By Rick Braatz
Chelsea Manning on prison time, post-release and the state of the LGBT community
Chelsea Manning is a transgender activist and whistleblower sentenced to 35 years in prison for disclosing more than 700,000 secret military documents in 2010 (which included the fact that the majority of the deaths from U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were civilian). Manning served seven years before President Barack Obama commuted her sentence in 2017.
Described as “cruel, inhuman and degrading,” according to the United Nations Special Rapporteur, her time in prison included residing in a cage in Kuwait for two months, solitary confinement for 23 hours a day for nearly a year, and when she came out as transgender in 2013, denied the ability to express her gender identity, much less transition while incarcerated without a long, drawn out legal fight. In 2016, she attempted to commit suicide twice, one of which she was given additional solitary confinement time as punishment. During her time incarcerated and afterward, Manning became a leading advocate for government transparency, transgender rights and prisoners. Earlier this year, she announced her run as a Democrat for a U.S. Senate seat in Maryland, where she lives.
Recently, I was able to briefly speak with Manning before she gave a talk at San Diego State University. While Manning could not address her candidacy, due to federal regulations that prohibit campaigning on university grounds, she was able to speak about her time while incarcerated, her post-release experience and the state of the LGBT community. We begin with her experience in prison.
Rick Braatz (RB): Is there anything you could say about your time incarcerated?
Chelsea Manning (CM): I would say that the thing that I took away more than anything else was the immense sense of camaraderie and solidarity that I had, and I continue to have with my fellow prisoners. We were placed in such an extreme and volatile environment for a long period of time. We never wanted to have conflict to happen. We wanted to live our lives. We were placed in an institution that would continually screw with us, interfering with our daily lives. So, we lived in this constant state of an intense fear and anxiety, which they stoked, so we would have to come together as a community to push back and fight, to find ways to deal with our own problems in our day-to-day lives that existed outside of what they would allow. That was the thing that I found most striking — the immense amount of camaraderie and solidarity that I had to have.
(RB): How did you get through that experience? Is there anything you could pinpoint?
(CM): Other people. Letters as well. I keep reminding people: Prison solidarity is very important. Send letters. They get to us. It reminds us that we’re not alone, that we haven’t been forgotten. Please write letters to prisoners. Do not forget about us. It is very easy to feel forgotten when you are in prison. [There are a number of organizations that offer opportunities to write to prisoners, including the LGBT-focused Black & Pink.]
(RB): In what ways has your experience in the military and in prison changed your opinion of them?
(CM): These are all intersecting institutions. I wrote a paper in 2014 on the intersection of the prison-industrial complex and the military-industrial complex [published in the anthology, “Captive Genders: Trans Embodiment and the Prison Industrial Complex”] and, at the end of the day, there is an enormous overlap between the structures of power that comprise the military, and what supports that, and the defense industry, and what supports the prison-industrial complex. Prisons, whether they be private, public prisons or police apparatus, there is an overlap where there are fusion centers, like the intelligence sharing [community]. If you take a step back and look more at the abstract, these are systems of control and power that have this power to give you a label and to categorize you, and define you, and then make decisions about where you fit in life and what happens to you. Whether you are targeted for a drone bombing or whether you go to prison and are called a ‘criminal’ or whether or not you are deported — these institutions of power are all-encompassing but they’re all a part of this underlying systemic structure. That was the thing that I learned the most strikingly being a part of all of those institutions of power and then being on the receiving end of those things, even as a homeless person, if that makes sense.
(RB): What has your experience been like post-release living as a transgender woman? Have you experienced any prejudice or discrimination?
(CM): We all do. I’m a public figure. I deal with a lot of online harassment. It hasn’t really interfered too much with my day-to-day life, which I attribute to kind of living in bit of a bubble in that sense. But you know, I also have this trans fam, which is this extended family of friends that I have. There’s a lot of doxing where you’re harassed by having your personal information posted online or targeted for speaking out, you know about being trans and dealing with this stuff. A lot of people are outing us, if we are not out, to our employers. So, a number of my friends in the last year have faced an enormous amount of friends that have been fired from jobs because of posts about trans issues. I have people who have been harassed by Nazis online. Being out as a trans person makes you a target in so many different ways than just being trans. So, it does impact our jobs and access to things, and there are a lot of nasty people out there and with the internet, it has intensified the range in which that can happen because if you have a Twitter account, anybody can see that. A lot of my friends have even had to make their Twitter accounts protected or private.
(RB): What do you think about the state of LGBT community?
(CM): I’m noticing that the community is being attacked from all sides. I attribute this to a backlash from the 2015 ruling [on gay marriage]. For the first time in a decade and a half, poll numbers for queer rights have actually been going down, which I attribute to … people are really seeing really hateful things with their public figures. They have this air of authority about them. And I’m thinking of, not just the president, political figures in state-wide things, the bathroom bills that have been thrown out against trans people — all of these things are not necessarily about the legal structures and the things that they are saying, it’s about sending a message to people: It’s OK to hate people and that’s what we’re facing. We’re making it OK to be homophobic and transphobic again. You know we were always facing this harassment and it got better but now it’s not getting better again.
— Rick Braatz is a sociologist, social worker, journalist and a former editor of Gay San Diego. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.