After 2,545 days in military captivity, it’s easy to understand the smile on Chelsea Manning’s face, revealed to us yesterday on Instagram in her first portrait since being jailed. After serving seven years in prison, the Oklahoma native was finally released on Wednesday at the age of 29, thanks to President Barack Obama’s January commute of her 35-year sentence.
Controversially, in August 2013, Manning came out as transgender, one day after her sentencing. At the time, this opened up room for a slew of criticisms from the press. Arguments popped up left and right; was she mad? Was she lying? Personally, I knew her gender identity had nothing to do with her crimes because she didn’t use it as an excuse during her trial. So why did she come out as trans after her sentencing?
It might be because after facing the tough realization that she was about to lose 35 years of her life, she needed to be brave and tell the world what she knew to be true. Her coming out had a rough impact on her punishment to say the least; while jailed, most trans people are forced to live with the gender they were assigned at birth. When transgender women enter a male prison population…well, I’m sure you can figure it out. But ahead of that, from July 2010 to April 2011, she was already being held at Virginia’s Quantico military prison in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day. The United Nations later denounced her holding condition as a form of torture in 2012.
It’s not everyday trans people create platforms for themselves—or speak out. But what should Chelsea do now, as an American citizen?
Roughly a week after Manning came out and announced her plan to transition in 2013, I came out as a transgender woman. But while I was out in the world experiencing my true gender for the first time afterward, Manning was behind bars, dreaming about hers. While her confinement never stopped her from speaking out or being politically active, it did not stop her from representing my potential and ability to come from brokenness and still live a meaningful existence.
Being behind bars, Manning inspired many of us free transgender folks to step up and create platforms upon which we could be politically vocal and fight the vilification the media rained down on us. Things never became easier for Manning; isolation had turned her suicidal on multiple occasions. I started to worry for Chelsea in the way I had previously worried for myself. Her fight for her identity became my fight.
Whether I was walking around my state’s Capitol meeting with legislators, repeating the names of deceased black transgender women in the streets of Philadelphia with a microphone, or crying on stage at The White House in front of Loretta Lynch, I made the world my venue. That’s why it’s so important we listen to Manning, because it’s not everyday trans people create platforms for themselves—or speak out at all. It’s not everyday our stories are heard.
Now that you know how I feel about Manning as a trans woman, what should she do now, as an American citizen? While I feel what she did has merit, I can’t deny that she broke the law and betrayed our country. She’ll need to face that for the rest of her life. Our nation is now one of conservatism and feels she compromised our country’s safety, and such questions themselves will question the legitimacy of her humanity for the rest of her life. She’s going to have to ask herself everyday if the consequences of the choices she made are worth living with. We have to consider the question too, because the consequences of her actions run deeper than any single person can understand.
Here’s the point: Even if you think Chelsea Manning is anti-American, I hope you can at least respect the courage it took her to tell the truth; the truth about the documents, the logs, the political warfare. The truth about what she felt was civilly wrong in America. The truth about herself.
What kind of decisions would you and I make knowing 35 years of our lives were taken away? What secrets would we take to the grave? And who would we have been had we never felt the fear and pressure of a white hot heat that molded us into who we are now?
Manning is a living, breathing answer to that question. She represents the hope and potential much of the world often throws away. She is a star burnt out, yet here she is. That’s what seems to be speaking to the world now that she’s free and we can see her smile. Through her, some transgender people have seen a truth they had been too afraid to confront and live out loud.
Even if you disagree with Manning’s release or further, the way trans people live our lives, you have to admit we have guts; guts for standing up everyday and walking through a world not built for us. Manning has guts. Serious guts. She has faith. And now, in the most American way, she’s been granted the one thing every American is entitled to: Freedom. She’d never be living this authentic free life if she never did what she did. So…what would you have done?