Ask anyone, queer or straight, what they think the queerest city in America is and most will say San Francisco. The City by the Bay has been the locus of all things queer since before Stonewall.
It made perfect sense, then, that San Francisco Pride would choose as its 2013 grand marshal Bradley Manning, the former Army intelligence specialist who is currently being prosecuted by the Obama administration and the Army for leaking thousands of classified documents via WikiLeaks. Many of those documents have been published and discussed extensively by top-level newspapers, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Guardian.
Manning has been deemed a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International and other human rights groups. In March, Manning was short-listed for the Nobel Peace Prize with support from people as diverse as Republican congressman Ron Paul of Texas and Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg. The Guardian, a U.K. newspaper, chose Manning as its Person of the Year 2012. His case has been a cause célèbre throughout Europe.
But within hours of the announcement Friday that Manning would be the grand marshal, and subsequent notification of Manning himself through Courage to Resist, which raises money to support his defense, Lisa L. Williams, San Francisco Pride board president, issued a disturbing press release. Williams stated emphatically that Manning’s nomination was "a mistake and never should have been allowed to happen." Williams also blamed a rogue member of the committee that chooses the marshals and said he "had been disciplined."
Disciplined — perhaps like Manning himself has been by the Obama administration, which has invoked the nearly century-old Espionage Act to prosecute Manning (but not any of the news outlets that have repeatedly published the documents he released) and other whistle-blowers.
The S.F. Pride board allegedly received numerous complaints from gay and lesbian service members about the choice of Manning and so withdrew it, blaming an unnamed board member.
The text of Williams’s press release reads like an indictment of Manning and his supporters rather than a simple "oops — we got our signals crossed." The use of the term "disciplined" seems decidedly nonconsensual and very Bush-era.
On Monday longtime San Francisco activists Tommi Avicolli Mecca, Michael Petrelis and Lisa Gedulgig held what they termed a social justice protest outside the San Francisco Pride office. Protesters wore Bradley Manning masks and carried signs saying "I Am Bradley Manning." Daniel Ellsberg attended the protest.
The Pride committee’s decision to dishonor Manning wasn’t just craven, it was — and is —reprehensible. It is absolutely anathema to what any Pride event is supposed be about, which is support for the diversity among and courage of LGBT people.
The ease with which the committee backed off the choice of Manning should unnerve every single queer in America. This is what collaboration looks like.
When I first read Williams’s press release, I was dumbfounded. I have been writing about Manning’s case since his arrest in May 2010. I detailed his torture at the hands of the Obama administration. I tweeted regularly how long he’d been held without charge as weeks turned to months. I elucidated the reasons why he should be given a presidential pardon and the precedent for it.
But Williams, even as she allows that Manning will get his day in court, cites as fact that Manning’s actions were dangerous and asserts, "Even the hint of support for actions which placed in harms [sic] way the lives of our men and women in uniform, and countless others, military and civilian alike, will not be tolerated by the leadership of San Francisco Pride."
As Williams, speaking for the S.F. Pride committee in toto, presents it, Manning is tantamount to a terrorist, equivalent to the Tsarnaev brothers, putting the lives of countless people, military and civilian alike, at risk.
According to whom? Williams? S.F. Pride? The alleged complainants? The Obama administration? There is no evidence whatsoever that Manning’s actions have done harm to anyone. What’s more, the documents he leaked have been published worldwide.
Manning isn’t just some random gay man (or trans person; he has identified as both at different times) who tossed a bunch of documents out a window in some fit of pique. He made a conscientious (as in conscientious objection) decision to release these documents to protest what he had come to see as an immoral war. He revealed truths about the U.S. government’s involvement in despicable actions that should have given every American the same pause it gave him and all the newspapers that reprinted those documents.
It’s not like the mainstream media made Manning a pariah. Rather, the most respected newspapers and TV news outlets in the country lauded Manning the way they had Ellsberg nearly 50 years earlier during the Vietnam War. The New York Times has repeatedly called the Obama administration’s prosecution/persecution of Manning draconian. In a March 13 editorial the Times queried with regard to Manning and President Obama, "What could be more destructive to an informed citizenry than the threat of the death penalty or life imprisonment for whistle-blowers?" (Manning has been threatened with both.)
The Obama administration has made Manning another target in the amorphous war on terror. He was among the first to suffer under President Obama’s indefinite detention order, spending nearly two years in solitary confinement, uncharged. His treatment, which included being forced to sleep and report to guards naked, being forced to sleep with lights on at all times and without either a pillow or a blanket, being held without access initially to an attorney, was all determined to be torture by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the International Red Cross.
Does the S.F. Pride committee approve of that torture and find it warranted? According to Williams’s trial-by-press-release, Manning is a dangerous criminal who will not and must not represent S.F. Pride as grand marshal. (Yet as Glenn Greenwald, columnist for The Guardian, detailed with characteristic astuteness, S.F. Pride is sponsored by several major corporations that have caused actual harm to millions, including queers, people of color, and the poor.)
To me, the case of Bradley Manning is an issue of civil rights, democracy, and government transparency. That these issues pivot off Manning’s sexual orientation cannot and must not be ignored by either the LGBT community or progressives. Manning’s actions took tremendous courage, and that courage should not be impugned by S.F. Pride.
How can there be anyone, let alone a pride committee in the gayest city in America, who doesn’t recognize that Manning. a queer soldier. risked his life and has forfeited his entire youth (he’ll be sentenced to at least 25 years in prison and has already spent three years confined) to tell the truth to Americans and the world about U.S. involvement in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and covert wars elsewhere?
Williams’s press release regurgitates the same polemic about Manning as the Obama administration. But it’s not merely the presentation of his actions as dangerous to other service members — the very definition of a traitor, I might add — it’s the perspective that any argument against the military-industrial complex is in and of itself a criminal act that "will not be tolerated." Have we forgotten so quickly that two seconds ago "don't ask, don't tell" was the law of the land and that Manning served under its repressive dictates from the age of 19? Have we forgotten that during half of its first four years the Obama administration prosecuted cases under DADT when the president could have overturned it with a stop-loss order or executive order? Have we forgotten that we are still fighting the war in Afghanistan after 11 years and that we still have tens of thousands of troops in Iraq? Have we forgotten that the documents released by Manning were credited with fomenting the Arab Spring, which has revolutionized the Middle East and freed millions from dictatorships?
Most importantly, have we forgotten that this country was built on the principles of dissent and protest, which Manning represents?
As a community, shouldn’t we ask ourselves why we would embrace an authoritarian administration that has made drone warfare, indefinite detention, and myriad other civil rights abuses like warrantless wiretapping a commonplace? Shouldn’t we be questioning and dissenting the way Manning has done, striving for his same level of courage and fortitude? Manning has withstood three punishing years in mostly solitary confinement. The S.F. Pride committee couldn’t withstand three hours of complaints.
This isn’t about supporting Manning or supporting other lesbians and gay men who have served in the military. We can do both; there is no mutual exclusivity of respect. But for Williams and the committee to suggest that there is only one acceptable perspective, which convicts Manning prima facie of a crime he did not commit.
S.F. Pride can still reverse its decision and vitiate Williams’s repugnant statement, but it won’t, of course. S.F. Pride is a business, part of the juggernaut of assimilation, where integrity takes a backseat to corporate sponsorship and straight acceptance.
Manning wasn’t looking for acceptance when he acted for the greater good, putting others above himself. Manning is a hero, someone who took the hit on the front lines so that others could be more free, giving us the transparency President Obama only promised.
Pride is supposed to celebrate the fight against oppression. But with these actions S.F. Pride has become a collaborator with a social construct that demands fealty to assimilation rather than justice. It’s ugly, it’s wrong, and it’s made Manning a victim again — first of the government and now, so much more painfully, of his own community.
Williams and S.F. Pride deserve nothing but opprobrium and shame.
Victoria A. Brownworth is a Pulitzer-Prize nominated journalist who has won the NLGJA and Society of Professional Journalists Awards for her series on LGBT issues. She is the author and editor of more than 30 books, including the award-winning Too Queer: Essays From a Radical Life. She lives in Philadelphia. VABVOX@aol.com