Blog Post

"I am Chelsea Manning": Digital Leaks, Deceptive Privates

All Images by Faith Holland, Chelsea Manning Fan Art (2014)

 

 

“I will serve my time knowing that sometimes you have to pay a heavy price to live in a free society.” - Chelsea Manning

 

On August 22, 2013, the individual responsible for the largest leak of classified United States documents to the general public, formerly named Bradley Manning, released a statement the day after her 22-offense sentence to the all-male maximum security U.S. Disciplinary Barracks at Fort Leavenworth. “As I transition into the next phase of my life, I want everyone to know the real me,” she said in a press release for the Today show. “I am Chelsea Manning. I am a female.” The press release continues: “Given the way that I feel, and have felt since childhood, I want to begin hormone therapy as soon as possible. I hope that you will support me in this transition. I also request that, starting today, you refer to me by my new name and use the feminine pronoun.”

 

The impacts of Chelsea’s political controversy -- terrorism by treason -- on the global and digital reflect the borders of Chelsea’s intended audience in her letter. In the letter’s first paragraph, she specifically acknowledges and thanks organizations like Courage To Resist and Bradley Manning Support Network, as well as “everybody who has supported” Chelsea throughout “this long ordeal.” Yet, in the second paragraph, the pronominal changes, so that her intended audience is “everyone”: anyone who can access this networked data, as it permutes in new and rehashed forms, via digital or paradigital means, throughout the world. “I am Chelsea Manning” unveils the open secret of her gender identity, akin in manner to her leaking of, say, “Collateral Murder” and State Department Cables to Wikileaks.

 

Faith Holland's "Chelsea Manning Fan Art"

 

Chelsea’s “coming out” was not the first leak of her gender identity. Previously, many trans feminists were aware of Manning’s identification with the name “Breanna” through feminist digital organizing, before she adopted Chelsea publically and digitally/globally. Indeed, transfeminist critic Jos Truitt of Feministing stressed the rampant misgendering of Manning in the press, asking on December 11, 2011, over a year before the public statement, “Why is it acceptable to continue referring to her in a way that we now know is inaccurate and hurtful to her? Are you really so afraid of how her trans identity might impact public perception that you refuse to respect her gender identity?”

 

Faith Holland's "Chelsea Manning Fan Art"

 

Manning’s official coming out engendered an epistemological cricis in journalism. In a thorough survey of media outlets trans coverage, Jos Truitt demonstrate in a different article the “inaccurate and hurtful” discourse revolving around the transgender topic forced the large majority of large-scale publications to review and update their style guides because of reporting on Manning. This hermeneutical cricis goes beyond the confines of the media; it also rendered trans subjectivity before the law highly visible. In fact, Manning’s leak of identity, like her whistleblowing, breaches the normative modes under which the U.S. nation-state-empire operates; questioning the cisnormative enforcement of gender in the media, law, prison-industrial complex, and, in particular, the military. In fact, not only has Chelsea managed to reform journalistic style guides simply with her statement, the military must now by law refer to Chelsea using feminine or gender-neutral pronouns, given her legal name change and recent clearance to begin hormone replacement therapy. Manning’s intentions may be personal, yet their consequences are political: her breach of gender identity ushered in challenges to systemically cissupremacist institutions, acutely fine-tuning her general advancement of American desecurisation. Anxieties over “national security” are laced with effemimania (to invoke Julia Serano’s Whipping Girl)--a cultural transmedia obsession with male femininity. The contagion of trans alterity spills into wider discomfort over transnational tensions. Somehow, nevertheless, moments of Chelsea Manning’s first recorded ‘coming out’ in her chat logs illustrate a tender, yearning portrait of a trans woman in a utopic transfeminist future of freedom and acceptance-- to an audience immediately private and bilateral, though logged as data with the promise of public exposure. A fact, which, many "freedom of information" advocates and detractors both repeatedly disavow.

 

As a trans whistleblower, she doubly represented as a deceiver of gender and traitor to state. In “Evil Deceivers and Make-believers: On the Transphobic Violence and the Politics of Illusion,” Talia Mae Bettcher reflects how the trope of deception embeds itself into stereotypic conceptions of the trans subject; it reflects medical and psychiatric obsession over the transvestite/transsexual/transgender “realness” behind the self-account of trans or gender nonconforming subjectivity (from Herculine Barbin to Janet Mock). Trans people are merely mentally ill or dysphoric under these rubrics; for many trans-exclusionary femininsts (from Janice Raymond to Lisa Nakamura), trans women are merely mediums and regulators of patriarchal empire-making. Through and through, Manning is marked with deception not simply as a whistleblower of American war crimes, but perhaps most vigorously because she is a trans woman. Like Lida Maxwell in "Truth in Public: Chelsea Manning, Gender Identity, and the Politics of Truth-Telling," I am in agreement the indeterminate Manning's status as a "truth-teller" has been the primary nit-pick of her public persona; that her trans status is often questioned or mocked in addition only illustrates how the politics of truth are more burdensome, inciting additional scrutiny (as much a truth for a whistleblower in court as it is for trans women in airport security).

 

In part because digital publics so heavily mark Chelsea Manning as a deceiver or even unreliable narrator, perhaps there is nothing to do about leaks; maybe, instead, they offer ways to overdetermine or undermine the stable field of any politics of truth, breaching epistemological and thereby institutional norms surrounding the upholding of both nation and gender. Manning is not posthuman in this regard. Rather, despite following the recent systematizing of a disembodiment of data, Manning disembodies and dislocates the place of military data: leaking it, and thereby allowing it to flow in and between and beyond boundaries. Not only that, the very notion of a leak manages to re-appropriate the digital and its globalizing circuitries to displace the solidity of national borders, while it politically redraws them. In particular, it impacts the United States most heavily; its diplomatic relations are already fraught, in flux, because of other whistleblowers like Julian Assange and Edward Snowden.

 

Yet Manning's declaration of gender adds an unprecedented dimension to this transnational redrawing of publics and privates, open and closed networks vis-a-vis data. It affirms a fairly true-and-tried mode of truth-telling for trans people: that is, a binary transitional framework routed in psychological mappings and biomedical procedures around the "dysphoria" of gender nonconformity or difference. It comes after a newfound visibility in trans livelihoods and longer history of trans liberation, but Manning's declaration crystallizes a postdigital, globally receptive forced recognition of cis publics and states (at least legally, or through public pressures) to acknowledge the state traitor as a gender terrorist, but still nevertheless as a binary trans woman on hormones. The global outreach of her coming out has been enabled by the same machines and networks of digital media technologies; these media, too, were the medium of Manning's trans subjectivity in old chat logs of bradass87: "i just… dont wish to be a part of it… at least not now… im not ready… 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 boy…"

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