Chelsea Manning and America’s Trans Prisoners
What An Activist Might Have Taught at Harvard
Early last Friday morning, shortly after midnight, the dean of Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, Douglas Elmendorf, released a 700-word statement. It announced that he was withdrawing an offer of a Visiting Fellowship to Chelsea Manning, the former military intelligence analyst who spent seven years in prison for leaking classified government secrets. The announcement left unclear the precise reason for Elmendorf’s decision. The closest it came was the statement that Manning does not “share our values,” and that her “actions or words” were “abhorrent to some members of our community.”
Manning, of course, is a uniquely polarizing figure, viewed by some as a traitor and by many others as a hero. Her selection as a Visiting Fellow at the Kennedy School inevitably was going to draw howls of protest from her critics. Withdrawing the offer was equally certain to yield criticism from her admirers. Since Elmendorf’s statement was released four hours after CIA director Mike Pompeo announced he was cancelling in protest a scheduled appearance at Harvard, it was predictable that even some of Manning’s critics would believe Elmendorf’s action created the appearance of bowing to pressure from a top government official.
Elmendorf also stated that Manning was welcome to do the same things that the other three visitors whose selection had been announced just two days earlier will do: visit the campus and speak to the students and faculty. But without the money, or the title. “I see more clearly now,” Elmendorf wrote, “that many people view a Visiting Fellow title as an honorific, so we should weigh that consideration when offering invitations.” In effect, his statement created a lower tier of invitee: people who may visit, but unofficially. Elmendorf’s claim that he had not understood that being designated a Visiting Fellow was an “honorific” is simply peculiar. By his actions, he has revealed that it is, and that everyone knew it.
In this sense, Elmendorf’s statement also implies that the other three Visiting Fellows, whose titles were not rescinded—unlike Manning’s—do “share our values.” Significantly, these three men are not uncontroversial individuals either. One of them is Corey Lewandowski, who served as Donald Trump’s presidential campaign manager. Lewandowski also was charged criminally for simple battery in March 2016, after allegedly assaulting a journalist during a Trump campaign rally.
We will never know what Manning might have taught students at Harvard’s Kennedy School. Elmendorf reportedly told her on the phone that Lewandowski and former Trump press secretary Sean Spicer would remain fellows because they “brought something to the table.” Manning might, of course, have had something to say about government secrecy, or the facts she exposed, including the U.S. cover-up of killings of civilians by American soldiers in Iraq. A second policy issue she might have “brought to the table” is discrimination based on an individual’s criminal record or status as formerly incarcerated—an issue that was roiling Harvard’s campus last week even before Elmendorf’s decision.
Crucially, having Chelsea Manning speak would not damage Harvard—nor does anything she has to say pose the slightest risk of endangering national security. But I want to highlight a third policy issue about which Manning has expertise: a disproportionate share of the more than two million people America keeps in cages are transgender, and these trans prisoners are subjected to inhumane practices, including isolation, violence, and the systematic denial of medical care.
Manning’s life story is, as everyone knows, sui generis. When she formally petitioned President Obama for a commutation of her sentence last November, the ACLU described her as “the longest serving whistleblower in the history of the United States.” She joins Daniel Ellsberg and Edward Snowden as one of the best-known leakers in American military history. In August 2013, she joined a very few public figures—including Christine Jorgensen (1952) and Lana Wachowski (2012)—whose coming out as transgender was treated as headline news around the world. (Caitlyn Jenner joined that group later, in 2015.) Manning is the only person at the center of this particular Venn diagram.
Because she was already identified as a leaker, the revelation that Manning was also a member of one of America’s most despised minorities produced a vitriolic reaction. Coming out as trans, of course, is risky for everyone: Jenner, a conservative and a Trump supporter, was also greeted with mockery and rejection from some quarters. In two important ways, however, Manning’s disclosure differed from others. First, at the time that she came out as trans, Manning had been widely known—for years, in fact—as a gay man. Second, and perhaps more importantly, she was incarcerated at the time of her disclosure. As a result, she had far less control over how the public processed this information about her.
For many Americans, perhaps most, Chelsea Manning should be judged solely on the basis of what she did as a military analyst in 2010. But for many LGBTQ people, it also matters that she was, from 2013 to 2017, by far the best-known trans prisoner in a country that locks up more of its citizens than any other—and that she waged a long and ultimately remarkably successful struggle from behind bars to get access to medical care. After more than a year of litigation, she became the first person to receive health care related to gender transition—in particular, hormones—while in a U.S. military prison. Later, after a four-day hunger strike, the government agreed last September to grant her request for surgery (the other form of medical care that trans people most commonly need). Though President Obama’s commutation of her sentence in January meant the U.S. never fulfilled her request, no one can deny that these were tremendous breakthroughs for the visibility of health care access for trans prisoners.
Regardless of what anyone thinks of the crimes that she committed in 2010, as Obama noted, she served serious time for them. As a trans prisoner, she was, for four years, a committed activist in her own defense, and every battle she won expanded possibilities for other prisoners. She petitioned President Obama to commute her sentence partly based on the abuse she suffered for being trans while incarcerated. That too was successful. And even the battles she lost—her military jailers never let her conform to the female grooming code—raised awareness and are likely to lead other incarcerated activists to pick up where she left off.
Manning’s particular life experiences are highly unusual. Being trans and incarcerated in America, by contrast, is actually very common. Indeed, trans and other gender non-conforming people in America are vastly disproportionately unemployed, poor, homeless, arrested, and locked up. A crime for which trans women, in particular, are often incarcerated is sex work. In 2011 almost half of trans and other gender non-conforming prisoners surveyed in Pennsylvania were confined by the court for that reason. A quarter of those in custody reported having been sexually assaulted by prison staff. Ninety percent reported verbal harassment by other prisoners. In a horrific case, Lambda Legal won the right of a prisoner who had been raped and otherwise brutally assaulted in six different Texas prisons finally to be housed separately from other prisoners.
Across America’s vast carceral state, moreover, these disparities intersect with racism. For instance, a Lambda Legal survey of LGBTQ people found that they were about twice as likely to report being physically searched by police, and twice as likely to have their LGBTQ identity raised in court when it was not at issue, if they were also a person of color.
Sexual assault is common in prison, but on the inside, trans people receive unique forms of abuse—which, since U.S. prisons are segregated by sex, begins from the very moment they are taken into custody: trans women are housed in men’s prisons, and trans men in women’s prisons. Another important way trans prisoners are abused is through denial of medical care. A 2016 report sponsored by the Center for American Progress (CAP) assembles data on numerous ways American prisons hurt trans and other LGBTQ people, with compelling individual stories. Sixty percent of all trans people receiving hormones in New York City jails had filed complaints regarding denial of medical care, and “virtually all” said medical staff were untrained or hostile.
When I teach about this, I use the 2013 episode of HBO’s “Orange is the New Black” in which Sophia (Laverne Cox) has her hormones reduced because of budget cuts. She asks the prison warden to see a doctor. He says, “You can’t go to the clinic unless it’s an emergency.” So Sophia grabs a bobble-head toy from the warden’s desk and swallows it in order to create an emergency. Sophia’s fictional predicament is all too real for incarcerated trans people. A 2015 survey found that 44 percent of trans prisoners reported being denied access to hormones.
Being trans also makes a prisoner even likelier to suffer other forms of very harsh punishment that are common throughout America’s enormous system of prisons and jails. The 2015 survey found that 85 percent of trans respondents had been held in solitary confinement—as Manning was for nearly a year, which the United Nations special rapporteur for torture specifically designated as cruel, inhuman, and degrading. The federal government’s own data show that trans prisoners report being sexually assaulted by prison staff at a rate seven times that of all inmates. Even if you believe Manning is a traitor, it remains the case that the many trans prisoners in America’s sites of incarceration suffer needlessly every day. Activists have fought for years to change this profoundly unjust situation, and Manning is prominent among them.
On the day that Manning came out as trans, the leading LGBTQ media watchdog group issued guidance calling it “imperative” for journalists to use her preferred name and gender pronoun. The New York Times and the Associated Press both took five days before doing so. The same day that these two organizations corrected themselves, a list of major news organizations was published that revealed that most were still referring to her by her birth name and gender. Fox News broadcast pictures of Manning over the Aerosmith song, “Dude (Looks Like a Lady).”
Today, four years later, those things would be much less likely to happen if a public figure announced they were transitioning. In part, that is the result of decisions Manning made and battles she fought. There are other things that I know for sure. There are trans people all over America, some out, some not. Because of Chelsea Manning, some of them will have a better life. Many people like me have trans friends, partners, lovers, exes, coworkers, children, parents, bosses, classmates, students, and teachers.
Elmendorf is not the first Harvard administrator to face public pressure from a government official. In 1953, Senator Joseph McCarthy charged that Harvard president Nathan M. Pusey was “harboring Communists” on the faculty. McCarthy demanded that Pusey fire physics professor Wendell Furry for not cooperating with the Senate Investigations Committee. If Pusey refused, McCarthy threatened to arouse the parents of America against Harvard. But Pusey coolly defied him, telling the world that Harvard would rest on its reputation.
Since that time, Harvard has changed in many ways. Its prestigious Graduate School of Public Administration, too, has changed, including being renamed after a recently assassinated president. For other changes in the Kennedy School’s future—including having its first transgender Visiting Fellow—we still wait.
Timothy Stewart-Winter is an associate professor of history at Rutgers University-Newark and a visiting faculty fellow at the Charles Warren Center for Studies in American History at Harvard University.