Chelsea Manning, formerly Bradley Manning, has given an interview to Abigail Pesta of Cosmopolitan in which she discusses the struggle of coming out as transgender.
As “Bradley,” Manning orchestrated the largest leak of classified information in U.S. history before Edward Snowden when he passed 700,000 military and diplomatic documents to WikiLeaks.
In July 2013, a jury convicted the former US Army Private First Class of 19 counts, including seven counts of violating the Espionage Act, and acquitted Manning of the most serious charge of aiding the enemy.
Manning leaked the documents to “spark a domestic debate on the role of our military and foreign policy in general.”
He was was sentenced to 35 years in prison. At the sentencing hearing, Manning told the court: “The last few years have been a learning experience,” adding that he should have worked more “inside the system.”
After the sentencing, Manning announced: “I want everyone to know the real me. I am Chelsea Manning. I am a female.”
The 27-year-old corresponded with Cosmo through mail from military prison in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, because the military does not allow prisoners to speak with reporters by phone or in person.
Here are excerpts from the interview:
On dressing up in his sister’s clothes starting at age 5 or 6:
“I had always known that I was ‘different.’ I didn’t really understand it all until I got older. But there was always this foreboding sense something was ‘wrong.’ I never knew how to talk about it. I just remember feeling terrified about what would happen if someone found out. It was a very lonely feeling.”
On attempts to come out as transgender:
“There were a lot of points where I would start to come out, face stern resistance and mockery from people I thought were my friends, and then reverse course. I was scared. I don’t think I ever said ‘I’m gay’ or ‘I’m trans.’ It was more like, ‘Is it normal for guys to crossdress a lot?'”
On basic training:
“I absolutely was caught off guard by the intensity. There were points when I was humiliated pretty badly. One of the drill sergeants who inventoried my personal belongings made comments about my phone: It was pink. I didn’t think much about bringing it with me — I just liked it.”
On serving in Baghdad:
“Dealing with reams and reams of emails, memos, and reports of people dying around me every day — to the point it becomes just a statistic to many people — made me realise just how short and precious our lives really are. I could’ve been killed at any moment too. We all can, really. So what better day to start being ourselves than today, right? Yeah, it sounds tacky, but it’s absolutely true. When I went on leave in January 2010, I was comfortable dressing as a woman in public. I wouldn’t have been able to do that before I deployed to a combat zone.”
On time spent in solitary confinement at a military base in Virginia:
“I had to ask for permission to use a toothbrush, toothpaste, and toilet paper, and when I was done, I had to give these items back. I only got through it through humour. I just laughed at the entire situation. It became such a comical joke to me after a while. Unfortunately, you can’t reason with absurdity. It’s hard to lose your sanity when you’re living in such an insane situation.”
On how life would have been different if she’d felt comfortable coming out sooner:
“When I was a kid, I wanted to be in business or politics, like a CEO of a big corporation or a U.S. senator. There were also times I wanted to be an astronaut or a military officer. Yes, there were moments when I thought about doing this as a woman. When you’re a kid dreaming, anything seems possible. I think a lot of opportunities would have come easier to me if I had felt more comfortable and confident in my own skin, and not terrified of the world around me.”
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