Saturday, August 24, 2013

I am Chelsea Manning

As Philip Sandifer observed in a piece recently, Chelsea Manning's 'coming out' as female was a shock to many. Not least for those of us within the transgender community.We thought her name was Breanna.

Rumours about Chelsea's real identity have been circulating for some time. Shortly after they started, I heard that the lawyers around her were advising her not to make the information public nor try and use it as some sort of defence. Not for one moment did I imagine that Chelsea's legal team had grasped some finer point around wishing to protect her privacy. I assumed that with their client about to go to court facing charges that could amount to 'treason' against her country, the last thing they felt they needed was to have to defend her against a world sickened by another kind of treason - to her gender.

Or 'his' gender, as the world would, and perhaps will continue to see it.

Selfishly, I'll admit to a certain relief in discovering that Chelsea's trans status was not going to be splashed all over the world's tabloids right away. Trans people are verbally eviscerated on - literally - a daily basis in the media. One of the most vivid tropes within press coverage emerges when a trans person tangles with the law. Many newspapers like nothing more than an easy conflation of our 'deviant' identity with an alleged legal violation. The reductive, cruel headlines always bring together the two ('Sex-swap accountant accused of fraud', 'Crossdressing policeman charged with speeding' etc) into an insinuation of a more profound moral decay - as if breaking the law (or even being accused of it) must in some way be connected with a deeper, culturally dangerous sickness. The label 'transgender' (or its abusive substitutes) then somehow sinks into public consciousness as a shorthand for 'guilty' through endless, unjustified juxtaposition with accusations of wrong doing. In exactly the same way, people of colour used to constantly find the pigment of their skin irrelevantly foregrounded by the press (ie 'Black teenager arrested for shoplifting'), with much the same effect.

I have grown up with these kinds of headlines, and part of me was not looking forward to more of them - especially attached to a case of this immense magnitude. I live and do my job as I am - accepted by my friends and colleagues as the female I know myself to be. But every day I work at that. Every day, a small part of me says, as I walk through the office door, "Make sure they are ok with you today". 

I know that however people seem to feel about me, the crust of acceptance is often an unexamined, thin and vulnerable one. Rooted as it is in little real understanding, it wouldn't take much to fracture it. So I try and strengthen it, in the piece of world I occupy. And I try not to stand on the places where it's thinnest in my life. And I can do without Rupert Murdoch, The Daily Mail or Daily Telegraph, or the BBC willfully derailing my efforts - to advance some cheap agenda or sell advertising space.

But in that sense of relief that Chelsea's gender identity issues were not flooding the newspapers, I also felt some shame. Ashamed that my fear for my own safety (and I am a fully 'transitioned', well off, middle class, employed person with a credible career history) came to my mind at all when reflecting on the situation faced by 'one of our own' who might now be facing the death penalty. Was in that situation for revealing to the world material that included a video of soldiers aboard US Apache helicopters gleefully mowing down a group of unarmed Iraqis, (including murdering two Reuters journalists, the people who came to pick up the wounded in a van, and maiming two children). Someone who might have felt in some way driven to do this because she was trying to deal with features of her inner life that I might understand.

I was ashamed of my worry that the weight of Chelsea's story might suddenly land on my fragile piece of crust, like some asteroid of media bigotry, and smash a hole right through it. I guess that's what a hostile world can do to you.

Because of course it should not have been this way for Chelsea Manning. In so many respects, everything that has happened to her is both horribly wrong and awfully predictable. And my feeling of relief back then that the lawyers were silencing her in her attempts to be herself is actually part of the problem she faced. Because the silencing of her by the world is what may have caused all of this in the first place.

Millions of lines of text are already appearing about who Chelsea is, or isn't. About what kind of life she has had, will now have, and whether her revelation about herself in any way effects her 'guilt' as charged or otherwise. We cannot know the answers to many of these questions - I'm guessing partly because her defense team, complicit in the fear we transgender people have of the hate of society - avoided putting them into the court room properly. We know that Chelsea apologised to the United States for what she had done. We know that she felt remorse for any harm caused. That she believed - believes still I guess - that what she did was in support of the constitution of her country, an attempt to bring wrong doing to light.

We know less about the deeper private motivation behind her actions - and though she is, predictably, being lauded and vilified by groups with opposed political agendas in equal measure - we have little idea whether she feels the crown of 'Whistleblower's Whistleblower' fits. She'll certainly have a long time now to think that one over.

I don't want to add to the speculation about what's been going on in Chelsea's head. I can make a guess at best, and as someone who has been to the edge of despair in my way too, perhaps for some of the same reasons, I might be able to come up with something plausible. But just as Chelsea, and I, want the world to allow us to own our identities, so too, do I want the world to allow me to own my own motivations without hypothesising and forcing the painful results of all that on me. And I wouldn't be surprised if she felt the same.

I can really therefore only speak for me.

Feeling forced to live a life in which I felt I could not be who I fully am had an effect on me, and not a good one. I grew up negotiating between an emerging understanding of my true self and the knowledge that if I ever voiced it to the world the social consequences would be catastrophic.

But the need for inner honesty is a powerful force and it will be heard.

We see its power in so many ways in our lives. The marriage that is forged or broken because it will give you what you, as a person, need, or which has stopped giving it. The career on which we embark which either feeds our soul, helping us to feel authentic, that we are in the right place in the world...or which crushes and depresses us. We talk of feeling 'right' or 'wrong' in a company, a role, a city, a country. Our families and friends represent other locations in our lives where we seek expression and acceptance of our true selves - and if we are unable to do so, our relationships are thin, unsatisfactory, short lived.

Everywhere in life we look for places in which we can be ourselves, and though we may not be able to articulate easily what that 'selfness' is, we know clearly when we feel it or do not. We know what it is like to feel bent out of shape inside to try and fit a model that is simply handed to us from elsewhere, from outside without reference to who we are and what we are.

For the transgender person, finding this sense of authenticity can be tough. The world generally tries to make the one solution you increasingly know to be the one that will help (the one which involves your gender and how you live it) the only one you cannot have (in fact, in many countries, the world says to trans people we will kill you on the streets if you try). And thus you are often left only with partial solutions which you desperately try and make work.

One such solution (though you may not express it in these terms as you try and sell it to yourself) is to try and irrevocably close off your own chances for authenticity, and to force yourself to make the best of other mechanisms in life available to you. Things which can distract, or hopefully obscure the bigger problem. Join the army perhaps? Many do. The army - for many a caricature of self assured, self accepting masculinity, must surely be a place where all this pain can be driven away and replaced by some inner model that you can make work?

Another solution can be to try and vent the need for honesty, for authenticity, in other ways. To try and help others face their struggle. I joined Amnesty International when I was 19, and have been actively involved, in various ways and at various times for over 30 years. I look back at the letters I have written, the petitions I've signed, the appeals for individuals to be treated with dignity, to be given liberty and to be allowed to live their lives as who they are...and I know that I was also writing to myself.

Equally, I was actively involved in trying to support other trans people find ways out of their despair - comforting, counselling and listening - for almost a decade before I could face my own.

Perhaps had I been working in a job with access to a range of deeply disturbing secrets about how my government was breaking the law, jeopardising the lives of innocent people, and much worse, the pressure for honesty and the despair that I could not tackle in my own life might have overwhelmed me? Perhaps I would have leaked those documents in some sort of symbolic expression of my own need?

Some way of getting the 'truth', any truth, out there?

And had I done so, then what has befallen Chelsea Manning would have happened to me. The grandest of pieces of projection, perhaps, but I can't help seeing in what she did some parallels with my approach, on my much smaller stage.

And in a way something many trans people try to do. To just try and make it all go away through denial is one route. Perhaps seeking at least some measure of honesty in one's life in some other sphere, another? And overall, to turn one's life into a pressure cooker clamped shut, whilst doing nothing about the raging heat beneath it. And then to fool about loosening the lid occasionally - releasing moments of inner pressure through symbolic acts.

Chelsea's inner strategy, if this is what it was - her leaking of material as extended metaphor for dealing with some of that pain within - didn't work. And I don't mean for the US military, for the US government, or for its allies or enemies. Depending on where you stand, you may feel she did the right, or the wrong thing, in those terms. I mean for her.

My version of that strategy didn't work for me either. Luckily for me, my life choices didn't arrive framed in the same way as hers. Luckily for me, one of the options along the way to try and fix the pain did not involve actions which could easily have got me executed and I never had to face the entanglement of vast moral questions with what was going on in my own head. Luckily for me, the desperation I felt didn't perhaps get so bad - or get so bad for long - that I no longer cared about the potential consequences for me.

But had I lived her life, had I tried to answer the questions she was facing, in the place she was, then maybe I too would be starting a lifetime in jail.

So perhaps I am Chelsea Manning.

And, whatever your story, in some ways perhaps you are too?

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting article. Not that I knew Chelsea's history, I did wonder why they were releasing that info now. I just hope the defence take a leaf out of what you have written because I believe you have given a very good case for the relevance.

    And indeed, in my natal female life as just someone struggling with a difficult childhood and a sense of self, I know I was involved in some minor actions under the guise of altruistic actions but probably striking a chord for me because no-one else could as I kept it all secret (as part of the "don't tell anyone" childhood).