The artwork on this note card was created by 5768 WRJ Art Calendar artist Césan d’Ornellas Levine.
On May 17, Chelsea Manning was released after seven years behind bars. Originally sentenced to 35 years in prison for leaking confidential United States diplomatic and military information, President Obama commuted all but four months of her term. She was also free to begin fully assuming her true gender identity. Formerly known as Bradley Manning, Chelsea’s decision to begin transitioning to female in military incarceration subjected her to institutional barriers and additional mistreatment at the hands of the military criminal justice system.
The situation of Chelsea Manning, who released classified military documents in the largest leak ever at its time, highlights many issues. These intersections include the treatment of transgender people in the criminal system, free speech and the rights of whistle blowers, and U.S. foreign affairs.
As a military intelligence analyst, Manning gathered hundreds of thousands of files that showed previously undisclosed information about US military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq and Guantanamo Bay. The leak sparked a national debate about government transparency, and brought WikiLeaks into the national discourse. This leak had ramifications abroad as well. It is debated that accounts of Tunisian governmental corruption that surfaced as part of the leaks helped initiate the Tunisian revolution, which contributed to the Arab Spring revolutions.
Manning’s unprecedented 35-year sentence indicated a very strong response from the Obama administration, which even brought an unsuccessful charge of “aiding the enemy” (Manning was not found guilty of this charge). During her time in the criminal system, Manning faced additional injustices. She struggled with depression and gender dysphoria, the distress she experienced from presenting as male while identifying as female. Before her trial in the military justice system, Manning was not given the mental health treatment she sought, and also faced many months of solitary confinement, instead of treatment. Manning came out as transgender while serving her sentence in federal prison, and began transitioning and receiving hormonal therapy. She was not moved to a women’s prison, and had to conform to male grooming regulations.
The prophet Ezekiel teaches “I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn away from his life and live” (33:11). Regardless of their transgressions, Chelsea Manning’s story sheds light on the challenges that transgender people face in the military justice system. While distinct from the civilian criminal justice system, many of these injustices carry over. As we advocate for criminal justice reform, we also advocate for a justice system that treats all people with dignity and without discrimination.
Noah Kline is a high school intern at the RAC. He served as the Western Membership Vice President of NFTY-MAR, and will be attending Wesleyan University next year. He is from Arlington, Virginia and is a member of Temple Rodef Shalom in Falls Church.
Feature image courtesy of Mathew Lippincott, Flickr.