Some unformed initial thoughts on Chelsea Manning:
Today, lawyer David Coombs confirmed knowledge that had been circulating online since 2010: that the convicted military analyst we knew as Pfc. Bradley Manning was trans, and would from now on be called Chelsea Manning. Making this statement in the aftermath of the Snowden affair, and as new information concerning NSA spying on documented citizens is disclosed daily, the timing of the announcement places questions about gender identity squarely in focus in the ongoing debates about the authority of the security state to spy and to keep secrets. Coombs’ request that the media use feminine pronouns and to refer to Manning as Chelsea has yet to be heeded by most of the mainstream media — reiterating an all-too-common public transphobia.
The “outing” of Manning as trans poses a historical counterpoint to the rumored transvestism and homosexuality of J. Edgar Hoover, the red-baiting architect of the closed security state that Manning exposed. As Erin Carlston suggests in her book Double Agents: Espionage, Literature, and Liminal Citizens, there is an intimate relationship between fascination over state secrets and the social reproduction of “invisible others” including queer subjects, Jews, and Communists: “others” who live askance social norms without visible markings on the body. If Manning’s gender transition is likely to add discriminatory fodder to attacks on her from those who excuse the much more egregious manipulations of classified information to sell the Iraq War and the drone wars, the Pentagon’s swift declaration that it would not fund hormone therapy or gender reassignment surgery for Manning may pose problems for a military attempting to launch its own pinkwashing campaign. As it grants benefits to same-sex couples, it attempts to distance itself from the British government’s preemptive detention of David Miranda.
Though if Snowden and the journalists who presented his leaks can summon the moral authority attached to those who carefully follow disclosure protocols of whistleblowers, Manning may not fare as well. If Manning’s disclosure of US diplomatic cables included whistleblowing activity, it surely exceeded mere whistleblowing. Manning committed a much more daring act: an all-out rejection of the expansionary logics of secrecy that have blocked democratic debate over US foreign policy since World War II. As anthropologist Joseph Masco explains, alongside the development of a monopoly on high-tech nuclear weapons by the US during that war, the state has built increasingly massive amounts of policed information such that today, many thousands of people (at least) are involved in administering the control of state secrets. With this expansion, as well as the neoliberal move toward private contracting and the digitization of records, there is a greater potential for leaks. Yet leaking itself is also a technology of war, and one threat that Manning’s disclosures offer is displaying the massive amount of useless or embarrassing (but not particularly sensitive) information that is now quarantined from the public record. (Check out the Wikileaks logs that include, among controversies, cover-ups, and debates, boring everyday posts from US diplomatic missions who continue the inane Cold War surveillance of Leftist movements.) Within the echo chamber of state secrecy, paranoia about small threats is then regularly inflated into international crisis — whether the spurious accusations against scientist Wen Ho Lee or the Plame Affair and the yellow journalism of Judith Miller in the leadup to the Iraq War.
Manning’s rather careless online bragging about the disclosure — which led to her arrest — stands in sharp contrast to the controlled whistleblowing of Snowden, who has carefully positioned himself as masculine martyr, having given up his citizenship rights and heterosexual relationship in the public interest. If Manning’s act helped expose the violence of the dubious post-911 wars (as she explained in her eloquent post-sentencing statement), it might also be read within a longer history in which the technocratic norms of state secrets are posed against the queer entanglements of rumor, publicity, and invisibility.