Chelsea Manning has penned an autobiographical essay that details her struggles as a homeless transgender teenager on the streets of Chicago, and links her incarceration as a trans woman to struggles for reform in what she calls the “military and prison industrial complexes.”
The former U.S. Army intelligence analyst, who was convicted in July of 2013 of leaking thousands of classified government documents, is two years into serving a 35-year sentence in a military prison. Manning recently completed a 21-day punishment for breaking prison rules, in which she was restricted from recreation.
She is the first transgender woman to receive hormone therapy in a military prison.
Manning's “On the Intersection of the Military and the Prison Industrial Complex” was published Sunday as an op-ed at Truthout and will be published in expanded form within a new edition of Captive Genders: Trans Embodiment and the Prison Industrial Complex, a book that will be released next month by AK Press.
Manning’s essay reads like a veritable “Letter From Fort Leavenworth Barracks” in the mode of notable correspondence by iconic incarcerated dissidents, such as Oscar Wilde's "De Profundis," the gay philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, and Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "Letter From a Birmingham Jail." The essay marks Manning’s most extended discussion of her struggles as a former homeless teenager from the Midwest who became a controversial whistleblower.
Called a hero by some for actions that heralded the 2010 Arab Spring protests and won her the Sean MacBride Peace Award, and a traitor by her government for betraying her country by exposing wartime secrets, Manning was convicted of violating the Espionage Act, stealing government property, violating the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, and disobeying orders. Her sentence stands as the longest imposed for an information leak to date. She was reduced in rank from private first class to private E1, the lowest in the military, and received a dishonorable discharge from the army.
Manning illegally provided the website WikiLeaks nearly 700,000 classified government documents and diplomatic cables that exposed widespread military and diplomatic injustices. Among the revelations was a video showing members of a U.S. helicopter crew laughing as they carried out an air strike in 2007 that killed a dozen people in Baghdad, Iraq, including a photographer and driver working for Reuters news agency.
After her sentencing in 2013, Manning began her transition as a transgender woman. As The Advocate documented, her lawyer announced this by reading her statement on the Today show:
"As I transition into this next phase of my life, I want everyone to know the real me. I am Chelsea Manning. I am female. Given the way that I feel, and have felt since childhood, I want to begin hormone therapy as soon as possible."
In her new essay, Manning stated:
“My status as a trans woman in a military prison places me in the unique position in which the extraordinary administration, regulation, surveillance and policing of gender norms, expectations, vices and virtues clash with my most fundamental understanding of my identity and how I intend to express myself as a female. For instance, although I am now being allowed to wear female undergarments, use cosmetics and take hormones, I am not allowed to grow my hair beyond the two inches authorized by the military.”
Manning compared the military system to the prison system:
“The purpose and intent of the military-industrial and prison industrial complexes are very similar. While both systems often appear to be functioning separately, there are more and more instances where they operate in unison. This is especially the case in our post-9/11 world, in which these frameworks and structures overlap and operate together in many places. Both systems impact women and other gender and sexual minorities--the imposition of strict gender norms of femininity on women, and the praise of masculinity and the macho at the expense of femininity, which is deemed a signed of ‘weakness.’”
Manning then explained how these overlapping sentences influenced her early life:
“When I was a homeless teenager in 2006, trying to survive in the Midwest and on the streets of Chicago, I was left to fend for myself against both systems. The prison industrial complex had the power to imprison me and label me as an offender for life, for crimes as small and victimless as loitering in public areas, trespassing in private parking areas and being suspected of solicitation for prostitution. The reality, from my perspective, was clear: that I had nowhere not to loiter or trespass, and that my perceived sexual orientation, living as an effeminate gay male at the time, allowed law enforcement officials to assume that I was a prostitute.”
It's estiimated that 40 percent of homeless youth are LGBT. The Center for American Progress reports that about 350,000 gay and transgender youth face homelessness each year.
Manning also described how the injustice of the military’s former homophobic “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy affected her while she was in the army, and she urged a greater commitment to education so that the realities of trans lives like hers can be better understood.
Follow her on Twitter at @xychelsea.