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Trans Whistleblower Chelsea Manning Speaks Out on Life in Prison

After initiating the biggest intelligence leak in US military history, Manning is now serving 35 years in prison. She spoke to Amnesty International about growing up trans, her life behind bars, and the horrors of solitary confinement.
February 4, 2016, 3:50pm
Photo by Mark Wilson via Getty Images

Chelsea Manning was only 23 when she released almost 750,000 classified or sensitive US military documents to WikiLeaks, making her responsible for initiating the biggest information leak in American military history. Convicted in July 2013 of charges including espionage and theft, she is now serving 35 years in the maximum-security United States Disciplinary Barracks—a men's prison—in Fort Leavenworth.

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Long before Caitlyn Jenner came out on the cover of Vanity Fair, Manning was the country's most high-profile trans figure—albeit for reasons vastly different to Jenner. Like WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, Manning has been condemned by right- and left-wing politicians as a traitor and hailed by others as a revolutionary whistleblower. At one point, Manning even faced calls for her execution for reasons of treason.

In an Amnesty International podcast exclusively previewed on Broadly, Manning spoke of her isolated childhood in Oklahoma and Wales, her homelessness as a trans teen, the agony of solitary confinement, and her experience of transitioning while in prison.

Read more: Our Untold Stories: Trans People Defying Stereotypes

"My life was pretty rough," she said of growing up in rural Crescent, Oklahoma. "Unfortunately, both my parents drank heavily—and they could both get erratic and abusive." As a child, Manning sought solace on the internet and began communicating with people in IRC chatrooms, but still experienced feelings of isolation and loneliness.

"I just remember crying a lot and feeling weird. I felt like a freak. Other kids would pick up on things that I didn't quite understand. They would tease me a lot—'hey, girly boy,' 'you're so faggy,' 'you talk like a girl,' 'you walk like a little girl.'"

"It was a constant reminder of how different I was, and how little I understood the way people perceived me."

Free Chelsea posters at San Francisco Pride Parade. Photo via Flickr user torbakhopper

In her teens, Manning and her mother moved to Haverfordwest in Wales, England, where she "would buy makeup and girl's clothes at a thrift store—sneaking around like a kid trying to buy cigarettes or alcohol underage.

"I would wear the stuff for a bit and then throw it into a trash bag and throw it in a dumpster down the street in the orange glow of the street lights on misty nights. Then I would repeat the cycle a few weeks later."

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Before she left Oklahoma, Manning had already begun to question her gender identity, asking friends questions like, "Is it normal for me to feel like I am a girl, or that I feel attracted to guys?"

"People would be shocked by the questions—and I would suffer the consequences of my honesty in the rumors and slander that I would hear in school in the days following," she said. " I would deny everything and go into hiding for a couple of weeks until everybody forgot."

A mural calling for Chelsea Manning's release. Photo via Flickr user Timothy Krause

Instead, the teenaged Manning again sought refuge online. "Although there wasn't a huge trans community presence on the internet yet—during the early 2000s searching the term 'transgender' would still get you a lot of pornography sites—but there was a thriving gay community which I was able to identify with and feel at home talking to," she explained. "I made a lot of friends online. These were people who I knew very intimately even without knowing their names or what they looked like. The early internet was a very powerful anonymizer."

But after leaving the UK at 18 to move back in with her father and his new wife, Manning found herself on the streets. "Unfortunately, it's a typical experience for many queer and trans youth even today," Manning said. According to the National Center for Transgender Equality, one in five trans people will experience homelessness at some point in their lives.

After getting kicked out of her father's house, Manning traveled around the Midwest and finally ended up sleeping rough in Chicago. "Volunteer homeless shelters were very anti-gay and anti-trans and required you to attend prayer ceremonies, so I avoided those."

They would yell things like, 'Don't move, freak!' or, 'Give me a reason to shoot you, scumbag!'

She described regular police harassment "every other night" and feared that she would be sent to jail. "Sometimes [police] would start yelling at me, pulling me out of the car. They would yell things like, 'Don't move freak!' or 'Give me a reason to shoot you, scumbag!' I would sometimes sit in handcuffs behind me on the curb of a street, or the dewy grass of a drainage ditch, and get questioned on whether I had any warrants out for my arrest, or if I had drugs, or if I was soliciting for prostitution, or—whatever… I was just a street kid to them."

In 2007, Manning was "really starting to struggle" with her gender identity and was even trying to work up the courage to talk about it with a therapist. That summer, she signed up to enlist in the military, feeling that "maybe the army would 'man' me up, so to speak, by instilling certain expectations on me so that I would be more masculine."

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She was eventually assigned as an all-source intelligence analyst and deployed to Iraq. "I didn't talk to very many people after a while," she said of her time at a military base near Baghdad. "I was really starting to struggle with the weight of people dying around me every day, and trying to fit into this projected persona of being a 'man.' I was very anxious and often depressed."

But working in a war zone did have one upside—she gained the confidence to go out in public as a woman. "The first time I passed as a woman in public was while I was on leave from my deployment to Iraq, in 2010," she said. "I was dressed in a casual gray business suit jacket and skirt with a white blouse, black tights, and a faded purple coat—it was really cold outside—and business shoes. I just kind of wandered about in public. I went to coffee shops and bookstores and just tried to blend in as a bored woman looking for something interesting to do.

"I was amazed at how much it worked, and how human and normal that it felt for me. I didn't have the confidence before and never would have done such a thing before I deployed to the combat zone of Iraq."

Read more: Why Do Men Kill Trans Women? Gender Theorist Judith Butler Explains

By February of that year, WikiLeaks had already started releasing the first of the documents Manning leaked. In April, Julian Assange released a video of US soldiers firing indiscriminately on Iraqi civilians, killing ten people and injuring two children. It was viewed by millions. By the end of May, Manning was arrested by the US army's criminal investigation team and transferred to an army installation in Kuwait, where she would spend two months in solitary confinement.

"I expected to have every moment of my life examined for every single possible screw up that I've ever made, for every flaw and blemish that I have, and to have them be used against me in the court of public opinion," Manning said of the intense press scrutiny at the time. "I was especially afraid that my gender identity would be used against me and other people who suffered like I did. Looking back, I think that my fears were based in reality."

The US Disciplinary Barracks at Fort Leavenworth, where Manning is being held. Photo via Wikimedia

But solitary confinement was a uniquely hellish environment for Manning, as it has been for so many trans prisoners. She describes being placed in maximum custody "in what was basically this large metal cage within a tent."

"It was very hot, and it was dark in the tent. I remember you couldn't tell If it was day or night outside. The facility operated 24/7, so only the meals would give you a hint as to what time it was. Eventually, it all became a blur… My memory of that time is very foggy. It's all blended together as a really personal mess."

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She was later transferred to Marine Corps Base Quantico, where she was "basically subjected to the same conditions that I was in Kuwait—except it was a permanent, air-conditioned building in Virginia."

In an eight-by-six-foot cell, Manning was placed in an empty cell block and was under constant observation by at least two marines at all times. "The conditions in my cell were far beyond what is normally associated with solitary confinement," she said. "I needed permission to do anything in my cell. I was not allowed to move around the cell to exercise. I was not allowed to sit down with my back against the wall."

I was only allowed to sit up straight on my bed and literally stare at the wall for hours on end.

"If I wanted to use the toilet, I had to ask for toilet paper, and I would have to return it when I was done. it was the same with toothbrushes, books, and sometimes even my glasses. I was not allowed to lie down or sleep during the duty day from 5 AM to 7 PM. I was only allowed to sit up straight on my bed and literally stare at the wall for hours on end."

This went on for over three years, until Manning was finally convicted and sentenced in 2013 to 35 years in military prison. During the trial, Manning was barred, under the Espionage Act of 1917, from presenting any evidence or even explaining her motivations for leaking the documents.

After the verdict was announced, Manning and her team were escorted into a side room. "There was this ominous silence except for a sniffle from one of the lawyers, who started to cry. It seemed that everyone in the room was afraid to speak, so I just started speaking. I began telling them that they did a great job and worked very, very hard to get to this point—and that I couldn't have asked for anything more from them."

A day after her sentencing, she publicly announced that she was trans: "I want everyone to know the real me. I am Chelsea Manning. I am a female."

"It made sense to me to tell people who I am as soon as I was given the opportunity to do so, which was the day after the trial finished," she explained. "I had been holding back on my announcement only because of the trial. I wanted to do it sooner, but the lawyers advised against it."

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At Fort Leavenworth, Manning fought to get medical support for her transition and was finally granted access to hormone therapy in February last year. "It's a very strange reality that taking hormones has made clear to me," she said. "I can feel emotions much more immediately and deeply. Before, I used to just put my feelings in this little box in my head and say—I'll deal with you later. But now, when I'm feeling sad, I cry […] when I'm feeling happy, I laugh and get excited… Life is a much richer and fuller experience for me as a person."

In prison, Manning works on a small woodworking team making furniture and smaller items like award plaques and picture frames. "I get letters from queer and trans kids a lot—which I think is amazing just because it's a long-forgotten medium to write a letter. It means a lot for me to get letters from these kids who feel so connected with me—they inspire me to keep going and give me the most amount of hope."

Read more: The Trans Artists Highlighting the People No One Else Wants to See

Manning is eligible for parole after eight years at Leavenworth, though she has also faced threats of being punished with indefinite solitary confinement over alleged conduct violations, including possessing "prohibited property" (issues of magazines like Out, The Advocate, Cosmopolitan, and an issue of the Caitlyn Jenner Vanity Fair, as well as other books).

"Every single morning when I wake up, I walk over to the stainless steel toilet, sink, in my cell and look into the eyes of the woman in the reflection in the mirror and say, 'OK, you can deal with this' to her," Manning said. "That's the moment each morning that I motivate myself for, the day—and only that day."

She added: "I've actually imagined a few times what it would be like if I could travel back in time and speak to myself as a teenager… I would want to grab her by the hand and tell her that everything is going to be OK. I would tell her that there is nothing wrong with you, and that you are more loved and appreciated than you realize. I would tell her that she can be a happier and healthier person if she stays true to herself, like I have finally been able to figure out."