Updated to add this link, in which Chelsea Manning spoke more clearly about her case than she felt able to do at Penn. (Forgive the deadname in Atlantic’s title; it was before she came out to the world as the assured young woman you see above.
The photo above was taken on November 29, 2017, right after Manning spoke to about 400 students at the University of Pennsylvania, which treated her far better than Harvard had. That figure in the leather coat is me, my hair stressed by the windy day. And in that photo, by the celebrated Kyle Cassidy, the shadows under her eyes tell more truths than she could or did that night.
I showed up hoping to live-blog/tweet it, and to ask if I could share what part of her story ends up in my book. The live-blogging was kind of foiled by the unsure wireless at Penn, and by having to wait in line at a microphone to ask her a question in public.
I’m happy that the event was covered by WHYY, which provides a far more exuberant photo, conveying how happy she was to be there. For exact words said, click the link: what I provide is more a set of musings, and answers to questions some of you suggested.
The event was at Annenberg Center Live, at Penn’s journalism school. As I sat waiting, I thought of seeing her in that Fort Meade courtroom five years ago, when we all knew her as Bradley Manning but many, including me, suspected she was transgender. Now her trans identity is one of the first things most people know about her, I thought. Especially those following @Xychelsea on Twitter.
Instead of a journalist, she was on stage with Gabriella Coleman, a professor at McGill in a field I didn’t know existed: Scientific and Technological Literacy. (One of the fields thats emerged with the STEM generation, I was told by a student who didn’t know how old that made me feel.)
Manning became most animated when Coleman asked about the brouhaha that erupted over a Canadian professor’s refusal to use gender-neutral pronouns, saying it impinged on his free-speech rights.
“It’s all about him, isn’t it?” said Manning to audience laughter. She then shifted to a sterner tone.
“We are who we say we are. It’s as simple as that. This isn’t a free-speech issue. It’s a dignity issue. It doesn’t hurt him, just use it,” she said. “It’s hurtful to be on the other end of that and not be acknowledged or validated.”
Then I told her that many veterans look up to her, and my question was from one of them ‘When he was in the military, he said, there were classes in what was and what not a lawful order. His question: When does one cross the line to become a whistleblower?”
This was both a substantive question and a softball: an opportunity to put her actions in context, the way she did at Fort Meade. Instead, Manning said that it was complex, that every order is technically a legal order because it comes from someone above you in the chain of command — and as for actions that violate international law, it’s legal if the Pentagon says it is. Her tone was flat, a cross between a tired activist or a paralegal.
I don’t know what I’d expected to hear, but it wasn’t that. I guess part of me was remembering her account, at Fort Meade, of seeing one of her intelligence “products” used to round up and detain people who had done nothing but petition their local authorities.That changed how she looked at the data she was collecting; it must have rendered repulsive the next order to produce more data. But Manning wasn’t comfortable offering details of her work in Iraq, perhaps fearing they were now classified.
After the talk, Manning actually sat on the stage to talk to people, which gave me a chance to ask my other questions. I told her about Ain’t Marchin (not by title), and asked if she had thoughts about Reality Winner or Edward Snowden. “Nothing to say about other cases!” she said.”I can barely talk about my own.”
Then came the request portion. “I’m like other journalists who’ve been trying to write about you before you started telling your own story.” I told her the book will be published, but I was hoping to pass the sections about her by someone who could ensure it was accurate. (This is something I did with Heather Lea Linebaugh, and with the brother of Vietnam veteran Jeff Sharlet.) She nodded, and took down my information (including the URL for this page). Her assistant, her people, are supposed to get in touch.
At this point my wife, the poet/computer geek Rachel Rawlings, had joined us; it turned out that Manning’s supporting herself at a job like Rachel’s, and the two of them commiserated about life as a system administrator. She also told both of us that it’s only in the past few months that she’s come down to earth and really started to process what she has been through, now that the post-release elation was fading. That explains the 1000-yard stare: telling her story, even in this abbreviated form, must be as re-traumatizing as much as it is healing. Not to mention the documentary she’s working on, XYCHELSEA, which comes out next year.
After we all went our separate ways, Manning had 2 afterparties – one at a local bistro and one at the Haktory, a hackers’ workspace. The latter sounds perfect, because being Chelsea Manning sounds like hard work.