Chelsea Manning: Thank You for Being a Really Rad Lady  

Chelsea Manning has resurfaced into newsfeeds over the past month for upsetting reasons: on July 8th, Chelsea was confirmed to be hospitalized post a suicide attempt six years into a 35 year military prison sentence for releasing military and diplomatic documents to the public. The following week, Chelsea was placed under “mental health observation,” under which she is not getting adequate access to counseling and mental healthcare. On July 28th, the United States decided all this wasn’t punishment enough for someone who dared challenge the military state, and handed Chelsea a charge sheet accusing her of “resisting the force cell move team” (while unconscious in her cell), possession of “prohibited property” (of the items she used to make the attempt), and “conduct which threatens” (putting the prison at risk, somehow, by attempting to take her own life, quietly, in her own cell). The ACLU reports that these charges may result in Chelsea facing indefinite solitary confinement and the negation of any chance of parole.

In the middle of this hellish ordeal, Chelsea found the time to write a poignant piece entitled “Moving On: Reflecting on my identity.” In it, she rejects the “broad-stroked oversimplifications” under which the world insists on boxing and defining her: “whistleblower”; “formerly Bradley Manning”; convict; hero; criminal; spy. “I am tired of being defined by the world through the narrow lens of a single event that happened in my life several years ago,” she writes, ruminating on identity and purpose in a post-Orlando world. “I want to be seen and understood as the woman that I actually am — with all of my flaws and eccentricities.”

And Chelsea is right to ask us to do that. Expressing solidarity with Chelsea involves raising awareness about the conditions of her imprisonment, and campaigning for her release. But it also involves representing her in her totality—writer, activist, rebel, self-confessed over-caffeinated barista, “stereotypical” 20 something in sunny rooftops in Cambridge.

Despite the U.S. military’s best attempts at confinement, silencing, and censorship, Chelsea is a journalist—published in The Guardian and elsewhere—who writes incisive commentary on issues with a nuanced and interdisciplinary focus. She’s written about the U.S. military’s new policy on trans service, pointing out the pitfalls of military institutions being allowed to define gender identity, and the medicalization of trans identity. She’s spoken powerfully about Orlando, about the “solace and sanctuary” of the club as a safe space for those excluded from public spaces, against the erasure of the queer and Latin victims, against state co-option, against fear mongering and Islamophobia, about solidarity, survival, and resistance.

Chelsea is also an activist. She’s encouraged all of us to “organize, love and resist together,” cheered with us at Justice Sotomayor’s powerful dissent in a racist Supreme Court ruling, rued the callous political exploitation of Orlando, meditated in her cell to join us virtually for vigils for its victims.

Chelsea is a repository of knowledge on various topics, who converses on DNA artwork and its political implications, big data and racial bias in data algorithms, secret justice and the political and legal aspects of not only her own case but the overarching political landscape. Chelsea is a fan of Lady Gaga, Taylor Swift, Selena Gomez, and Adele, and likes listening to pop music on Saturday nights.

Chelsea is a sister, writing emotionally about her friendship and love for a fellow trans woman in prison, of days spent battling the tyranny of administrative hurdles to obtain trans resources together, and of the heartbreak when her friend was transferred to another prison.

Chelsea danced to keep herself sane from the torturous conditions of solitary confinement. Chelsea prefers the =) and =( emojis, her Twitter awash with them. She betrays her nerdy internet inhabitant roots by drawing “=^_^=” and captioning it ‘rawr,’ while responding to Twitter questions.

Chelsea is whimsical and funny, as displayed in her scrawly handwritten note of questions she asked her supporters, passed on through her friend Yan Zhu. “What are you thinking right now?!” she asks giddily. “And now? Are they the same?” Chelsea wants to know (in an intense voice) if you’d rather be a space marine or a warrior princess or an adventuring archaeologist or a pirate or wizard or samurai. Yan, who had the privilege of hanging out with Chelsea for 2.5 hours in late May, wrote an account of meeting Chelsea, describing her as bright and strong, with a “short pixieish cut” and elegant cheekbones and large blue eyes. Yan tells us about Chelsea’s interest in post-quantum cryptography, her wood shop library, her part time degree, and her energy and conversation and hope and persistence.

This piece isn’t intended as a hagiography to Chelsea. It’s a humble attempt to introduce her into our feminist imaginary with full credit to the woman she actually is, in everything she has given to us with in her public persona. As Chelsea’s attorney Chase Strangio tweeted, “The public doesn’t ‘see’ Chelsea in the ways they do Snowden & others because of class, incarceration, trans identity.” Snowden and Assange get protection, hagiographies, books, movies. Snowden and Assange find home in public imagination as fully rounded heroes, as cis, white men played by famous actors, as causes célèbres.

Chelsea deserves more.

Chelsea ends her piece saying, “I just hope you all will still like me, now that you’ve met the real me.” Chelsea Manning, I don’t know you, but you seem to be a pretty rad lady. Thank you for sharing your writing, activism, heart, and life with us all.

NOTE: You can donate to Chelsea’s legal fund here; sign the petition at freechelsea.com; and send her a message here or follow her on Twitter

Header image via.

Ed: The above article has been edited to reflect factual changes regarding Chelsea’s incarceration and charges.


Meg is a law student in California. She's interested in law and politics, intersectional feminism, criminal justice, human rights, freedom of the press, the law and feminism, and the politics of South Asia.

Meg is a law student in California. She's interested in law and gender, race and criminal justice, human rights, cats, and sports.

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