male body caused whatever confusion there was. S/he apologizes for whatever harm she has done.  But maybe Breanna and Chelsea’s loneliness and pain assisted her identification with the powerless against US military policy.  Her gender exploration and choosing is not a pathology.  Killing innocent people in war is.


Enlarging the Anti-Militarist/War Community



According to Lauren McNamara, a transgender activist in Florida, and an on-line confidant of Manning’s in 2009, Manning is an incredible human being who needs to be embraced as a Whistle Blower of all things. http://freethoughtblogs.com/zinniajones/2013/07/the-humanity-of-private-manning-by-lauren-mcnamara/ If s/he must go to prison, s/he should be allowed to transition there. However, at Fort Leavenworth, the military prison in Kansas in which Manning will be housed, hormone therapy is not offered.  Her lawyer David Coombs vows to fight for this right for Manning, along with the ACLU.


Feminists of all types and commitments must also enlarge their commitments to see how anti-militarism is part of a larger sexual, gender and racial democracy.  The civil rights movement should see an ally in Manning.  Breanna/Chelsea Manning has stood openly against the killing and maiming of brown peoples—Arabs and Muslims in Iraq and Afghanistan.


It was because of this broad coalition that there was a massive petition writing campaign to nominate Bradley Manning for the Nobel Peace Prize. http://www.cbc.ca/news/world/story/2013/08/12/us-bradley-manning-nobel-peace-prize-nomination-petition.html  This initiative should now be continued with the newly chosen name and identity of Chelsea.


Scott Gonzalez of Reader Supporter News wrote“ An Apology to Bradley Manning” before his coming out. Gonzales refutes Manning’s apologies and instead says it is “us” who should apologize to him. He like so many other anti-war progressives continued the awkward silence about gender surrounding Manning. When Manning says s/he is “flawed” and “has issues”, Gonzalez responds, “None of us are perfect”. Progressives need to do better.


To incarcerate a male body with a woman’s identity in prison, and in a military prison no less, is cruel and unusual punishment. Chelsea Manning tried to comfort her lawyers and supporters after her sentencing, and said that she will “survive”–hat this is “just a stage in her life”–that she will “recover from this.”  The question is what about us?


Chelsea as a whistleblower should not be in jail in the first place.  And in the second place, she should be free from cruel and unusual punishment. And in the third place, she should have the 1st amendment right to freedom of expression extended to her gender choices, as well as her due process right to life, liberty and the pursuit of her own happiness.  This all necessitates access to her medical treatment as well. http://www.bradleymanning.org ; and http://nationaltheatrewales.org/bradleymanning


We have a rare opportunity to create an anti-war coalition of anti-racist feminists of all sorts no matter what their biological body.  This would be a coalition that embraces sexual, economic, racial, and gender, rights for each and every one of us.  Radical feminisms that derive from anti-racist, anti-militarist, anti-elitist, imaginings of sexual and gender freedom forces an agenda that recognizes all forms of individuality and diversity.   IT IS TIME.


Chelsea Manning should be free and not incarcerated for whistle blowing; but if not, the military prison system should recognize her rights to her female body.  Feminisms and progressives of all sorts must continue to enlarge their visions and their dreams: OUR BODIES/OURSELVES/TRULY, in whatever sexual and gender and racial formation we desire.




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