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Chelsea Manning and the Pain, But Mostly Joy, of Coming Out as Transgender
When Chelsea Manning (formerly known as Bradley) came out publicly via a written statement to popular US TV show, The Today Show, a jumble of thoughts raced through my mind.
I felt a rush of pride and solidarity, and a voice inside me cried, ‘Yes!’ For a fleeting few seconds the news existed in a vacuum, protected from society and its normative strictures. In that moment, her statement was a freedom-cry, a deep and cleansing exaltation and a defiant stride towards well-being. Chelsea’s first autonomous act after years of having every movement and utterance dictated for her, is also one of the scariest and exciting things a person can do. It points to a courage and self-awareness far removed from the weak and troubled character imposed on her by the prosecution and mainstream public.
Rather than marvel at the news, I marvelled at the relief she must be feeling. Most of those familiar with Manning’s trial would have been far from surprised. Chelsea’s gender identity has been discussed on several occasions in court and many supporters have long since felt uncomfortable using the name ‘Bradley’, only doing so because she requested as much, presumably to keep things as clearly focused as possible in an already complex legal process. Now though, trial and sentencing over with, she can be herself. Perhaps only trans people can appreciate the counter-intuitive sense in which her guilty verdict and 35-year prison sentence must feel liberating. That said, her statement's rapid appearance suggests as much is true.
Following hard upon, and all but swallowing up my sense of pride, came a surge of anxiety, anticipating the deluge of online abuse her announcement would unleash. The digital realm will, of course, provide ample space for the opportunistic, the insensitive, the ill-informed, the bigoted and the trolls to add their two cruel cents. I worried for her, for vulnerable transgender people everywhere and, perhaps selfishly, for myself. You can never be sure when an anonymous slur, or misguided comment from a public figure, will skewer the bull’s eye of your own insecurities, no matter how long ago or how publicly you yourself came out.
However, I, and many other fellow trans* men and women (the asterisk denotes all gender variations and fluidities), will steel ourselves by remembering again the relief Chelsea’s public coming out must have afforded her. When I resolved to be honest with the world, ”the world” in reality meant my friends and family. Now that, as a journalist and transman, I’m writing my first article about an explicitly trans issue, my world might get very slightly bigger. However, Chelsea Manning really has come out to the world, and the terrifying scale of that is, I suspect, matched by the immense weight that has been lifted off her. There were a lot more people misgendering Chelsea than I, or the vast majority of transgender people have ever had to cope with, not to mention the ceaseless speculation about her private life and state of mind.
So, I would say, to myself and to others, do not worry about Chelsea Manning. She’s just letting us know who she really is. She's letting non transgender people know that it's fine. Any confusion you feel about her gender and sexuality is not her problem. This is point were her issues end and yours, perhaps, begin. So, if at any point you find yourself struggling to decide whether or not you care about Chelsea Manning’s, or any trans* person’s gender, take solace in knowing that those people definitely do not care back. Think of it this way; by coming out in the first place, they were just keeping you in the loop.