San Francisco’s Pride Parade will take place on 29 June and will bring together activists for LGBT rights under the rallying cry of “Color our world with pride.” As usual, various officially recognized groups will take part in the march. But this year, among the multicolored sections of the parade, curious onlookers will be able to make out some people carrying a banner bearing an image. Among those marching, some will be there to defend and represent the colors, the figure and the appearance of someone who will be notable by her absence: Chelsea Manning, who will not be able to walk with them.

Locked up in the military correctional facility of Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, Manning will have served the first months of a 35-year sentence by the time the San Francisco Pride comes around. Why was she imprisoned? For sending WikiLeaks documents obtained while working as an intelligence agent for the American army in Iraq.

Given that Chelsea Manning is being held prisoner and out of the public gaze, she will have to be represented symbolically in order for the marchers to physically become one with her. And yet this famous prisoner is already a public figure, or rather an emblem. All on her own, Chelsea Manning already stands for the struggle for the recognition of LGBT identities. The organizing committee recently awarded her the honorary title of Grand Marshal for the 2014 Parade, as well as a new role, that of “public emissary.”

A double cause in person

Chelsea Manning’s support network was quick to make this information public on its website, encouraging everyone to show their support in the following terms:

This year we have more reason to celebrate the SF Pride 2014 parade in San Francisco: Heroic WikiLeaks whistleblower Chelsea Manning is being honored as an official Grand Marshal!

Chelsea Manning when she was known as Bradley Manning © United States Army | David Coombs (Manning's lawyer)
Chelsea Manning when she was known as Bradley Manning © United States Army | David Coombs (Manning’s lawyer)

This lighthearted call to join the Pride Parade demonstrates that Chelsea Manning today embodies a double cause: that of transgender people and that of whistleblowers. And yet, when soldier Manning appeared before the Court Martial in Fort Meade (Maryland) on August 21 2013 hearing the judgment which brought his trial to an end, sending him to prison, he was a man who answered to the name of Bradley.

In addition and despite her repeated requests since being sent to prison, the American army has still not given her permission to undertake the hormone therapy that would feminize her body — let’s not forget that up until 2011 the lives of gay and lesbian soldiers were governed by “Don’t ask, Don’t tell.” Finally, although a legal ruling enabled Bradley Manning to take the name Chelsea on April 23 2014, her/his papers still say s/he is a man.

So how did Chelsea Manning manage to take control of her existence, perform a gender identity that is recognizable and recognized by others, become an emblematic public figure and then a vehicle for political action?

The Today Show, Chelsea Manning’s birthplace

In order to answer these questions, we need to go back to August 22 2013 when Chelsea Manning was born, thanks to NBC’s Today Show. That was the day when Bradley Manning, in detention at the time, sent the television channel a press release in which he announced that he felt he had always been a woman and wished from now on to be known as “Chelsea.”

This self-declaration of gender identity was in fact pronounced by the Today Show journalist: when interviewing Manning’s attorney, she read out part of the press release. For a brief moment then, the journalist became Manning’s spokesperson and through her voice the whole world discovered that Manning was a male to female transsexual.

Chelsea Manning posing in a wig and lipstick © Chelsea Manning | U. S. Army Records Management and Declassification Agency
Chelsea Manning posing in a wig and lipstick © Chelsea Manning | U. S. Army Records Management and Declassification Agency

Once the request had been made, the journalist and the attorney continued the interview by referring to Manning as a woman. As the first people she had publicly asked to now address her as a female, they both responded positively, lending weight to her self-declaration of her identity. So it was that a television studio became the place where a gender transition occurred.

Activity on Wikipedia: Manning, Bradley or Chelsea?

But Manning’s announcement had lasting effects well beyond this limited arena. Within the confines of the global scene that is the online encyclopedia Wikipedia, there were energetic debates between contributors about whether or not the article called “Bradley Manning” should be renamed to reflect this newly acquired femaleness.

On the English-language version of Wikipedia, which has the most participants, discussion started on August 22 2013 and lasted about ten days. Debate was intense. Those opposed to a change were victorious since the name predominantly used by American and British media was deemed the most authentic. At that time in the English-speaking world, Manning was still most often referred to as “Bradley” and it was accepted that this form of identification should continue. However, following another discussion, at the beginning of October 2013 the page took on the new title “Chelsea Manning,” a name which had by then become publicly recognized, many media sources making use of it to refer to Manning.

Book cover of Oneself as Another by Paul Ricoeur © University of Chicago Press | Amazon
Book cover of Oneself as Another by Paul Ricoeur © University of Chicago Press | Amazon

Before the 22 August 2013 Today Show, among the inhabitants of the world that we all know, we counted and could identify a certain Bradley Manning. Transforming the gender identity of the American soldier, the television program gave birth to Chelsea Manning. The existence of Chelsea Manning was then recognized by various speakers: journalists, English-speaking contributors to Wikipedia, members of Manning’s support network and so on. Manning herself, helped by several artists, drew her own portrait in order to give a face to the person bearing the name “Chelsea.” Who as a result became even more recognizable.

As long as this name is spoken and repeated and as long as the body to which it refers is represented, the gender identity re-presented by Chelsea Manning will make up “a fragment of our experience of the world” (Paul Ricœur, Oneself as Another). Except for those who consult the French-language Wikipedia, which more or less reproduces the world as it is depicted by the French media: Chelsea Manning still doesn’t exist there and remains to this day “Bradley.”

In Chelsea Manning’s cinemascope

Having met with a positive reception in the “public realm” (Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition) Manning’s announcement to the Today Show deeply transformed the world to which we refer. Her announcement was diffracted in public by creating political realignments which follow the outlines of linguistic or national communities. How was that possible?

Chelsea Manning has turned her prison cell into a projection room for her own image. Although surrounded on all sides by high walls, this cinemascope has open up the possibility of putting perspectives into perspective, or in other words of an infinite number of mirrors. For the screen on which this figure is refracted has the crystal-clear size, thickness and depth of the public realm. Which is why the disturbing gender of Manning also works to reveal the many forms that can be taken by the sense of what is right in our democracies.

Wikipedia is made up of a collection of linguistic communities which correspond to national territories enforcing a more or less liberal policy. Articles on Wikipedia are underpinned by a varied and complex normative infrastructure, which organizes collective participation. Thrown into this universal and yet heterogeneous arena, the figure of Chelsea Manning projects a harsh light on the differentiated way in which this online encyclopedia allows subjective rights a place. Rights whose multicolored flag will be proudly carried at the 2014 San Francisco Pride Parade.

Originally published in sociopublique, translated from French by Joy Charnley.