Soldiering On

Bradley Manning and the "Transgender Defense"

Posted Aug 21, 2013

Photo of Bradley Manning en femme

Bradley Manning said she had a problem.

But if you do know her story--and almost anyone who reads the news at this point does--you circle back to those eyes. It’s impossible not to read what we now know into the photo, to re-interpret what we see in her based on everything that happened after. When I look at those eyes, I see a woman who knows she is trapped in a situation that she did not choose, and for whom a solution seems impossible. Her problem, at least at the moment she took that photo, is not what she has done. Her problem is who she is, or wants to be.

The photo is of Pfc. Bradley Manning, and it was shown last week by his attorney, David Coombs, as part of the sentencing phase of the court marshal of the WikiLeaks whistleblower. Coombs’ intention, in showing the photo, is to demonstrate the seriousness of Manning’s psychological stress.Manning sent the photo to Captain Michael Worsley, an Army psychologist, in an email whose subject heading was “My Problem.”

Being transgender can indeed be a problem, but whether it is a legal defense is a dicier question. The stress and the sorrow that the condition can bring to a man or a woman is almost unimaginable to a someone who has never had to wrestle with gender identity issues, and feeling such a disconnect between ones spirit and body surely makes a person feel isolated, depressed, and alone. But it’s isolation and depression that drive people to break the law-even in the name of justice--not transness itself.

For many transgender Americans, our identity is something to celebrate, to be grateful for, and to recognize as one of the wild variations of what it means to be human. Still, getting to the place where gender identity feels like one’s greatest gift, rather than one’s greatest problem, can be a long, hard road. Many of trans women-- like Manning--immerse themselves in super-masculine activities in an attempt to shake off their inner sense of womanhood. Welsh author Jan Morris climbed Mt. Everest during her days as James; the writer and activist Donna Rose competed as an amateur wrestler when her name was Don. For my own part, I spent many hours during my life as a man playing keyboards in a bar band called “The Smelts,” about which the less said, the better.

For many trans women, the hope of escaping gender confusion leads to a life in the military. The letter Manning wrote headed “My Problem” details the private’s hope that enlisting “would get rid of” the gender identity issues. For Manning, as is the case with virtually all women born trans, “immersion therapy” didn’t cure the problem; it only made things worse. “You put him in that kind of hypermasculine environment,” said Worsley, “with little support and few coping skills, the pressure would have been difficult to say the least. It would have been incredible.”

And yet, making the next logical leap--that being trans made Manning unfit for duty--is problematic. The military is full of transgender people, and they manage to serve without committing treason, in spite of the fact that we are still not allowed to serve openly, even after the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. Organizations such as the Transgender Americans Veterans Association are fighting to allow trans people to serve without shame. Any defense that suggests that Manning is unfit, as a result of being trans, is a step backward.

Like a lot of Americans, I have unsettled feelings about Manning. I was opposed to the war from the beginning, but there’s something about Julian Assange and Wikileaks that leaves me uneasy as well. I do believe that Manning broke the law; at the same time, I think lives may have been saved as a result of Manning’s actions. The whole case, like our recent history itself, is a series of contradictions, leaving me uncertain about what I believe.

Still, I keep returning to that photo of Manning in her car. I’m used to the other photos of the soldier, the awkward-looking private in the buzz-cut and beret. That person has always looked twitchy and uncomfortable to me, even before the arrest. He looks like a man who does not quite know who he is.

I don’t get that sense from the photo of Manning en femme. Her eyes are sorrowful, her lips tight with sadness, but to me she still seems like a person at peace. She looks sane.