A Letter to Chelsea Manning

Dear Chelsea,

You’re making a habit out of revealing dangerous pieces of information. First, you exposed the war crimes of an imperialist state. The United States was already bursting at the seams with evidence of its most recent spate of murders in Iraq and Afghanistan; all you did was let that information out. And then, under the crushing weight of a government that displaced responsibility for its sins onto your shoulders, you were brave enough to tell us who you are: a woman named Chelsea from Oklahoma who wants to change her life, her body and her name.

On the night of your coming out, I’m scared for or you, for this country, for all of us. I’m scared because I don’t know which revelation was riskier for you: leaking the war documents or coming out as transgender. I’m worried that the white-hot hatred of a bigoted world will be too much to bear on top of a prison sentence, that the same government that condemned you will never look after women like us.

My heart breaks to know that your gender identity will imprison you twice over: jail is not kind to us and, within it, it’s near impossible to access the care that we so desperately need. You honored the lives of fallen innocents and, in return, your own life as Chelsea will be forcibly deferred. Your punishment is not a prison sentence; it’s a death sentence, a new death for every day that you are denied access to the care that you need to survive.

Right now, my transgender sisters and I are wincing in horror as we watch the news media fail spectacularly to respect your decision to change your name, your gender and your pronouns. You are in the unfortunate position of being a symbol. The media will flatten you into a caricature but we know the truth: if you are a symbol, you’re a polysemous one, a complex vehicle for discomfiting truths. Your announcement was an unwitting choice to be the transgender person of the moment, the center of a debate over the legitimacy of an entire group of people. In a life of undeserved consequences, this is perhaps the cruelest.

My sisters and I wish we could intervene. We’d send you hormones through the mail. We’d scrape the bottom of our purses for enough change to pay for anything you needed: clothes, electrolysis, surgery. So many of us are broke but we’d find a way to help. We are the community you couldn’t find in the military. We are an army of sorts: a geographically diffuse but compassionate body of fierce women who will care for you when no one else will. We’ll be here for you, wherever you are.

I saw your picture last week. You’re in a car wearing a cheap blonde wig and heavy eye makeup. It was like looking in a mirror. I have a dozen photos just like it. You were in the army at the time when it was taken. You attached it to an e-mail and told your superior that you “thought a career in the military would get rid of it,” that it would cure you of your desire to be Chelsea.

My own nascent transgender photos were taken at Brigham Young University, where I thought a life as a devout Mormon man would cure me of my desire to be Samantha. I bought a cheap wig and told the cashier that it was “for my girlfriend.” It looked alot like yours, actually. My makeup was garish, a sure sign of an untrained hand; I’ve toned it down over the years but I still remember the dramatic appeal of a wide swath of emerald above my eyes.

In your e-mail, you said:

. . . fear of getting caught has caused me to go to great lengths to consciously hide the problem. As a result, the problem and the constant cover-up has worn me down to a point where it’s always on my mind, making it difficult to concentrate at work, difficult to pay attention to whatever is going on, difficult to sleep, impossible to have any meaningful conversations, and makes my entire life feel like a bad dream that won’t end.

I know all too well what it’s like to sit in that car, trembling. I know the despair of a life half-lived, the mounting pressure of a persistent problem, the nightmarish sleeplessness of the closet, the shame of a hidden need. I wouldn’t wish that pain on anyone. In the midst of this discursive firestorm, as hundreds of stories crop up in your name, I wanted to say simply that you are understood and that your pain is known.

Tonight, folks across the world are campaigning for you to have two kinds of freedom: freedom from a vengeful government that disavows the wrongs it has committed and freedom from a society that circumscribes identificatory possibilities for people like us. We have twin struggles to fight but we’ll fight them because you were brave twice over.


Samantha Allen