Feminist, trans advocates should support Bradley Manning

“Everything we know from Bradley Manning’s friends, family, and legal defense team, is that he wishes to be referred to as Brad or Bradley until he’s able to get to the next stage of his life. Bradley has indicated that he’s not interested in publicly addressing this issue.” -Bradley Manning Support Network. July 24, 2012

By Rainey Reitman, Bradley Manning Support Network Steering Committee. March 1, 2012.  (Originally published in the Washington Blade.)

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.

Pfc. Bradley 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 supporters at a San Francisco gay pride parade

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.

19 thoughts on “Feminist, trans advocates should support Bradley Manning

  1. I fully agree that we should be referring to Bradley Manning with male pronouns unless he declares a preference. In addition to the complicated issues surrounding how this information became known, there’s also the simple fact that he’s never publicly declared a preference.

    It’s very important for supporters not to project personal assumptions or feelings onto this person. Bradley Manning is fighting an absolutely Kafkaesque legal battle where he could face the death penalty, so *everyone* should be supporting him. But trans people especially should be vocal supporters, given the harsh and degrading treatment he has faced while detained.

  2. If a person’s desired pronouns are not known, then they should be referred to by a gender-neutral pronoun, such as singular they. “He” is not neutral.

    I look forward to a time when trans people in similar situations won’t be faced with acquiescence to oppressive gender norms even from their supporters.

    • There is no “singular they” in the English language, “they” is a plural pronoun. The only thing close to a gender-neutral pronoun in the English language is the combination he/she. Further, if gender is a construct, the use of gender-specific pronouns for anyone would be non-applicable, upending our language as it is currently used. Nationality is a construct as well, would you object to calling Manning an American? I’m not sure how any of these arguments do anything to assist the cause of securing Manning’s freedom.

      • I largely agree with this, but have to add that uncommon though it is, and even less common during her time as unelected head of state, Elizabeth ER II, and certainly Victoria R, before her are both known to have referred to their individual self as ‘we’, as opposed to I or me.

        As they and he/she are hardly accurate terms, in the absence of certainty, we are obliged, and should be happy to refer to Manning as Brad or Bradley, why wouldn’t we be?

        This is both a legally correct name, and is what we are told has been requested. It is not uncommon to have to write to, or about, or speak about someone whose gender identity we are unsure of, and lacking certainty, we make appropriate adjustments without adding or agonizing over Mr, Master, Miss, Ms or Mrs or a myriad of other titles, hence Brad or Bradley, though I have noticed since returning to Britain that many here are very title conscious with retired airline pilots wishing to be known as Captain, retired military personnel as Major, for example, and so on, and the media encourages this with titles galore: Duke and Dutchess, Baroness, Lord and Lady, the list virtually endless, but perhaps it adds a little pizazz in a mostly grey and rain-washed country.

        I think you have to be from here and of here to really understand the imperative for titles. Are double barrelled titles allowed, and should they be listed alphabetically if they are, or in order of perceived importance, and in whose view anyway!

        Signed Mister Captain Mister, but I can assure everyone that the middle word and 2 currency units (or more) may get you a cup of coffee, no tea, sorry how could I forget tea, so as always it comes down to a title will get you only so far, if you really want results, bring money!

        • Use of the “Royal We” is only appropriate when the country and rulers being discussed are a monarchy or similar status by birth situation. America is (supposed to be) a Democracy hence, use of the “royal We” is inappropriate. Since Bradley has asked us to specifically call him Bradley we should respect his wishes. It’s a personal decision, and not one that any other person anywhere has any say over. If you wish to support Bradley, then heed his wishes without complaint. It’s his life, his name, his gender and his choice what he does with it. Simple as that.

        • A male is a he until he says he is a she (or something else). Conversely, a female is a she until she says she is a he (or something else). Done.

  3. It’s not as if no one has ever met Manning before. He has friends and family members — to whom he presented himself as a gay man. If you read the article, you’ll see that the Support Network is calling him “Brad” or “Bradley” at his own request. The author acknowledges that there is some indication that he was questioning his gender identity, but that he never asked to be publicly referred to as a female. That doesn’t mean we default to “gender neutral” as if nobody has ever met him before — but to who he has only ever presented himself to friends and family to be — a man. A real supporter would respect Brad’s agency instead of trying to force an identity onto him. He doesn’t need other people to say his name is “Breanna” unless he comes out and says so himself.

  4. ‘If you read the article, you’ll see that the Support Network is calling him “Brad” or “Bradley” at his own request.’

    I did read the article, and it was at their aunt and lawyer’s request. Only the name was asked about, not pronouns.

    This is what Manning said in the chat logs (I’ve tried to include enough to avoid quoting out of context; and yes, I realize there is still some question as to the logs’ authenticity):

    (1:11:54 PM) bradass87: and… its important that it [the leaked information] gets out… i feel, for some bizarre reason

    (1:12:02 PM) bradass87: it might actually change something

    (1:13:10 PM) bradass87: i just… dont wish to be a part of it… at least not now… im not ready… i wouldn’t mind going to prison for the rest of my life, or being executed so much, if it wasn’t for the possibility of having pictures of me… plastered all over the world press… as [a] boy…

    (1:14:11 PM) bradass87: i’ve totally lost my mind… i make no sense… the CPU is not made for this motherboard…

    (1:30:32 PM) bradass87: >sigh<

    (1:31:40 PM) bradass87: i just wanted enough time to figure myself out… to be myself… and be running around all the time, trying to meet someone else’s expectations

    No-one would be "forcing an identity" onto Manning by referring to them by *gender-neutral* pronouns, as I suggested.

    • The name Brad is in his screenname, which he chose. Wouldn’t he choose Breanna as a screenname if he had elected to adopt a female persona? Why would we bequeath Manning with a gender neutral identity before he eradicated the name associated with his male identity, even in his own chosen screenname (when he could choose any screenname he wished, presumptively?)? And why would you make an issue of what pronoun is used to refer to Manning when *Manning* has never made pronoun usage an issue, re: to which pronoun is used when he is identified?

  5. Talk about the death of the liberal class … how parasitic should it be possible to get in diverting attention from war, economic apartheid and global ecological collapse, and from the actual working people who stand to take hardest hit from them, and placing it on an endless litany of injuries to the ineffably sophisticated, infinitely precious _identities_ of those born to be managers and professionals? Our Rand-infected owner class screams tyranny if a penny of their fortunes are taken in taxes, and our managers, not to be outdone, insist we ignore the chief victims of war and empire to focus on their own poor, mangled, incomplete senses of themselves. Between these two arrogant, helplessly infantile, pitilessly bizarre elites, working people have nothing to choose. But how do they mobilize on their own, against the enmity of the species’ gambled wealth on the one hand, and its squandered education on the other?

    • Can the moderators please remove this disgusting cissexist, classist bullshit? To the commenter, do you really think there are no trans* people in the working class or Iraqis and Afghanis who are trans and would prefer their correct pronouns? Take 2 seconds to do some research before you vomit your ignorance into a public forum.

  6. Great article, thank you for clarifying where you stand on this. I agree with sticking with ‘Bradley’ based on the information we currently have on his wishes.

  7. In order to help clarify this further, we posted the following brief statement today at the top of this article:

    Everything we know from Bradley Manning’s friends, family, and legal defense team, is that he wishes to be referred to as Brad or Bradley until he’s able to get to the next stage of his life. Bradley has indicated that he’s not interested in publicly addressing this issue.

  8. I still don’t think it’s correct to publicize this person as being gay. They may prefer male pronouns and name for now, but that’s just for your convenience at this time. If they are trans they were born that way and that would make them female, no matter what your gay political correctness thinks.

  9. I completely agree with David-Sarah– if you don’t know a person’s gender identity, the proper thing to do is to address them as they or another gender neutral pronoun. end of story.

    also, as a transgender person and a long time member of the left, the comments in response to this article really typify why the left has so much trouble connecting with LGBT communities and vice versa– despite the lip-service support for gay rights, most leftists know as little about queer issues as the general public. “they” can be used in the singular– our queer communities do it all the time. An aunt or family member is not a reliable source for how someone identifies early on in transition, as they may not be accepting themselves.

    and, my particular favorite, Sean Reynolds accusation of queer communities as liberals diverting attention from the “real issues” of war/apartheid/etc. These are real issues and so are queer issues. I challenge apartheid in Israel as much as I challenge my trans sisters of color getting murdered on the streets of Los Angeles. trans people are poor, incarcerated, and unemployed at rates way way above the general public– but we’re mostly invisible, including to those who claim to advocate for the poor and oppressed. It’s the lefts refusal to adopt a truly multi-issue lens, instead sticking to ‘primary contradiction’ style politics that pays lip service to LGBT issues but will push them to the side when it gets in the way of their narrative, that keeps trans folks out of networks like these more than anything else.

  10. Hannah points out that “if you don’t know a person’s gender identity, the proper thing to do is to address them as they or another gender neutral pronoun. end of story.” OK, but we do know for certain Bradley’s gender identity–he’s a young gay man.

    So now this manufactured controversy has shifted to either

    a. Bradley’s expressed desire doesn’t really count because he’s under pressure (as if everyone dealing with such a weighted question is not under immense pressures)
    b. Everyone in direct contact with Bradley is lying (despite the fact that supporters sit only a few feet behind him during all Ft. Meade hearings, and yes, have visited him in prison as well)
    c. There is a conspiracy of “lefties” to hide the truth, or least keep trans activists out of “our network.”

    Everyone is welcome to join the Bradley Manning Support Network; however, there is problem when alleged supporters of Bradley Manning insist on putting their own personal politics ahead of Bradley’s pretty specific requests.

  11. Manning’s gender issues are Manning’s . He should be supported because he is a human being who sacrificed everything. This was one of my favorite posts.
    “A martyr is someone who is prepared to sacrifice all for his beliefs. Americans would rather war criminals go free while people of clear conscience go to jail. This is topsy turvy patriotism that allows every foul deed to go unpunished in the name if security but punishes true patriots and humanists for exposing those deeds. There is afterall no justice in America so long as the powerful and well connected walk free and clear and people of conscience are hung out to dry.
    Manning is the only person in this entire sordid episode who showed courage of conviction while bullies armed with missiles who were devoid of any dignity in the agregious acts they instigated and perpetrated sit out their dotage, safe, secure and free of convictions.
    History will lionize Manning for exposing crimes committed in Americas name but the same history will describe the Bush era abuses as the darkest chapter of America history in decades. Bush will live on in infamy.”

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