The case of Chelsea Manning hits home a bit hard for me**. On the one hand, she committed an unconscionable act of sabotage of our country’s interests as a soldier in our military. On the other, all the while she transitioned (MtF) and her coming out in such a harsh spotlight may be seen as an act of bravery. Which is it?
My view is that Chelsea’s criminal act and her gender transition are two very separate things, and we should all strive to keep it that way. Unfortunately, as my recent experience in the bowels of the Twitterverse informs me, this is definitely not the case. The implications of this inability to separate Manning’s crime from her transition are awful.
I entered the fray in response to an article by Jamie Kirchick entitled “When Transgender Trumps Treachery.” In his usual snarky tone, Kirchick makes the correct and horrifying diagnosis of the problems beset by the mindless celebration of Chelsea just because she is trans:
Celebrating Chelsea Manning just a few years after gay and transgender people were permitted to serve openly in the military discredits the L.G.B.T. cause. Throughout most of the 20th century, homosexuality was associated with treason and used as a basis for purging gay people from government jobs, denying them security clearances and restricting their service in the armed forces. The decision by Ms. Manning’s defense team to argue that untreated gender dysphoria was a factor in her decision to leak classified information unwittingly aids those who say that L.G.B.T. people cannot be trusted in sensitive government jobs. And it dishonors the L.G.B.T. people who have served in the military throughout history without betraying their country.
This cannot be stressed strongly enough: Manning herself combined her gender identity and her crime as part and parcel of the same thing. This unbelievably selfish act compounds her “victimless” crime because now we have a President that wants a blanket transgender ban in the military!
OK, so maybe I lost you when I scare-quoted ‘victimless.” Yes, I am with Kirchick when I state that Manning did great damage to our country’s ability to operate abroad. I know that she exposed some wrongdoing and that one memo used by the prosecution in her trial did not say what the prosecution said it did. But the salient fact is that she gave 750,000 secret military and diplomatic documents to Julian Assange at Wikileaks, an entity not exactly known for acting in the best interests of our country. I have been told that nobody has been compromised or killed as a result of Manning’s theft; my response is a) how on earth would one know that? and b) Assange has full control over what to do with all of these documents in perpetuity – nobody knows what he can or cannot do at any time. This is not good, folks***.
Manning’s release and subsequent celebrity feting by the like-minded coincides with Trump’s determination to ban transgender people from the military. And Exhibit A is Chelsea Manning herself! After all, she stated on the record that it was her gender dysphoria that made her do it, Your Honor.
I care deeply about the rights of transgender people to be treated like anyone else because I see my child in so many of these people. So a transgender military ban to me feels like those in power trying to make my child a second-class citizen, even if he has no plans to enter the military. From day one, I have worked to make sure than my child is treated with respect and respects himself. But these messages are hard to maintain when both left and right insist on treating transgender people differently from other folks.
I have stated over and over again that the right frequently dehumanizes those who are different – especially transgender people. But the left is pernicious in its own way. For example, someone on Twitter accused me of being transphobic – me! – because I do not think Manning did a great service to our country.
The epitome of this failure on the left to separate Manning’s gender identity from her crimes is this article by Meg Sri, which is a response to Kirchick’s article. Actually, Sri makes some solid points about the transphobia to which Manning has been subjected – very true, and I cannot imagine that her treatment by the government was never affected by her struggles. That said, Sri loses me when she accuses Kirchick of transphobia without any proof. (My transphobia detector is pretty strong I think and I detected none in Kirchick’s article – if I did, I would have said something.) Sri accuses Kirchick of asking for a state-sanctioned murder of a trans person (“as if it didn’t happen enough already”) – a slander if I ever saw one. For crying out loud, Kirchick thought Manning deserved the death penalty for espionage, not because she is trans! (For the record, I disagree with Kirchick****.) This is the precise reason that people who flagrantly celebrate Manning make me terribly nervous.
So look, Manning had the guts to be true to herself in a very glaring spotlight. That said, she is still a criminal who has dumped a boatload of our secrets onto an entity that cares not a whit for this country. These two things are separate and should not be used in judging the other thousands of brave transgender troops.
**In case the reader doesn’t know, I am the father of a transgender teenager (FtM).
***Comparisons with Daniel Ellsberg and the release of the Pentagon Papers is tempting and even Ellsberg seems to dig it. But ask any seasoned security professional and they will state that Manning’s act was a data dump in the service of anarchy, not an act of necessary civil disobedience as was Ellsberg’s release of the Papers to the NY Times.
****Independent of all of this is the harshness of Manning’s sentence and subsequent incarceration. I cannot imagine it was pleasant. But Pres. Obama commuted her sentence and, lucky her. I am only interested here in the criminal act being separate from the gender identity.