How do you Solve a Problem like Chelsea Manning? – A moral framework for interpreting the actions of WikiLeaks’ most notorious transgender snitch

It is rare for a transgender person to become the subject of media interest for something they have done rather than something they are.  Usually, when transsexuals attract the attention of TV, magazines or the internet, it is because they satisfy a prurient interest in what they are wearing, how much they have spent on plastic surgery, or how so-much-like sexy women they appear.  Caitlyn Jenner might make some trite and genteel comments to Donald Trump about the policy vacuum that characterises his presidency; or a sex-swap couple might carp about how ordinary they are by adopting a baby; or – if we’re really lucky – we might be invited to leer at what a film director, boxing promoter or ex-marine looks like now they’ve had the op…  The menu of transgender role-models offered by the media is woefully under-nourishing.  The case of Chelsea Manning stands out, therefore, because it concerns someone who has done something interesting as well as change their sex.  Manning’s gender history is a mere footnote to her story.  Your opinion regarding Manning’s leak of American military data to WikiLeaks in 2010 will depend entirely on your view of post-conventional ethics, but there is no denying that it is refreshing to read about someone who is in the news who has changed their sex, but for whom that change of sex is the least interesting thing about them.


Chelsea Manning was born Bradley Manning in Oklahoma in 1987.  Her parents separated in 2001, and she lived with her mother in Wales for a while, before moving back to the US in 2005.  Of the internet gossip that swills around concerning Manning’s biography at this time, there are titbits about her confiding to friends as an adolescent that she thought she was gay; about her mother attempting suicide in 1998; and about Manning contacting a gender counsellor to discuss the possibility of sex-change surgery.  By engaging in such lurid speculation about Manning’s formative experiences of gender-roles and sexuality, I have demonstrated how easy it is to fall into the trap of making the gender history of a gender nonconforming individual the foreground to any discussion of their later actions.  Any adumbration of Manning’s psycho-sexual proclivities should be – at the very most – of marginal relevance to consideration of her behaviour whilst serving in Baghdad for the United States navy.

Being transgender should be as secondary to someone’s reputation as anyone else’s biological gender ought to be.  That said, however, it is tempting to speculate that a heightened sensitivity to the morality of conflict and oppression, and a hyper-developed sense of empathy for the suffering of others (even those we have never met) could be symptomatic of growing-up transgender.  When your life is peppered with disappointment and thwarted expectations, it is easy to get angry when you see similarly unfair treatment being eked out on others – especially when that treatment originates from state institutions with vested interests in perpetuating the social, political and economic status quo.

Such musings aside, Manning showed considerable aptitude for computer programming at school, and joined the US navy as an intelligence analyst at the age of 19.  She was posted to Iraq in October 2009, where her job granted her access to sensitive and privileged military data.  Troubled by what she learned about the civilian casualties of American strategy during her first tour of duty in Iraq, Manning made her first contact with WikiLeaks in January 2010.  By April, WikiLeaks had posted a video of a 2007 airstrike on Baghdad by American helicopters, that Manning had smuggled out of Iraq on an SD card whilst on leave.  The video showed two helicopters firing on groups of Iraqi civilians, with the second helicopter targeting a van that had stopped to help a man who had been wounded in the previous airstrike.  Among the crowd were Reuters journalists: the helicopter crew had mistaken their cameras for weapons.  Two children were in the van: they were both wounded.  Their father was killed.  Perhaps the most shocking element of the recordings, however, are the audible comments of members of the helicopter crews.  Post-traumatic stress disorder had clearly taken its toll on them, with their speech suggesting they had become completely detached from what they were doing; their psychological connection to the bombing raids had been reduced to the emotional neutrality of playing a video game.  When the crew are informed that a child has been injured in their attack, one soldier can be heard saying, “Ah, damn.  Oh, well: it’s their fault for bringing kids into a battle.”

Amongst Manning’s other submissions to WikiLeaks were the 2011 Guantánamo Files – a list of prisoners that had been held at the Guantánamo Bay detention camp since 2002.  The Files show that the American Government’s claim that Guantánamo was a facility for detaining dangerous militants was false, and that most prisoners were deemed as not posing any threat to national security.  Many of them had been held for periods of over five years, in the hope that information could be extracted from them by means of torture.  The Files also showed that nearly one hundred prisoners were suffering from depressive and psychotic illnesses, and that the list of inmates included an 89-year-old man with dementia, and a 14-year-old boy who had found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time as a result of being kidnapped from his home-village by the Taliban.

Frame - Chelsea Manning
Snitch! – Chelsea Manning poses for a selfie when she really should be focusing her attention on the road

Manning was arrested in May 2010, and charged with leaking classified information.  In July that year, she was moved the Quantico Marine Corps Base in Virginia, where she was held for up to 23 hours a day in a solitary cell.  When Manning’s court-martial concluded at Forte Meade, Maryland, in August 2013, she was found guilty of twenty offences under the Espionage Act.  She was sentenced to a prison sentence of 35 years – chiefly for the crime of leaking US state secrets to the WikiLeaks website – but cleared of the more serious offence of ‘aiding the enemy’, which would have meant serving her punishment in solitary confinement.

During Manning’s trial and subsequent imprisonment, international newspapers published the Guantánamo Files, along with other material she had passed on to Julian Assange.  These included 250,000 US embassy communications, which exposed diplomats’ true feelings about their postings, and exposed widespread corruption in regimes across the Middle East; and the Iraq War Logs, which revealed that, of the 150,000 Iraqi deaths recorded during the American invasion of 2004-2009, as many 80 percent of casualties had been civilians.

The day after sentencing, Manning’s lawyer announced her wish to be known as Chelsea, but it took until April 2014 for her request to be recognised under Kansas state law.  Whilst United States legislation does provide help for gender dysphoric prisoners, in 2014, transgender individuals were prohibited from serving in the US military.  This policy meant that the hormone treatment and counselling accessible under certain circumstances to civilian prisoners was not available in military gaols.  It took two law-suits and another eleven months before Manning was permitted hormone therapy, although she was never allowed to grow her hair beyond the regulation length for a male prisoner, use cosmetics, or to have any female-specific pronouns used in her prison records.  She tried to take her own life twice in 2016 – once in July, and again in November, straight after being put in solitary confinement as punishment for her first suicide attempt.

Frame - Prisoners
Does my shiv look big in this? – for transgender prisoners, there can be no guarantees of access to the feminising comfort blankets that biological women take for granted

In January 2017, President Barack Obama announced that Chelsea Manning’s sentence was being commuted, and, on May 17th, she was released from Fort Leavenworth penitentiary in Kansas.  Now: your opinion of whether Chelsea Manning is a hero or a traitor depends almost entirely on where you stand regarding post-conventional ethics.

The American psychologist, Lawrence Kohlberg (1927-1987) began developing his theory of moral development in his 1958 doctoral dissertation.  In this paper, Kohlberg outlined three levels of moral development (divided into two stages each), which describe the development of human moral reasoning.  The first level, Kohlberg maintained, was that of pre-conventional ethics.  At this level, human ethical decisions are made according to self-interest (What is in this for me?) and individuals’ orientations towards obedience and punishment (What course of action will help me avoid being punished? in other words).

At the second level – that of conventional ethics – individuals make decisions based on their desire to conform to social norms (such the accepted way in which boys and girls should dress and behave), adherence to contracts of employment, and their orientation towards authority, social order and the law.  An employee who chooses to turn a blind eye to a morally dubious practice in order to keep their job or protect the reputation of the company, for example, is practicing conventional ethics.

The third type, or post-conventional code, is the most highly developed level of ethical reasoning.  At this stage, the individual makes decisions according to universal ethical principles that transcend concern for personal security or the quiet life.  Whistle-blowers are the archetypal post-conventionalists: people like Chelsea Manning, who decide that they cannot keep quiet about something they see as a moral outrage, no matter what the personal costs for them might be.  This level of morality requires abstract reasoning, and an ability to see far beyond the immediate needs of the self.  When an individual acts according to a post-conventional ethical code, they do so categorically and deontologically, with the greater good and the moral advancement of society as a whole as their primary concern, rather than the protection of short-term interests and the avoidance of censure.

Chelsea Manning’s sacrifice must thus be judged according to Kohlberg’s framework.  I’m not going to tell anyone what to think, but it can be argued that the very nature of American involvement in the Middle East (including the closure of Guantánamo Bay detention camp) changed as a direct result of Manning’s preparedness to face court-martial and imprisonment for what she believed.  If, after chewing over that philosophical morsel, you still prefer your transgender role-models to sing at Eurovision, act in TV prison dramas, or be related to the Kardashians, then you really need to rethink your priorities.

Frame - Drag Queen Story Hour
Drag Queen Story Hour – in which drag queens read stories… for an hour

All transgender people act according to post-conventional ethics when they take the step of refusing to conform not a minute longer to the social expectations of the traditional gender binary.  For transsexuals, there are always consequences to the choices they make, whether they be marginalisation or denial of advancement at work, estrangement from friends or family, and the occasional mouthful of vigorous abuse from a stranger on the street.  How galling it can be, then, to learn that public libraries in Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco are choosing to promote tolerance and understanding of transgender people by hiring drag queens to read to groups children; to discover that the chosen representatives of my community include Honey Mahogany, Tempest DuJour and Alaska Thunderfuck.

Drag Queen Story Hour was launched in December 2015, and involves pretty much what it says on the tin: drag queens in Carmen Miranda wigs, taffeta gowns and platform heels descending on public libraries, schools and bookshops in Brooklyn and neighbourhoods of San Francisco and Los Angeles every weekend lunchtime to read stories to children.  The aim of the project, in the words of its website, is to create an environment which captures the imagination and play of the gender fluidity of childhood and gives kids glamorous, positive, and unabashedly queer role models.  In spaces like this, kids are able to see people who defy rigid gender restrictions and imagine a world where people can present as they wish; where dress-up is real.”

Whilst it would be churlish not to applaud any in-your-face showboating of alternative lifestyles and flaunting of gender diversity – especially in educational contexts – I remain unconvinced that drag queens are the best ambassadors for this.  Drag queens are performers, after all; entertainers who adopt personas in order to provide amusement.  In traditional drag (such as that embodied by the British institution of the pantomime dame), the entertainment (or artform, if you will) only really works if the performer communicates the idea that they aren’t really enjoying what they are doing; if their performance is constantly haunted by the suggestion that they were somehow coerced into this grotesque parody of femininity, and are humiliating themselves solely for the pleasure of the crowd.  Furthermore, drag does not blur the lines between the sexes; it does not generate curiosity about gender by offering ambiguity and challenging stereotypes.  Rather, drag is an exaggerated pastiche of female behaviour, sexuality and sartorial habits, and is, by definition, an attention-seeking performance-art that trades on bawdy jokes and sexual innuendo.  Drag is not, in short, an amusement designed for children.

What is most disappointing, however, is that the enthusiastic kiddies of Brooklyn and San Francisco are not being exposed to gender non-conforming people who live everyday lives – who go about the humdrum business of earning a living as a member of a gender to which they were not assigned at birth.  It is as if, in those American libraries, the organisers of Drag Queen Story Hour are nervous of allowing children to meet actual transsexuals and homosexuals; that the founder of Drag Queen Story Hour, Michelle Tea, is only brave enough to expose children to alternative lifestyles provided it is through the sanitised filters of performance, ostentation, camp and exaggeration.  Drag, like all pretence, distances the performer from their audience – it does not bring the two of them closer together.  When, one Saturday lunchtime at San Francisco Public Library, six-year old James Mendenhall asked how, if she had been born a boy, Honey Mahogany had acquired breasts, I just wish he’d been asking J (the British transwoman forced to leave her community of north Manchester Charedi Jews) why a judge had told her in 2017 that she couldn’t see her children anymore.  Now that would have been educational.


The Drag Queen Story Hour website can be found here…

My analysis of the case of J and the Charedi Jewish community of north Manchester can be read here…                    

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