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Dec 05 2012

US v. Bradley Manning: Being transgender doesn’t mean you’re unstable

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.

19 comments

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  1. 1
    Tigger_the_Wing, Back home =^_^=

    Indeed, trans* people are everywhere; some living as their preferred gender, some as their assigned-at-birth gender, some alternating.

    None of that, of itself, implies anything out of the ordinary with regard to the mental state of the person concerned or that they pose any risk of any kind whatsoever to themselves or anyone else.

    I’ve read and heard enough about the US military and civilian judicial systems though to have very little hope or expectation that anyone caught up in either has much of a chance of being treated fairly.

  2. 2
    Abdul Alhazred

    On the other hand, being considered as having some sort of (officially so called) mental disorder may be an extenuating circumstance at the trial for “aiding the enemy”.

  3. 3
    bobhoniker

    Nothing can excuse Manning’s treasonous acts.
    He enlisted of his own free will after being informed of the rules and regulations. He violated those rules and regulations of his own free will.
    Manning’s actions endangered the lives of all those who serve this Nation, and the security of this Nation.
    Anything less than severe penalties will be insult to ALL those who serve honorably.

    1. 3.1
      baal

      So detain and prosecute him like any other potential lawbreaker. That’s not what has been happening.

      The problem is that bradley manning has been subjected to conditions and treatment that used to be called unconstitutional (when done by other nations). Manning’s treatment (and the military telling everyone about ti) looks specifically designed to discourage anyone else from leaking. You leak? Fine, you’ll be semi-tortured and we may or may not think about giving you a fair trial. This isn’t a legal process so much as psi-ops.

      1. bobhoniker

        In the normal military process Manning would have been tried. convicted or acquitted long ago.
        Considerations of “political correctness” have turned this whole damned mess into a circus.
        It isn’t difficult to imagine the noise if Manning had been allowed to commit suicide while in custody. The military isn’t about to let that happen just because the resulting security measures hurt Manning’s feelings.

        1. Sassafras

          So they subjected Manning to inhumane treatment in order to be more politically correct? Because even under ridiculous strawman versions of “political correctness”, I can’t see how that works.

          1. bobhoniker

            You won’t find many individuals in the military who don’t feel betrayed by Manning. Now there is all this business about how much harm was done, were his motives noble, etc. To the military code of honor that’s all a bunch of crap. Manning had no more business enlisting than if he had decided to be a deckhand on an Alaskan King crab boat during the winter season.
            The military structure can only change so much and still be able to do the jobs it is called to do.

        2. Sassafras

          Haha, so now possible abuse and war crimes are just a bunch of crap to the military code of honor.

          1. bobhoniker

            Which “war crimes” are you referring to?

          2. nathanaelnerode

            Collateral Murder, Mr. Bob Honiker.

    2. 3.2
      Gerrilea

      Sir, you’re full of it. Show us proof the documents released to a legitimate news agency hurt anyone in a combat role. Hell, show us that they hurt anyone.

      They did reveal to the American people the corruption & crimes being committed in our names. They did reveal that our military is establishing an economic occupation to enrich our corporate overlords.

      Did those “rules & regulations” grant our military the authority to target & kill wounded children, journalists and/or combatants? NO!

      Did they grant immunity to commit war crimes & crimes against humanity? NO!

      Where’s your “duty & honor & country”, Sir?

      You do not get to redefine “treason”, see Constitution, Article 3, Section 3. Note contained in that section is the authority for Congress to determine the punishment. Nowhere does it state that military guards can bring their own “justice” to anyone before they’ve been convicted of any crimes.

      Manning is a hero, not a traitor. Your unwillingness or inability to understand the difference is a shame on us all.

      1. bobhoniker

        Bradly Manning was not in a position to decide what might or might not harm fellow American troops and I’m not convinced he even cared if he did do harm.
        He was a misfit in the military, was unhappy with his assignments and was simply pitching a hissy fit.
        He deserves hanging!

        1. Gerrilea

          If Manning didn’t inform the American people of the crimes being committed, then they would continue, would they not?

          Or do you believe that the military is above the law and criminal actions shouldn’t be made public? If reporting criminal acts puts those who committed them in harms way, then it’s very simple, DON’T DO IT.

          Blaming Manning for others war crimes & crimes against humanity is an Orwellian plot twist.

          Whether Manning liked the job is immaterial. You are attempting to psycho-analyze motive, are you a doctor? Could you present us with your credentials?

          So, being transgendered is now defined as a “misfit”? Then Sir you are defending & justifying these Crimes Against Humanity. Having a lawfully recognized medical condition is now a crime. When you get cancer, remind us to treat you the same way Manning has been treated, then remind us that you should be hanged for it!

          1. jakc

            Abusive treatment of prisoners is considered a war crime. Does the treatment of Manning rise to that standard? I don’t know, but given that we did torture prisoners at Guantanamo, sadly, it’s not something we can rule out-of-hand.

            As for all this frothing at the mouth about Bradley Manning, well, I’ll believe you’re sincere when you start demanding that Henry Kissinger be arrested for war crimes.

          2. nathanaelnerode

            Kissinger should of course have been arrested for war crimes. And Bradley Manning should be out on bail.

        2. dab

          After reading how self-righteous and full of pious platitudes you are, I’d welcome the release of more information of any kind just to piss you off more. Get over yourself.

          Also, why so angry? I mean, if you want to convey the impression that such leaks are completely without any potential benefit because the military has nothing to hide, then you should not appear so enraged when they emerge.

          Finally, your question of whether Bradley cared about anyone else in the military could easily be hinted at by material such as the chat logs linked in this very post, where he talks quite a lot about how one of his main concerns in the military, despite any misgivings he might have had, was the safety of everyone around him.

        3. gworroll

          I’d agree that he was reckless in the amount of information he released. Some stuff is classified for good reason, and there’s no way in hell he could have vetted all those documents himself. It would be a stretch to even vet the document titles for even possibly containing evidence.

          That being said, it does appear that while he may have been reckless, his intention was to expose wrongdoing committed by US personnel. The intent was honorable as far as I can tell. While this does not erase guilt, it’s worth considering as a mitigating factor.

          Additionally, his pretrial conditions have been inhumane and the trial has been delayed beyond all reason. This is reaching Mitnick levels of hilarity in confinement without trial.

          Also- you have to look at precedent- what sentences have been handed down for other, similar acts? Clayton Lonetree was a US Marine guard at the US Embassy in Moscow. He was compromised by a Soviet agent, and blackmailed into handing over classified material regarding the embassy and CIA operations. Not publicizing it with an honorable intent, he knew it was wrong, period, he was just a slave to the wrong head. He got 30 years, later reduced to 15, of which he was released after serving 9 years in prison. Given this precedent, why should Manning hang? When Mannings intentions were far more honorable?

  4. 4
    Gerrilea

    Thank you for this information. Why is it that we are now finding out the truth here?

    Our “progressive” President is anything but. This is what I voted for? The torturous treatment of my fellow transgendered persons?

    Ughhhhhhh!

  5. 5
    nathanaelnerode

    Seriously, people, even people with clear and consistent cisgender identities in their personal lives, have been using transgendered alter egos in *letters and writing* for, uh, EVER, or at least for several thousand years.

    What the hell is wrong with Manning’s torturers? Blening appears to have a severe case of transphobia.

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