By Rainey Reitman
Some thoughtful feminist scholars have recently called on the Bradley Manning Support Network to begin referring to the accused WikiLeaks whistle-blower with a female pronoun. Emily Manuel’s essay in Global Comment highlighted why many of us who strongly support transgender rights are sensitive to the pronouns we use when we refer to Manning.
As an ardent supporter of Bradley Manning and a feminist, I have given this issue a great deal of thought. Given the unusual and perhaps unprecedented circumstances of the situation, I wanted to explain why I’m still calling him Bradley. In so doing, I also hope to demonstrate why folks who care passionately about queer and transgender rights should come out in support.
First, we should bear in mind the basis upon which some have made suppositions about Manning’s preferred gender identity. By and large, we are dealing with evidence that has not been established as fact. We can look at some Google searches found in forensic evidence, a smattering of late-night private chat logs, and potential testimony from those in whom Manning may have privately confided.
If these materials are to be believed, then it appears that Manning was questioning his gender identity. Manning’s lawyers have noted that he had sought counseling, but we don’t know if any final decision was ever made. We don’t know whether Manning wanted “Breanna” to be a primary identity, or if this was an alter ego that was never meant to be indicative of primary gender identification. We do know — from our own private conversations with friends and family members — that prior to his incarceration, Manning had not asked people to refer to him with a female pronoun.
The decision to transition – especially when it entails life-changing hormones or even surgery – isn’t something undergone lightly or quickly. Like many who are unsure about their gender identification, Manning used the Internet as a sandbox to begin experimenting with these complex issues. Unfortunately, he was arrested and forced to undergo many torturous months in solitary confinement, without proper medical, social, and emotional support during this time of questioning. We don’t know whether he reached a final decision.
From the earliest stages, the Bradley Manning Support Network has sought to honor Manning’s choices. Early in the campaign, we reached out to Manning’s aunt and lawyer and asked what name he preferred we use in our advocacy. They got back to us to say that “Brad” or “Bradley” would be fine.
Since then, we’ve sent Bradley packages in the mail showing him the fliers, stickers, postcards, T-shirts and photos of rallies all emblazoned with the name “Bradley Manning.” Manning has issued three public statements since his incarceration: during his first Christmas behind bars he issued holiday wishes; after many long months in solitary confinement he released a multi-page letter describing his abusive conditions; and after the pretrial hearing in December, he communicated through his aunt that he appreciated our support.
Notably, he didn’t ask us to start referring to him as Breanna. Advocates for Manning have an obligation to respect his agency and use the pronoun he had preferred prior to his arrest. None of us has the right to switch pronouns for Manning unless he tells us otherwise.
We also need to bear in mind that PFC Manning is currently – and quite literally – fighting for his life. He faces ridiculous charges of “aiding the enemy,” which carry a maximum sentence of death, despite the fact that our government’s own impact assessments found no harm to national security from the WikiLeaks materials. This extreme retaliation against Manning for uncovering war crimes stands in stark contrast to the military’s recent decisions to let other soldiers, who have admitted to killing unarmed civilians, walk free with nothing more than a cut in their pay.
This is not the normal legal environment that we may remember from our high school civics class. This is a show trial of a political prisoner. The military is openly abusing Manning of his rights in order to create a calculated psychological impact, and no doubt as a sharp warning to others who might consider exposing crimes and corruption.
Manning has been subjected to prolonged solitary confinement, which carries the risk of severe psychological damage. During that time, he was on several occasions ordered to remove his clothing and stand at “parade rest” in front of his guards. Those in the military know that this position requires you to place your hands behind your back. By all accounts, PFC Manning was the only detainee at the Quantico brig who was subjected to this peculiar form of humiliation. Military officials have since refused to turn over video-recordings that they made of these incidents.
It is difficult to conclude that this very specific form of degrading treatment has nothing to do with the fact that Manning was known to be questioning his gender identity.
When pressed on the mistreatment at a White House press conference, President Obama suggested that these absurd measures were imposed on Manning for his own safety. This excuse contradicted the findings of brig psychiatrists tasked with evaluating Manning, who found on every occasion that he posed no threat to himself in custody.
In this environment, those of us who have the luxury of relative freedom need to recognize that Manning might not be able to say everything that he really wants to say. In fact, we know this to be true. There have been several occasions in which meetings between Manning and his attorneys have been recorded by the military. Military officials have blocked Juan Mendez, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture, from having a private meeting with PFC Manning. Manning has rejected an offer from the military to allow him to meet with Mendez on the condition that the meeting be monitored.
In short, Bradley Manning is being silenced. Whether through these direct restrictions on his ability to communicate freely, or more subtly through media narratives that attempt to erase his political agency, the establishment does not want us to hear Manning’s true voice.
Each one of us working with the Bradley Manning Support Network anxiously awaits the day when Bradley Manning can speak freely, unencumbered by the shackles of oppression and injustice. But until that time, we can’t presume to speak for him, especially on an issue as personal and yet political as gender identification.
Lt. Daniel Choi, who was discharged from the Army for being openly gay, recently called on the queer community to stand up for Bradley Manning. In an interview with Keith Olbermann, he decried the media’s portrayal that Manning’s sexual or gender identity was being used an excuse. He instead noted that Manning had displayed the highest level of integrity in his actions:
“I think at this point we can’t say that he did any of this or didn’t do any of this because he’s gay or transgender. He did this because he’s a good soldier… I’m proud of him as a gay soldier because he stood for integrity. And Keith, one thing about the gay community is that our community, among all of the communities in the world, we’re the only one that bases its membership -— its membership — on integrity and telling the truth about ourselves, declassifying that information for the betterment of our entire lives and societies and families. And when we do that, we realize that the gay movement is more important than just for gay people alone.”
All available evidence points to Manning being driven by integrity. At the Article 32 hearing, military prosecutors submitted a note allegedly attached by Manning to the materials they say he sent to WikiLeaks concerning the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It read:
“This is perhaps one of the most significant documents of our time, removing the fog of war and revealing the true nature of 21st century asymmetric warfare.”
This seems to be the core motivation for Manning: to enlighten and educate the world, to create a better-informed democracy, to shed sunlight on the darkness covering our foreign policies and ongoing wars overseas. And, as queer activists have long known, there is power and transcendence in choosing truth, even when that truth makes others uncomfortable.
Rainey Reitman is a writer and a feminist. She sits on the Steering Committee of the Bradley Manning Support Network.