I’ve usually avoided talking about the trial of Private Bradley Manning, given that I’ve been directly involved with this situation before and I probably will be in the future. But I feel that certain recent developments in the case deserve to be addressed.
Private Manning has been charged with various offenses relating to his alleged leaking of classified material to Wikileaks in 2009, including the “Collateral Murder” video, thousands of diplomatic cables of the State Department, and Army field reports from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The current phase of the trial is not about the charges against Manning, but rather about the conditions he was held in prior to the trial.
After he was arrested, he was detained in the brig at Marine Corps Base Quantico for nine months, and placed on suicide watch as well as “Prevention of Injury” status. During this time, he was effectively held in solitary confinement, he was not allowed to speak to other detainees, and he could only leave his cell for 20 minutes each day. He had to ask for toilet paper and then return it when he was done. He was required to remove all of his clothing at night and sleep naked, as well as stand at attention in the nude. Manning’s defense has been arguing that this treatment was unwarranted and constituted unlawful pretrial punishment. This could lead to the dismissal of some charges, or a reduction in sentencing. The prosecution, in turn, has argued that these conditions of his confinement were necessary and appropriate.
As part of this phase of the trial, the court heard the testimony of Master Sgt. Craig Blenis, who acted as Manning’s counselor during his detainment at Quantico. According to reporters covering the hearing, Blenis stated that Manning had sent two letters from the brig using the name “Breanna”, and he considered this a reason to place Manning on Prevention of Injury status. Blenis claimed that this was “not normal” and “not stable”.
There is a history of some uncertainty over how Manning identifies. Prior to his arrest, he had spoken to a gender counselor online, and said he felt that he was female. He told his superiors in the Army that he had gender identity disorder, which he talked about in his conversations with Adrian Lamo. He also set up Twitter and YouTube accounts under the name “Breanna Manning”, and listed this as an alias when he was first confined at Quantico. However, the Bradley Manning Support Network have stated that he prefers to be addressed as Bradley, and when I talked with people who are in close contact with Manning, they all told me he currently identifies as male.
None of this is conclusive, and anything is possible. People who are trans don’t always know it. For instance, when I spoke with Manning in 2009 prior to his alleged leaks, he identified as a gay man – and at the time, so did I. Sometimes, things change. On the other hand, people have at times explored the possibility that they have gender identity disorder, before concluding that this isn’t who they are.
In the absence of any concrete statements from Manning, it’s impossible to know for certain how he prefers to be known. But if his use of a female name was indeed one of the reasons why Manning was placed on a highly restrictive status, that’s a very troubling justification. This isn’t something that should necessarily be considered, in the words of MSgt. Blenis, “not normal”. For someone who’s transgender and identifies as a woman, the use of a name which they feel matches their identity is entirely normal. Likewise, being transgender doesn’t mean that someone is therefore “not stable” or is at risk of harming themselves. Can the condition of gender dysphoria sometimes cause enough distress to endanger someone’s well-being? Yes, but this is far from a certainty, and it doesn’t mean there’s an imminent risk that they’re going to commit suicide.
For example, this summer, I sought counseling because I identified as a woman and wanted to begin medical treatment. I was diagnosed with gender identity disorder after one short visit, and I was sent to a doctor who could provide the necessary treatment. At no time during this process did anyone suggest that because I’m transgender or because I use a female name, I must therefore be a suicide risk. They simply gave me the treatment I needed at the time. No one felt it was necessary to confine me in conditions where I was deprived of the most basic amenities so that I couldn’t harm myself, because that’s not what being transgender means. As Staff Sgt. Ryan Jordan testified at the hearing, this “depends on how that individual is affected by that”.
Jordan apparently did not see this as a significant reason to keep Manning on Prevention of Injury status, but it seems that Blenis did. It’s disturbing that Manning’s counselor was working with someone who may have gender identity disorder, while appearing to know very little about what the condition actually entails. It’s especially difficult to assume good faith on the part of Blenis given that he testified to having rejected a birthday package for Manning because “we felt like being dicks”. At a minimum, this calls into question whether he was capable of treating Manning fairly and acting as an effective advocate for him.
And while it’s certainly possible that there were other reasons to place Manning on this restrictive status, such as the fact that he acknowledged being suicidal after his arrest and tied a noose out of bedsheets while jailed in Kuwait, his gender identity alone probably wasn’t a very good reason to keep him under these conditions. Transgender people do not automatically need to be placed on suicide watch simply because of who they are. Trans people are everywhere, and you can’t just assume that someone who’s trans must be unstable or dangerous. It’s insulting and offensive to imply that they are, and I would hope that the professionals of our nation’s military can understand that.