In September, when Douglas Elmendorf, the dean of the Harvard Kennedy School, revoked Chelsea Manning’s invitation to be a visiting fellow there, the decision had little to do with issues of LGBT identity in the military, the topic central to Manning’s participation in the program. Instead, Elmendorf seemed to bend to pressure from prominent intelligence officials including CIA Director Mike Pompeo, who canceled an appearance at the university in protest, saying it was “shameful for Harvard to place its stamp of approval upon [Manning’s] treasonous actions.” The dean, and by extension Harvard, appeared to be taking sides in a divisive American debate. Was Manning’s leak of some 750,000 classified and sensitive documents to WikiLeaks in 2010 while working as a U.S. Army intelligence analyst in Iraq justified because it revealed U.S. wartime transgressions? (Among the disclosures was evidence of a U.S. airstrike in 2007 that killed two Reuters employees and a dozen civilians in Iraq.) Or was it a betrayal that endangered the lives of American service members?
At first, the answer seemed clear, at least to the U.S. government: In 2013, a military court convicted Manning, then a soldier in the U.S. Army, on numerous charges, including six Espionage Act violations, and sentenced her to serve 35 years in prison at Fort Leavenworth. While incarcerated, Manning announced that she identified as female and came out as a transgender woman.
Things got more complicated at the beginning of 2017, however, when just three days before leaving office, President Barack Obama commuted Manning’s sentence. After seven years in prison, “justice has been served,” Obama declared. Human rights groups (and a host of celebrities) lauded the announcement, while others, including Republican Sen. John McCain, called her release a “grave mistake” that would inevitably “encourage further acts of espionage and undermine military discipline.”
Manning became an all-purpose exemplar in a divided America: a “leaker” speaking necessary truths to corrupt power; a treasonous threat; and a transgender pioneer whose requests for hormone therapy and treatment for gender dysphoria were initially denied in prison, leaving her suicidal on multiple occasions. Her plight drew attention from around the world; in 2012, the U.N. special rapporteur on torture called her treatment “cruel” and “inhuman.”
To be a living symbol is to be objectified. So Manning decided to do something about it. Following her release in May, Manning began to align herself with various movements, becoming a public spokesperson for social activism. And she has used her growing social media profile to build a powerful brand. Her jubilant tweets opposing President Donald Trump (“there is more to politics than elections #WeGotThis”) and promoting LGBT rights and whistleblower protection reach more than 300,000 followers every day.
Yet controversy has inevitably followed. During an interview with NBC News in January, Dean Spade, a transgender activist and professor at the Seattle University School of Law, called Manning an “immensely important figure for the trans movement,” while Dana Beyer, the executive director of Gender Rights Maryland, cautioned against hero worship, noting that “the community is divided on [Manning’s] actions.”
These days, Manning travels the country, supporting groups like Black Lives Matter. Recently, she participated in an anti-hate rally protesting white supremacy in Berkeley, California. She also plays video games, writes articles for the New York Times, and reads. Still, she says, this new public persona was merely incidental; Manning claims that she had hoped to disappear from view after leaving prison but that media attention on her case has placed her in the spotlight.
“I came out of prison, and the world is a different place. It’s scary out here,” she says. “I see how [pervasive] problems I anticipated in Iraq have [found] their way into our society today.” Which, she adds, is “what I was worried about in the first place.”
Jenna McLaughlin is a staff writer at Foreign Policy.
Manning collects emoji pillows: She currently owns three different smiley-face yellow emoji pillows. (She’s still looking for one with sunglasses.)