Chelsea Manning Was Always Unqualified for Harvard

Chelsea Manning

I'm usually pretty damn opinionated, in case you couldn’t tell. Debating and arguing can be tiresome to folks who aren’t interested, and it can make you come across as an asshole, which, to be fair, I can be. Sometimes, though, there are things I’ll hold my tongue on for fear of backlash because it’s not a popular opinion. This can range from pop culture — I think Rihanna is a better singer than Beyoncé — to popular LGBTQ people or views. One of those popular LGBTQ people has been Chelsea Manning. I’ve erred on the side of caution for a while, because she is so popular with not only transgender people but the left as well. But Chelsea was recently involved in something I just couldn’t stay silent on.

The Harvard University John F. Kennedy School of Government recently announced that it would have Chelsea as a fellow — basically serving as a regular lecturer on issues of LGBTQ identity in the military. That was before a loud conservative outcry forced Harvard to cut ties with the convicted leaker of national secrets.

I know that as a transgender person I’m supposed to support my fellow community members; I know that we’re supposed to stand in solidarity together, but I’m sorry, so, so sorry, but she was always completely unqualified to serve in that role.

The majority of Manning’s military career was spent in a prison cell. While, yes, during the entirety of her trial and prison sentence she was technically a soldier in the U.S. Army, the experiences of a prison are worlds apart from those of an average service member in any branch of the military. It would be easy to make this about her whistleblowing and the moral and legal justifications for it. Many have written about how they feel about her hero status, and more have written hateful screeds about her gender identity. The only thing that would be even remotely relevant would be her whistleblowing, and I do have opinions on that, which I have long kept to myself because, yes, they do not fit with the mainstream views of her actions.

I do not feel that she is a hero, but I also do not consider her a traitor. Her actions were misguided; she was naïve, but she acted according to her conscience, which I respect. I do not agree with those actions, but I respect them. There is no genuine malice in my heart for Chelsea, and I certainly would gladly defend her against the cheap attacks on her trans identity from those on the right who use it against her, but I don't feel she truly represents me as a transgender veteran, nor the thousands of other LGBTQ veterans and service members. 

The simple truth is she simply isn’t qualified through her own experiences nor in her history as an activist to be any sort of lecturing expert on the issues. For the most part, daily life as a soldier is an 9-to-5 job and has a very similar dynamic to any corporation or business environment; it's far more relaxed than you'd assume, unless the situation calls for military regimentation. The relationships you form, the interactions with your leadership, your free time, your romantic life, the way you spend your money, and the hobbies you have are your own. In prison, your life is scheduled, regimented, and heavily restricted, even more so in a military prison where the expectations of discipline and order expected of a soldier run parallel to that of the prison. This is not to disparage the difficulties and discrimination Manning experienced in her time, but they would be nothing like the life of the average soldier. While one could argue that she spent time as a soldier outside of prison, one must also recognize that the experiences of prison do change a person’s view, experiences, and opinions and were the majority of her life in the service.

Additionally, there are thousands of veterans and soldiers who spent their entire lives in the military, both closeted and open, in every branch and skill set and at every rank, including generals and admirals. Many of these people have become advocates, activists, and advisers on LGBTQ service members behalf. Organizations such as SPART*A, OutServe-SLDN, American Veterans for Equal Rights, and others have interviewed LGBTQ service members, gathered reams of data, and shared information on the needs and challenges of LGBTQ soldiers and vets for years. Their membership includes numerous veterans and soldiers from all walks of life and experiences who are well versed on the issues. Any number of these individuals or the dozens of prominent LGBTQ people with a military background would be far more qualified to speak on the experience. 

I can't speak for the aforementioned people, but I personally would be insulted if I spent a lifetime in my career working toward a goal, learning about its challenges, speaking to the people it affects, and even worked with the leadership of the thing I want to change, only to have a relative neophyte with a popular media following take a coveted position that will educate the future leaders of my country.

While Chelsea could ramp up her familiarity with the particular issues and experiences of LGBTQ soldiers, sailors, and marines, there are dozens of people who are already well versed, have 20 or more years' experience in the service, and are skilled academics and public speakers, some of whom themselves have degrees from Ivy League institutions. In essence, the only logical reason I can come up with for Harvard for initially bringing on Chelsea as a fellow is that she's a big name who creates headlines (maybe not always the ones the university wants).

I have no issues with Chelsea continuing her work as an LGBTQ activist and educator. She has every right in the world to continue to speak her mind, share her views, and be a public advocate (like another famous and controversial woman).

These are things that I truly believe in my heart that when I enlisted years ago, I swore to defend. However, in this regard, Chelsea does not speak for me, nor the thousands of LGBTQ people who have served and have built a life after the military as an educator and advocate, or simply as a private citizen. While everyone has a right to speak, there comes with it the wisdom to know when not to speak. The latter, Chelsea does not have. Many LGBTQ vets do not share the belief that she was right in leaking those secrets, and they believe she betrayed an oath many have died for. While this may seem like an outrageous belief, for many soldiers it is a sacred one — one that forms a bond, and Manning betrayed that oath and bond to them.

I wish nothing but the best for Chelsea, but she's not the advocate and educator the LGBTQ military community deserves.

AMANDA KERRI is a writer and comedian based in Oklahoma City. Follow her on Twitter @amanda_kerri.

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