Chelsea Manning. Credit: Youtube.
Being trans just happens, the way that being gay or having blue eyes happens. The public reaction to Chelsea Manning coming out as trans has been so dramatic, with its shock and its conspiracy theories and its various kinds of outrage, that we have lost sight of a crucial fact: how ordinary this part of her story is. Understanding that ordinariness—the life journey shared by many trans people--can shed fresh light on her whistleblowing actions.
It isn’t really surprising that some people in the public eye should be trans, including people like Chaz Bono and Lauren Harries who became famous as children and had to transition in public. But this isn’t to say that trans people don’t have other things in common. One of those things is an outsider’s perspective on the world.
Many other trans people will empathise with elements of Chelsea’s story. Growing up in a small town, not being able to fit in. Joining the army to escape or to try and assert a masculinity that isn’t really there. Suddenly finding oneself alone in a strange place, not knowing who can be trusted. Stress related health problems and even suicidal feelings are common, but that’s not because trans people are inherently less stable than others; it’s a product of circumstances. Whilst some are lucky and find those around them supportive from the outset, many of us find ourselves in circumstances where we live with constant hostility and have to keep second-guessing other people’s motives in order to survive.
In the army, a habit like that can quickly lead to trouble.
One can argue that somebody in Chelsea’s position should never have been in the army. Alternatively, it could be said that she should never have been in the army and in the closet. There’s currently a movement underway to enable trans people to serve openly in the US army, which would mean people who felt isolated or bullied could find support within the system. In Britain, this has already been a success, and we’ve seen that trans people can be just as good at the job as any other soldiers.
Without that support, it’s difficult to feel that one is really part of an organisation. It feels more natural to side with other outsiders, other people threatened by those in power. One also tends to notice things that others don’t. Petty cruelties stand out to those who have been on the receiving end themselves. It’s easy to see the worst in people. In the face of that one can despair or one can toughen up in a way that makes it possible to make drastic decisions others would shrink from.
One thing is clear about Chelsea Manning: she doesn’t regret what she’s done. Her carefully worded apology in court shows a lasting confidence in her own motives and an awareness that whilst some harm may have come from her actions, that was not the whole of the story. Perhaps she never intended the leak to go as far as it did—the decisions were very quickly in the hands of others, like Julian Assange—but she felt a need to expose the illegal killings of which she became aware. Perhaps she had seen too many movies and really believed that was all that would be needed to bring about change.
On the brink of a personal change from which there could be no retreat, the acknowledgement of her gender in public, she may have felt that the world was also at a critical point. It’s a feeling that is common to many in her generation, with its mass movements like Occupy and its new take on feminism – that fin de siècle feeling that arrived just too late for the millenium, and something that stems in part from the emergence of social media. The democratisation of mass communication has created new possibilities for transformation at both a personal and political level.
This is something that has had a significant effect on trans people. Like many, Chelsea initially came out on the internet where being in a small town is no impediment to finding a sympathetic listener. As well as enabling individual trans people to come out, the internet has made it possible to organise and has given trans people a significant political voice for the first time. That, in turn, has impacted on traditional media. Within 24 hours of Chelsea coming out, NPR did a U-turn and decided to use feminine pronouns in reporting on her, citing social media pressure. There is a sense that cultural change can now take place faster than ever before—Ulrich Beck’s reflexive modernity with billions calling the shots.
Contemplating these possibilities in the past, whether through politial dialogues or science fiction, commentators have tended to worry about the unruly savagery of the mob. We see this in the internet in Twitter storms and on hate sites but we also see something of the wisdom of crowds, solutions emerging from chaos. It’s hard to say which way things will turn.
What we do know is that the familiar social structures which have sheltered us, and kept some of us prisoner, are crumbling. Even in the political mainstream, there is increasing distrust in institutions like the military. The UK reached a point of crisis with its unpopular involvement in Iraq. In America, trouble has been brewing since Vietnam, but the more social media makes the details of military decisions visble, the more complex the situation becomes.
Before Chelsea rebelled against the order of the US army, others had already done so—the soldiers whose vicious acts she revealed to the world. Their insider status has protected them whilst she, an outsider from the start, has functioned as a symbolic sacrifice to close down the debate. In this light, and whether or not she intended it that way, her coming out is an act of defiance.
Stepping back into public view on her own terms, Chelsea has transformed from a soldier afraid to be open with her colleagues to a prisoner ready to take on the whole world. She may be facing prison for as long as 35 years, but she is finally free. In the long run, this may do more to change the order of things than the actions that got her into trouble in the first place.