The Queer Art of Whistle Blowing

What should we make of the fact that Bradley Manning has become Chelsea, that Glenn Greenwald is gay, that David Miranda loves a man enough to submit to the harassment incurred by his partner’s work, that Greenwald’s detractors sought to tarnish him by association with—of all things—a porn company? Possibly nothing generalisable, except that gender is doing work here.

There has been no shortage of voices denying a straightforward connection between sexual orientation, gender identity, and patriotism. (Part of the reason I feel compelled to write about this is that there isn’t one.) San Francisco Pride Board notoriously repudiated Manning’s election as a Grand Marshall in the 2013 Pride in that city, declaring: ‘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.’ That statement has not been retracted, notwithstanding its now patent inaccuracy in light of the prosecution’s inability to cite any evidence that Manning’s leaks led to any deaths and the court’s decision finding her not guilty of the charge of ‘aiding the enemy’. Kristin (formerly Chris) Beck, ex-US Navy Seal who recently announced her gender transition, has been harsher in her condemnation of Manning: ‘For this person, whether male or female to use gender identity to act “BADLY” is a slap in the face to me and everyone who does not fit the “Binary Gender Norm.” It is not an excuse for anything illegal or unjust.’ Pablo K is right to point out the dangers of the temptation, for those who see a link between sex/gender and truth-telling, to make the reverse move—’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’—while pointing out, also, that the gap between these contrasting appropriations is constitutive of the space of contemporary politics. So let’s talk politics.

Listen, first, to the protagonists themselves. Chelsea Manning, technically beneath the rank of even that very literal meaning of ‘subaltern’ (‘commissioned officers below the rank of captain’), hasn’t had much opportunity to reflect publicly on the relationship between gender transition and political speech. Her first reaction to the 35-year sentence imposed on her set out her motivations with heartbreaking clarity, making no reference to gender:

I realized in our efforts to meet this risk posed to us by the enemy, we have forgotten our humanity.  We consciously elected to devalue human life both in Iraq and Afghanistan.  When we engaged those that we perceived were the enemy, we sometimes killed innocent civilians.  Whenever we killed innocent civilians, instead of accepting responsibility for our conduct, we elected to hide behind the veil of national security and classified information in order to avoid any public accountability. In our zeal to kill the enemy, we internally debated the definition of torture.  We held individuals at Guantanamo for years without due process. We inexplicably turned a blind eye to torture and executions by the Iraqi government.  And we stomached countless other acts in the name of our war on terror… I understand that my actions violated the law, and I regret if my actions hurt anyone or harmed the United States.  It was never my intention to hurt anyone. I only wanted to help people.  When I chose to disclose classified information, I did so out of a love for my country and a sense of duty to others. If you deny my request for a pardon, I will serve my time knowing that sometimes you have to pay a heavy price to live in a free society.  I will gladly pay that price if it means we could have a country that is truly conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all women and men are created equal (emphasis added).

A second statement released the next day announced Manning’s intention to transition, but again made no link between gender and politics. Manning’s defence maintained an apparently tactical silence around her gender identity during the course of the trial, perhaps fearing the repercussions of disclosure within the transphobic apparatus that is the US military, raising it only at the time of sentencing but in the equally transphobic register of disorder and dysphoria. In subsequent comments, Manning’s defence counsel David Coombs, has struggled to contain the significance of gender transition in explaining his client’s motivations. In a long interview with Democracy Now!, he says categorically:

I don’t think his gender identity had any bearing on his actions. I think his actual actions were the product of firmly held moral beliefs of what is the right thing to do.

A few minutes on:

…you wouldn’t do justice to what he was going through without recognizing that he had those beliefs at the same time that he was struggling with a very, very personal issue that was really at the center and core of who he was and who he hoped to be.

At the same time:

…we also really wanted to make sure that people knew that we weren’t offering that as an excuse. We weren’t saying that because of the struggles, he chose to leak this information; because of his personal issues, that that led him to share information with WikiLeaks. The two are not related. But because they happened at the same time, it’s important to understand that, because that provides context. And certainly, as we all know, when you’re under a lot of stress, and when you’re under a lot of pressure, and when you’re dealing with personal issues, that does affect your judgment. That does affect how you might internalize things. And so I think it had an impact on him. It didn’t cause him to do his actions. But it was important, from the defense’s perspective, that the military judge got that full picture. And our hope was, if she got that full picture, she would understand that who she was sentencing was a good young man, a moral young man, a man with probably one of the stronger moral compasses of what is right and wrong. And he has that compass in spite of his childhood, in spite of his upbringing, in spite of how other people treat him.

In spite of their gender identity? Or because of it? (But clearly not apart from it, by Coombs’s own admission.) We can see here a tragic conundrum (for which the heroic Coombs is emphatically not to blame), in which the strategy for mitigating a harsh and unjust sentence by attributing the act in question to stress, pressure and deficient judgment, all of which are themselves the result of that thing-that-can-barely-be-named, requires emptying the act of the very intentionality and clarity that furnishes its best justification. A shift from ‘I did so out of a love for my country and a sense of duty to others’, to ‘I’m sorry, I wasn’t thinking straight.’

Here is Glenn Greenwald, (still) relatively free to speak of his motivations:

I do think political posture is driven by your personality, your relationship with authority, how comfortable are you in your life… When you grow up gay, you are not part of the system, it forces you to evaluate: ‘Is it me, or is the system bad?’

And here is Lt. Daniel Choi, discharged from the US Army for being gay but hoping to rejoin it with the repeal of ‘Don’t Ask Don’t Tell’, on Manning:

I think at this point we can’t say that he did any of this or didn’t do any of this because he’s gay or transgender. He did this because he’s a good soldier… I’m proud of him as a gay soldier because he stood for integrity… one thing about the gay community is that our community, among all of the communities in the world, we’re the only one that bases its membership on integrity and telling the truth about ourselves, declassifying that information for the betterment of our entire lives and societies and families. And when we do that, we realize that the gay movement is more important than just for gay people alone.

We can take exception to the exceptionalism of that statement (‘we’re the only ones’) while still noting a kernel of insight. Eve Sedgwick, that prophet of so many things, says in Epistemology of the Closet:

… a lot of the energy of attention and demarcation that has swirled around issues of homosexuality since the end of the nineteenth century, in Europe and the United States, has been impelled by the distinctively indicative relation of homosexuality to wider mappings of secrecy and disclosure, and of the private and the public, that were and are critically problematical for the gender, sexual, and economic structures of the heterosexist culture at large, mappings whose enabling but dangerous incoherence has become oppressively, durably condensed in certain figures of homosexuality. ‘The closet’ and ‘coming out’, now verging on all-purpose phrases for the potent crossing and recrossing of almost any politically charged lines of representation, have been the gravest and most magnetic of those figures.

Might the hellish agony and sheer fucking fear that precedes the acts of coming out and/or gender transition prepare us (some of us) especially well to cross other lines between secrecy and disclosure, between double lives and integrity, between hypocrisy and truth? To assert this is of course to confirm the worst fears of the McCarthyite homophobes: queers as traitors. (Manning claimed to act out of ‘love for my country and a sense of duty to others’: what happens when that ‘and’ becomes an impossible conjunction?) In his screed against futurity, Lee Edelman notes that conservatives acknowledge the radical potential, ‘which is also to say, this radical threat of queerness more fully than liberals, for conservatism pre-emptively imagines the wholesale rupturing of the social fabric, whereas liberalism conservatively clings to a faith in its limitless elasticity.’ The right recognises (and fears) the revolutionary potential of queerness; the liberal left constantly wants to shut it down in the service of fitting in. Edelman’s answer? Fuck them both.


In the world of Grindr, profiles are roughly divisible into those that are ‘into NSA’ and those that are not. Log on at any given time and you will find users hoping for an ‘NSA meet now’ or claiming, more intrepidly, to be ‘looking for NSA’ (which is lucky because the NSA is also looking for you), or despairing that they are ‘fed up of NSA’. To be clear, those of us ‘into NSA‘ do not map neatly (or at all) on to those of us into the NSA. But it’s startling nonetheless to have one’s preoccupations confirmed and reinforced by scores of half-naked men within a close geographical radius. Beyond the bizarre coincidence of an acronym that is on everyone’s lips, what does it mean to inhabit the world of Grindr in a time of privacy panic? Or, actually, is there a privacy panic? Are understandings of privacy deployed by civil libertarians in their outrage at disclosure of NSA surveillance rendered quaint by the casual swapping of photographs of faces, cocks, and arses between strangers? Might this account for the apathetic reaction to recent whistle blowing stories of not only the ‘gay community’ (someone please tell me what this is) but also a wider social networking public? (‘Apathetic?’ I hear you say. ‘But I’ve been posting on Facebook!’ Nixon resigned after Watergate, and he was only spying on the opposition. I suppose non-partisan spying gets bipartisan support.)

There is no necessary contradiction between the desire to share intimacy with anonymous online others and an equally fervent desire not to do so with the state. Yet the distinction becomes increasingly hard to police in this horny networked world. Electronic cruising shares much in common with its offline counterpart (a world that continues to exist, featuring a wider race/class/gender range than its smartphone alter ego), but there are differences: the mobility and permanence of information and the leakiness of the systems through which it is disseminated (there’s no double entendre check on this blog) means that information has a life of its own. Whatever libertarian fantasies we might entertain about being able to control the reach of our disclosures, they are just that: fantasies. And we know this. Maybe we’ve entered into some sort of Faustian bargain in which we celebrate the new intimacies that these technologies afford us, while resigning control over their ultimate effects, leaving us all no choice but to prepare for our respective versions of the Anthony Weiner contrition speech. (That’s the mild end of a spectrum of possibilities in this new information age.)



I did so out of a love for my country and a sense of duty to others.


… over time, over the length of my career, as I watched the news and I increasingly was exposed to true information that had not been propagandized in the media that we were actually  involved in misleading the public and misleading all publics not just the American public in order to create a certain mindset in the global consciousness and I was actually a victim of that. America is fundamentally a good country; we have good people with good values who want to do the right thing, but the structures of power that exist are working to their own ends to extend their capability at the expense of the freedom of all publics (emphasis added).

The outrage Snowden’s disclosures has generated in the US Congress, has been motivated primarily by the revelation (shock! horror!) that the NSA is spying on Americans. But as Manning and Snowden have both made clear, their actions were motivated by a far wider concern. Their cosmopolitan ‘sense of duty to others’ and concern for ‘the freedom of all publics’, appears—in the context of current mainstream US political opinion—utterly queer, which is precisely why it has engendered such a ballistic reaction from the state. The irony of the current moment is that Snowden’s cosmopolitan gesture, assisted by temporary asylum in, first Hong Kong, and now Russia, has been enabled by the enmity, or at least rivalry, between great powers.

Immanuel Kant was clearly on to something when he warned that the notion of a world state, fraught with the possibility of inescapable tyranny, was inimical to cosmopolitan freedom. One of the curious features of ongoing academic debates over the feasibility and desirability of world statehood is its prospective quality: we speak as if the world state lies in the future. I have written elsewhere that if we were ever to wake up to find ourselves in a world state, it will not have had a formal inaugural moment. Instead, it will have come about through the gradual and insidious accretion of norms, institutions, networks and diplomatic practices that further centralise sovereignty and consolidate hegemony. On July 2, 2013, when Bolivian President Evo Morales’s plane home from Russia was diverted to Vienna on suspicion that it was carrying Snowden, after apparently having been refused permission to fly through the air space of France, Portugal, Italy and Spain, we were afforded a glimpse of a world state that made itself evident in reaction to crisis. It doesn’t particularly matter whether instructions for this unprecedented abduction of a head of state emanated from a sovereign centre; indeed, if they didn’t, what we have here is an even creepier illustration of tyranny without a tyrant.

How do we make sense of the irony of Snowden’s queer cosmopolitan gesture being enabled by a deeply homophobic state (and I’m talking about Russia now)? To note this is not to thank Putin, any more than to recognise the welfare state as the dialectical resolution of Cold War oppositions is to express gratitude for the gulags. Putin happened to do the right thing for the wrong reasons, in the way that all states co-opt refugees into self-aggrandizing rescue narratives. (In Kantian terms, he acted ‘in accordance with’ but not ‘for the sake of’ the obligation to extend hospitality to strangers.) Those of us boycotting vodka or demonstrating in front of Russian embassies in protest against that country’s hateful laws criminalising ‘public action aimed at propagandising sodomy, lesbianism, bisexualism, and transgenderism among minors’, might usefully pause to reflect that the overdetermined enmity between Russia and the West—to which laws of this kind might partly be ascribed—also holds Snowden’s freedom in the balance. Oddly, international disagreement is sometimes a better guarantor of a cosmopolitan politics in our deeply non-ideal world.


In The Queer Art of Failure, Judith/Jack Halberstam asks ‘what kind of epistemology lurks behind those activities that have been awarded the term failure in Anglo-American culture?’ One response to that question lies in the trope of immaturity. Somewhere in the course of Manning’s trial, a forensic psychiatrist testifying in her defence(!) emphasised that the WikiLeaks source was in a ‘post-adolescent idealistic phase’ which he helpfully defined as ‘that transition period [where] you still are holding on to some of that idealism from youth, and you get exposed, as you become an adult, to things in society and you think you can make a difference.’ Stuck in a ‘post-adolescent… little world’, the doctor surmised, ‘Manning was under the impression that his leaked information was really going to change how the world views the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and future wars actually.’ If Manning’s immaturity precluded a grasp of the racist, sexist, neocolonial imperatives of US empire, perhaps this is a mental state towards which we should all aspire.

In light of the brutal 35-year sentence that Manning has, at the time of writing, been ordered to serve—albeit subject to appeal, and qualified by eligibility for parole after ten years—I wonder if Halberstam valorises, or at least underplays the price of, failure. Yet the meaning of success/failure does not lie entirely in the hands of a military tribunal. We, the people, have quite a lot of say in whether Manning’s (and Snowden’s) disclosures are ‘really going to change how the world views the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and future wars actually.’ And there are other more specific things we can do: writing with his characteristic blend of erudition and practicality, Scott Long urges that ‘Fighting for trans* people’s safety within the prison-industrial complex may be the best way to fight for Manning now.’

I’ve often wondered why so many people blow whistles at Pride. The noise and colour surely have something to do with announcing unapologetic arrival in the public: we’ve hidden, but we will hide no longer. I’ve heard the slogans so often, they used to bore me to death: we’re here, we’re queer and we’re fabulous, out and proud, speaking truth to power. Suddenly, they are taking on new meaning. We must all be whistle blowers now.


18 thoughts on “The Queer Art of Whistle Blowing

  1. Interesting piece, Rahul. The kernel of it seems to be Greenwald’s idea that growing up queer somehow makes you question “the system” and therefore predisposed to, e.g., whistleblowing. In spite of opening by saying there is no straightforward connection between sexuality and politics, you seem to endorse Greenwald’s view by calling Snowden’s actions “queer”, and with your quotes from Edelman and Sedgwick. But I actually think your opening sentiment was the right one (forgive me if I’ve misinterpreted your subsequent argument).

    I personally see nothing “queer” about Snowden’s choices. They are justified, remarkably articulately, in the language of republican virtue and patriotism, in defence of the public against a tyrannical and amoral elite. To gloss this as “queer” seems to do the same thing that Manning’s defenders risked doing in entering his “gender dysphoria” in mitigation of sentencing: to cloud the explicitly political motivations that drove the act by introducing issues of gender and sexuality.

    I also think Edelman’s notion is outdated: “The right recognises (and fears) the revolutionary potential of queerness; the liberal left constantly wants to shut it down in the service of fitting in.” Were that true, we would not see conservative governments leading on issues like gay marriage. The reality is that as domestic social orders become more cosmopolitan, queer people have even less reason to revolt against “the system”. The liberals are right: capitalist social order can be reconfigured to include previously excluded groups (they forget to add: whilst those remaining at the margins are coercively policed). Conservative Party central office is now full of young gay men. The whole drive for gay marriage is driven by accommodation to heteronormativity. In the wake of the AIDS crisis, there seems little overtly radical or anti-systemic about queer identity or activism, at least in Western states. I think whistleblowing must still be driven by a person perceiving a significant and unacceptable gap between their principles (whether personal, or as enshrined in civic values and laws) and what they see happening within their institution.


    • Isn’t your point re: conservatives for gay marriage precisely what Edelman already said (about the left)? What’s shifted is that the right realized that the left’s strategy on queers is actually deeply conservative, and embraced it as its own. So, I think Edelman’s point still stands. Not that “transgressive” sexuality is inherently revolutionary – I think his argument is more prescriptive than descriptive here – but that if a politicized sexuality or queerness is to mean anything worthwhile, it should be via the critique/undermining of dominant institutions.


      • But if the right is now adopting the “left’s” policy prescriptions it suggests that the much touted left/right dichotomy is less useful analytically. Indeed, I would argue there is very little difference between them today.


    • I must admit to snorting at the idea that Conservative Party central office is now full of young gay men, as if it wasn’t always. Which I suppose is an inadvertent illustration of how visibility and framing matter.


      • Let me be more ploddingly specific, if I must: the CPCO is now fully of openly-gay men, rather than only closeted ones, precisely because the mainstream right no longer looks upon homosexuality as “revolutionary” or dangerous, provided you have right-wing politics – which many gay men do. Even the nutcase right can be pro-gay, as Geert Wilders showed.


    • Thanks for your comment Lee. I think I am making three kinds of moves here. First, denying ‘automatic’ analytical linkages between ‘transgressive’ gender, sexuality and political positions; second, offering a (highly sketchy, impressionistic, between-the-lines) reading of what I think motivated Manning and Greenwald; third, attempting to join a normative conversation about how we might productively link ‘transgressive’ gender, sexuality and a progressive politics. That third normative move doesn’t deny the analytical claim that in actual fact non-normative sexuality, gender and politics come together in all sorts of ways, many thoroughly awful (cue homonationalism); rather, it expresses a hope for, an aspiration towards, an alternative represented by Manning, Greenwald et al.

      I don’t make any claims about gender and sexuality with respect to Snowden. I use ‘queer’ here to mean anti-normal. (The unmooring of ‘queer’ from gender and sexuality (alone) is what distinguishes a queer politics from a liberal identity politics of LGBT; a queer politics has always wanted to queer everything, not just gender and sexuality; see Michael Warner’s Fear of a Queer Planet for an early articulation of this). Against the ‘common sense’ that takes for granted that the NSA should be spying on foreigners, an American who acts out of concern for the legitimate interests of non-American publics is abnormal, deviant, queer.

      The terms right and left of course have to be used carefully and contextually (something I haven’t done here, so my bad!). You’re right of course in the UK context, but Edelman is mostly thinking about the US, where there is still quite a lot of daylight between the Tea Party Republicans and evangelical Christians on the one hand, and the mainstream of the Democratic Party on the other *if only on* the culture wars (although that superstructural fight of course obscures ‘basic’ consensus on the necessity of US imperialism).

      Finally, reduced to homosexual (or, worse, just the G in LGBT) you’re right that the revolutionary potential of queer has been evacuated. But intersex, trans*, asexual politics continue to pose fundamental challenges to what we think of as some of our most basic social institutions: who is a man? who is a woman? When you consider that trans* and intersex people are, because of their social illegibility, more likely to be abandoned, poor, homeless, incarcerated, denied medical care, a queer politics is also (must also be) a class politics. For now, that queer is anti-systemic because they have no choice.


      • Thanks for your reply Rahul. The broad use of “queer” is interesting and I need to reflect on it more. I agree on your point about trans*, intersex, etc still providing a challenge that is no longer offered by LGB. The numbers are very small, though.


  2. Reblogged this on skedag and commented:
    I’ve been thinking about these connections too lately – I certainly think that my queerness has helped produce a sensitivity to integrity that perhaps many straight people might not get. Anyway, read on:


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