Un-Manning; Or, Queering Bradley

Bradley Manning Trans Wig

Private First Class Chelsea (formerly Bradley) E. Manning has serious gender issues. Or so goes the story of the moment. In the wake of her statement, the question of identity (and language) has somewhat displaced that of the conviction and sentence. Another dimension in the smearing of whistleblowers, perchance. A way to denigrate and emasculate her still further, and so to reinforce the patriarchal entitlement of that shining city on the hill. Except that Manning’s sexual personhood is more contested than that.[1]

Navy Captain and psychiatrist David Moulton, according to CBC, testified that Manning’s ‘gender disorder’, amongst other things, “caused him to conclude he could change the world by leaking classified information”. But Moulton was a defence witness. Captain Steven Lim, Manning’s brigade commander, also pointed towards gender trouble, and revealed the existence of the now much-seen photo of Manning in a wig to the Fort Meade court. Again, a defence witness. Manning’s lawyers were forbidden from seeing much of the (non-)evidence against him, thanks to techniques of classification, and this surely influenced their strategy. Since they could not openly contest claims of the most traitorous harm (claims that were in the end unsubstantiated), why not try and reduce the sentence with whatever biographical resources were available? Where gender identity sometimes served as justification for the leaks, at others it was made irrelevant (to wit: “It was never an excuse because that’s not what drove his actions. What drove his actions was a strong moral compass.”). Interviewed today, David Coombs (Manning’s lawyer) again juggled his client’s personhood somewhat unsuccessfully, maintaining both that “we weren’t offering it as an excuse” but also that Manning’s gender explorations were relevant because they “happened at the same time [as the leaks and therefore] that provides context”.

Paradoxically enough, it is at times Republicans who have had to point out the shamefulness of this strategy:

Now that he prepares to stand trial, he has shown himself to be willing to sacrifice honorable gay and lesbian servicemembers to avoid responsibility. Lawyers for Manning are claiming that his struggle with his sexual orientation contributed to emotional problems that should have precluded him from working in a classified environment. This shameful defense is an offense to the tens of thousands of gay servicemembers who served honorably under “don’t ask, don’t tell.” We all served under the same law, with the same challenges and struggles. We did not commit treason because of it.

Despite the appeal to homonationalism, there is here an actual defence of LGBTQ identity against perpetual fears of a deviance that cannot be trusted with full equality. Fairly obviously, framings of ‘disorder’ put trans* and genderqueer back in the realm of medical pathology from which they have only just begun to escape. And yet this is not a one-sided story of medical bio-politics. Apart from the perhaps pragmatic legal strategy, Chelsea Manning is already become a body over which politics can be fought. As one gay activist apparently put it: “He’s not the poster boy for the campaign they’ve been running for gays in the military”. This utility – Manning as a symbol of anti-militarist LGBTQ politics – goes as much for academics as for social movements and hacktivists. It cannot be long before there is a paper which puts Manning to work as an exemplar in much the same way that Margaret Thatcher and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis were put to work before her. We are, in other words, dealing with appropriation, if not only with appropriation.


That Manning described experiences in the US military in terms of a ‘problem’ doesn’t mean you get to pathologise her, by the way. The issue – as so often – is whether you locate the experience of suffering in the failings of an individual or in the vicious binaries imposed through social norms (oh, and failure might not mean what you want it to either). In Manning’s case, victimisation in the army seems to have been a factor, which isn’t the same as making yourself miserable. It is not hard to see how militaristic masculinist cultures could produce that misery, practically by design. Soldiers have to be made, and usually are made by undermining and then recreating a sense of masculine self. Viewed in this way, it is indeed quite tempting to make an association between the leaking of classified information and Manning’s gender trouble, insofar as the latter renders more visible the obscenity of war. The direct exposure to military realities as a parallel to the discovery of a repressed self. This is part of the Snowden narrative too (the confessions of a disenchanted idealist), but made more forceful in Manning’s case because the transformation is more intimate, and therefore comes off as more total.

Manning Pride in our Whistle-Blower

But this is not the only way to read Manning’s act of self-naming. It may instead become important for liberal (or ‘inclusivist’) strands to resist the association and affirm, once again, that homosexual, trans* and genderqueer identities are indeed compatible with the figure of the martial citizen. Consider, then, Kristin (formerly Christopher) Beck, the ex-US Navy Seal who recently went public as transgender. Like Manning, Beck joined the military largely out of a sense that by embodying the most masculine of ideals, strong feelings of gender difference could be made to go away. Unlike Manning, Beck achieved success in this strategy, not just because she ‘passed’, but also because she remains just as attached to the ideology of soldiering as before. Indeed Kristin Beck’s self-portrayal is as nothing less than the Warrior Princess. This is obviously not uncomplicated, and involves a combination of pride in ‘giving true brotherhood’ with the fear that she might be murdered for who she is. But the discursive space is there, and it is surely part of insisting on the autonomy of persons that there can be military trans* identities as well as anti-military ones.[2]

Indeed, Beck just this afternoon posted her thoughts on the ‘Manning Debacle’, depicting Manning not only as a ‘tarnish’ on the dream of Martin Luther King Jnr. (yes, the anti-imperialist MLK), but fully embracing the traitor argument:

This person took an oath to protect American interest and defend the constitution, and took additional oaths due to security clearances to protect information that leaders deem secret. There are legal avenues to whistle blow or bring attention to issues. THIS person is a liar and a thief and a traitor to many people. If Bradley is truly “Chelsea” then “she” is a traitor to ME personally. There is no excuse.

And thus are the boundaries of radicalism and belonging and equality redrawn once again. Bodies cannot subsume politics, cannot safeguard this or that ideological insight. The temptation, especially for those who see a real link between Manning’s gender identity and the exposure of US war crimes, must be to relegate Beck to a minority report, and so to re-inscribe the hierarchy of authenticity, this time with Manning as the actual face of resistance, and Beck the mere puppet of militarism. That desire contains its own dangers, and yet remains. It is, we might argue, absolutely central to what it means to engage in politics.

As Chase Madar suggested some time ago in ‘The Passion of Private Manning’, visibility may not deliver all that it promises, and that goes as much for gender as for diplomatic cables:

Intellectuals have so much invested in the power of information and knowledge, and we nearly almost always overstate the importance of it as an engine-driver of history or motivator of human actions. The just-add-knowledge-and-stir model of political action… But who actually wants to see the truth? Who really wants knowledge? It turns out that ignorance is not just a matter of information supply, but of demand. Ignorance is much more than an absence of knowledge, a pristine vacancy suitable for structures of knowledge to be built through “education.”  In fact, ignorance is more often than not something rock-solid, opaque, and above all, willful.

[1] The phrasing of ‘sexual personhood’ is liable to raise some immediate objections. Aren’t we talking about gender identity here, and isn’t the crux of the thing the distinction between sex and gender anyway? Well, yes, but these matters are also rather knotted into the idea of sexuality (is Manning still a ‘gay icon’?) and mixed with all the possible complexities of how sexual orientation (and genitals) are interpreted (personally, socially, discursively) as characteristics of personhood, whether failed, authentic, pretend, or emergent. So take it in that spirit.

[2] I am not implying that all LGBTQ persons with a military background will therefore be anti-Manning. Lieutenant Dan Choi, a prominent gay activist and army translator discharged under ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’, was in fact thrown out of an early hearing for wearing his uniform, and continues to be a prominent Manning supporter.


4 thoughts on “Un-Manning; Or, Queering Bradley

  1. I’ve read this post quickly but a couple of brief reactions:
    1) This is sort of a minor point, but the reference in the post to soldiers coming face-to-face with the obscenities of war would be somewhat more apt, IMO, if Manning had been either in combat or somewhere near it, which it is my impression he wasn’t (and of course *many* soldiers aren’t). Presumably he went through basic training but my impression is that after that he went right into his army intelligence job. (If that’s wrong I’m open to correction, of course.) He did see that fairly horrifying video of the helicopter shooting civilians incl. two journalists, which he subsequently released to the world, but presumably seeing that is not the same as being shot at oneself.
    2) I’m not very conversant with current theorizing, inside or outside of IR, of sex/gender/etc, but how useful is it to follow the acronym and lump LGBT together in this particular instance? Manning’s not gay, he’s transgender. So when you ask, I presume rhetorically, in the first footnote, Is Manning ‘still a gay icon’? my reaction would be to ask: Was he ever?


    • 1) The obscenity of war is not the same thing as combat. Getting disillusioned because you see what the game involves counts.

      2) There is a T in LGBT and it stands for transgender.

      3) I make the point, and provide some photographic evidence to support it, that some activists have indeed posed Manning as gay icon, hence the question.


      • Point taken re the photos — I hadn’t really looked at the one of the parade with the banner. (The first point would have to be a longer discussion, prob. best dealt w elsewhere.)


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