Chelsea Manning portrait

Getting it right: Cosmo’s interview with Chelsea Manning

It’s been interesting to watch the leading women’s magazines slowly adopt a feminist editorial line, producing copy that once might have only been found in the pages of Ms. Magazine — and that’s a profound compliment to publications like Cosmopolitan and Marie Claire, who seem to be recognizing that the old saw about young women’s lack of political/feminist engagement was always a myth. But it’s been especially heartening to see that this new movement towards more articles about gender politics has positively included transgender women as well.

The crowning jewel in all this might well be the Cosmopolitan May issue interview with Chelsea Manning, documenting her life, her whistleblowing, and her fight for trans-affirming healthcare in prison. Writer and journalist Abigail Pesta (who’s written for some of the top news outlets in the Anglophone world) deserves praise for a thoughtful, probing yet sensitive story that excels most mainstream news outlets in avoiding the aggravating tropes that bedeck most coverage of trans people.

An excerpt from the beginning:

In her first interview with the press from military prison in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, Manning told Cosmopolitan about her experience behind bars and her lifelong desire to live as a woman. The interview was done by mail, as the military does not allow prisoners to speak with reporters by phone or in person.

Manning, 27, says her quest for medical care has been distressing because she feels “like a joke” to military officials. She says she is optimistic about the recent progress but that it is “painful and awkward” to be forbidden from letting her hair grow. “I am torn up,” she says. “I get through each day OK, but at night, when I’m alone in my room, I finally burn out and crash.”

At press time, the case was moving ahead. “The fact that Chelsea is receiving hormone therapy and other treatment for gender dysphoria is an important victory for her that will hopefully ease her distress,” says ACLU staff attorney Chase Strangio. “But her fight continues because the government is needlessly prohibiting her from growing her hair, which will continue to cause her significant anxiety.” The Army referred questions on the case to the Department of Justice, which said it could not comment on pending litigation.

The story goes into extensive detail about Manning’s history but not in a way that read as lurid to me. Pesta made great use of the epistolary interview, letting Manning put her gender history into her own words in ways that, if I’m to be completely honest, resonate with me. Her description of a father who remembers only a child who played with Lego and computers (while omitting the “crossdressing”) is all too redolent of my own experience, after all. Manning’s story is an intimate portrait of how trans girls, in the name of hiding from our own lack of understanding and from an even less sympathetic world, play a terrible, sometimes decades-long game of hide and seek with ourselves.

Manning also discusses how she was bullied in the often toxic environment of the military and her interactions with trans women via mail. But there’s one observation that she made which rung true from my professional work as well at the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, a nonprofit that often works with currently or formerly incarcerated people, and it’s worth concluding with:

She says she hasn’t faced harassment from inmates [at Fort Leavenworth] and has found some confidantes. “The guys here are adults … There are some very smart and sophisticated people in prisons all across America — I don’t think television and the media give them credit,” she says. She gets visits from friends and relatives, including regular visits from her sister. The prison forbids visits from people Manning did not know prior to her confinement.

Katherine Cross is sociologist and Ph.D student at the CUNY Graduate Center in New York City specialising in research on online harassment and gender in virtual worlds. She is also a sometime video game critic and freelance writer, in addition to being active in the reproductive justice movement. She loves opera and pizza.

Sociologist and Unofficial Nerd Correspondent.

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