For those who don’t know, the case of Chelsea Manning is one of the most interesting in whistleblowing history. In 2009, Chelsea completed the largest whistleblowing operation in U.S history by leaking hundreds of thousands of classified documents concerning the Iraq War to Wiki Leaks.
Then, as if that weren’t enough to enshrine her memory in the public consciousness, Manning also made waves by coming out as a transgender woman and asking for hormone therapy while beginning her 35-year prison sentence for twenty-two espionage-related offenses surrounding the leaks.
Unsurprisingly, that request didn’t sit well with people who don’t understand gender dysphoria. Perhaps the best reflection of this is the transphobic and flabbergasted reaction of Fox News, who repeatedly misgendered Manning while blasting other news organizations for respecting her gender identity.
In the end, the Army did honor her need for hormone therapy. It only took a suicide attempt and a long hunger strike to get there.
Out of concern for her well-being, Manning’s lawyers filed a request for clemency in time for former President Obama to consider it before his term ended. In U.S law, “clemency” can mean the reprieve of the execution of a sentence, a pardon of any sentence at all, or the premature release of a prisoner. With Manning, clemency meant the latter.
On January 17, 2017, just three days before President Trump took office, President Obama granted her request and scheduled her to be released on May 17. Suddenly, freedom became a close certainty instead of a distant concept long forgotten by a whistleblower rotting in prison. Fast forward to May 17, and that close certainty became a concrete reality for Chelsea Manning. Legally speaking, she is now a free woman.
But is she really free? In a country where transgender people are disproportionately likely to be murdered — where 15% of trans people are living in poverty, and portrayals of trans women as cisgendered perverts pretending to be a woman to get access to woman’s bathrooms circulate everywhere— Chelsea Manning already has a lot to deal with.
Combine those challenges of being a trans woman in the United States with Manning’s public status as a whistleblower convicted of “aiding the enemy”, and you have a very precarious future for the curious case of Chelsea Manning.
Note: I’m not claiming Manning didn’t deserve a conviction in the first place. Though her revelations exposed the grim reality of warfare to the world, military secrets are secrets for a reason. Pragmatically speaking, if we allow people to unilaterally decide what should and shouldn’t be secret, soldiers and civilians alike could be put in harm’s way.
That being said, just because Manning’s actions were illegal doesn’t mean they were morally wrong. The search for truth is a noble endeavor. Americans, arguably better than anyone, should understand that sometimes you have to break the law to do what is right. Whether or not Chelsea Manning is a hero, a traitor, both, or neither isn’t up for this volunteer journalist to decide. Sometimes, it’s not up to the letter of the law either.