This article re-posted from the Bilerico Project with the permission of the author.
“Discipline” may be identified neither with an institution nor with an apparatus; it is a type of power, a modality for its exercise, comprising a whole set of instruments, techniques, procedures, levels of application, targets; … an essential instrument for a particular end, or by pre-existing authorities that find in it a means of reinforcing or reorganizing their internal mechanisms of power … by state apparatuses whose major, if not exclusive, function is to assure that discipline reigns over society as a whole.
-Michel Foucault (emphasis added)
On the morning of Wednesday, Aug. 21, Chelsea Manning was sentenced to 35 years in prison for violating the U.S. Espionage Act, a sentence The New York Times called “far too long… by any standard,” especially compared to First Lt. Michael Behenna, who was “sentenced to 25 years for the 2008 killing of an unarmed Iraqi man.”
That same day, the U.S. Army released a private photo of Manning presenting as female. Until then, Manning had been living as male. Confusion regarding gender identity was previously discussed in the court-martial and to only a small degree in the media, but Manning did not publicly identify as transgender, female, or as desiring gender transition.
Today, Thursday, Aug. 22, Manning publicly articulated her desire to transition, and identified herself by the name Chelsea.
The timing speaks volumes.
Looking back on Manning’s past few days, it’s not difficult to parse the strategically calculated goals of the United States government regarding public perception of her and its actions. The leaked documents Manning provided shed light on war crimes and other atrocities committed by the U.S. Many of us believe Manning is a hero for this, not a criminal. That’s not what the federal government would like us to believe, however, and the timing of the above events is proof of that.
The Army released a photo to the world revealing Manning presenting as female on the same day she was sentenced. Convenient distraction, yes? And as far as distractions go, it’d be hard to find a better one: women and femininity is a favored target of gazes (both aesthetic and sexual) and objectifying judgment the world over, and the taboo gender transgressions and physical transformations of trans* folk captures public curiosity like little else. Of course, all this attention does not actually translate to considering the perspectives, deeds, and experiences of the person. That’s the point: it’s a sideshow.
The government mostly likely would claim absolution from this criticism by saying it’s standard procedure, and that this was not some ploy to distract the public from questioning the validity of Chelsea’s sentence, or the charges, or ultimately, its violent actions. It might say it’s standard operating procedure to release evidence after a verdict. It may have been planning to do so all along, but couldn’t until the sentence came down and the trial ended.
This claim, of course, ignores the fact that this is exactly what policies like this are designed for: distraction, diversion, and manipulating the discourse away from questioning whether the actions and corresponding punishments in question truly damage people and society, or whether they just damage the oppressive power structures reigning over them.
Was the sentence just? Were the charges just? Why is our government so concerned with maintaining secrecy about its actions across borders? If the government really did commit war crimes and Manning helped call attention to it, is her sentence just retribution? Is the government making an example of Manning to reassert its authority and intimidate possible opposition in the future? Should we organize and demand our government stop its violent, neo-imperialist oppression of foreigners? Shouldn’t we do someth- … Wait, did you see that photo of Manning in the wig and lipstick? She says she’s transgender? What’s that mean exactly? And how does that work in prison? Can she even do that? Can she get hormones? Wait, are my tax dollars going to help a criminal become a woman? And so on…
The government is using Manning’s trans-ness to deflect attention from its actions. That’s obvious. But that’s not the worst of it. That’s just the macro, societal aspect. The events of the past few days get even more frightening when we examine the micro, the personal.
Power would no longer be dealing simply with legal subjects over whom the ultimate dominion was death, but with living beings, and the mastery it would be able to exercise over them would have to be applied at the level of life itself; it was the taking charge of life, more than the threat of death, that gave power its access even to the body.
-Michel Foucault (emphasis added)
Some might argue that Chelsea brought this on herself, that she didn’t have to come out as female today, that she created this circus herself. However, the timing strongly suggests Chelsea came out as trans* when she did because she had no choice. The government’s attempt to sideline the discourse by outing and visually presenting Manning as female could only be countered by Manning claiming ownership of her identity and attempting to dictate the conversation about it herself. If she remained silent, speculation, objectification, and pathologization of her identity and presentation would run wild. Manning’s gender identity was even discussed as a liability in her court-martial. From the insulting, inaccurate, and irresponsibly-written story by David Dishneau and Pauline Jelinek at the Associated Press,
Manning’s struggle with gender identity disorder [sic] — the sense of being a woman trapped in a man’s body [sic] — was key at his [sic] court-martial.
Retired Sgt. 1st Class Paul Adkins testified as a defense witness, saying in April 2010, just a month before Manning was arrested, the soldier emailed him a picture of himself [sic] in a blonde [sic] wig and lipstick with a letter titled, “My problem.”
“I don’t know what to do anymore, and the only ‘help’ that seems to be available is severe punishment and/or getting rid of me,” the email said. “All I do know, is that fear of getting caught has caused me to go to great lengths to consciously hide the problem.”
Manning’s attorney said the email was evidence the military knew of Manning’s struggles, yet allowed him [sic] to stay in Iraq as an intelligence analyst and keep his [sic] security clearance.
Manning’s own attorney framed the disclosure of her gender identity as a clear signal to negligent Army officials that she was not well and could not be trusted with the access she had, and therefore not entirely to blame. Transness is still classified as a mental illness, after all, so the Army and the media have no choice but to discuss her personal sense of self as a determining factor in her actions against the government. (But let us not be mistaken: the “problem” was not Manning’s gender identity. The problem was the enormous pressure and stigma the Army and society at large put on her to hide it. The problem was that “the only ‘help’ that seems to be available is severe punishment and/or getting rid of me.”)
The Army put Manning in a double-bind. If she didn’t come out as female, the discourse would be beyond her control, with others insulting and mischaracterizing her, and trans* identity in general (though, as the AP story illustrates, that’s happening nonetheless), to invalidate her act of ethical protest as that of a distressed and disturbed individual. If she did come out as female, she could attempt to own her identity as legitimate and validate her act of protest, but the story would then become her transness, how she will transition, her appearance, trans inclusion in the military, and “understanding” transgender people in general, i.e., anything but war crimes, secrecy, and oppression.
The Army knew this of course, so it released the photo and forced Manning’s hand at the exact time it would be most vulnerable to criticism – the day they made an example of Manning by sentencing her to an unjust 35 years in prison.
The Foucault quote at the introduction of this section discusses how society’s technologies of power gain “access even to the body,” but what just happened to Manning is far more sinister. The military and justice systems have accessed her mind, her very sense of self. These systems just dragged Manning out of the closet and forced her to publicly adopt trans* identity. Manning certainly had been exploring her gender identity throughout her life up until now, but was she ready to make this leap? Who knows. And if she wasn’t ready, will this experience alter the process of how others see her and how she sees herself? Again, we don’t know. I hope, for her sake, that she was genuinely ready.
What we do know is that this is nothing new, and it is not the last time it will happen. If the state feels its power threatened, it will do anything it must to maintain it. It will manipulate and restrict the governance you have over your own body. It will exploit and other your identity. And in some cases, like Manning’s, it will dictate who you are, and then, it will use who you are against you for its own benefit.
Fight Against, Not With, the Government
I hope this serves as a wake-up call to the LGBTQI community. The government is not our friend. Officials may march in our parades and wave some rainbow flags, but this is bigger than individual officials. This is hegemonic, systemic oppression. If it is deemed necessary, the state will use your queerness, your transness, your difference against you to create discord, to justify its actions against others and against you, and to maintain its control — exactly as it has done to Manning. As another whistleblower-painted-criminal, Edward Snowden, warned, “they can use this system to go back in time and scrutinize every decision you’ve ever made, every friend you’ve ever discussed something with, and attack you on that basis to derive suspicion from an innocent life and paint anyone in the context of a wrongdoer.”
We must not be fighting for the right to be included at the table of oppressors. We must not be gauging our fight for justice and equality by our acceptance into institutions such as marriage, the police and criminal justice systems, and the military-industrial complex whose main functions are, respectively, to deliver more benefits to the already privileged, restrict our freedoms, and intimidate and murder people across borders whose lives and beliefs interfere with a political agenda.
We must examine the functions of the institutions we’re fighting for access to, and determine whether we truly want to endorse their effects with our participation. LGB folks were welcomed into the military a few years back, and some trans* people are still fighting for inclusion in it.
Take a good look, folks. This is what you’re fighting for – the utter domination and manipulation of a fellow LGBT person’s innermost thoughts and feelings in order to help justify war crimes. This is how they’ll treat you, your queerness/transness, and anyone else, if deemed “necessary.” They will use everything they can against you to defend the indefensible. They will abuse you to justify abusing others.
Do we really want to be part of that?
Click here to petition President Obama to pardon Manning.