Chelsea Manning: ‘I think somebody worse than Donald Trump can happen’

The whistleblower talks to EL PAÍS about attacks on LGBTQ+ rights, the police state and the rise of the far right

Chelsea Manning
Former American soldier and whistleblower Chelsea Manning.Jack Taylor (Getty Images)
Raquel Peláez

Chelsea Manning appears on the other side of the screen wearing a white tank top and her hair in a ponytail. The 34-year-old whistleblower has granted an interview to EL PAÍS ahead of her appearance this week at Culture and Business Pride in Tenerife, in Spain’s Canary Islands – an event that will discuss the current issues affecting the LGBTQ+ community.

At her side, listening to the conversation, is her personal assistant, who ensures that the only off-limit topic in the interview is not raised: Manning’s decision to leak thousands of classified documents from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to WikiLeaks – a move which made the former US soldier and intelligence analyst a household name. Manning was sentenced to 35 years in prison for her actions, which have been called both heroic and traitorous. She was mistreated behind bars, according to Amnesty International, and then was forced to ensure intense media scrutiny when she came out as a transgender woman. Manning, who was sent to prison in 2013, was released in 2020 after former US president Barack Obama commuted her sentence at the end of his mandate.

Question. The LGBTQ+ movement is all about freedom, a word that has a very special meaning when it comes to you. How have you enjoyed regaining your freedom?

Answer. It’s very difficult to focus on the idea of freedom when there’s this deluge of different issues and things that are coming out.

Particularly as somebody who lives in the United States, where there are at least half a dozen measures and countermeasures against the queer and trans community. There is constant constriction, even though a lot of it is part of the culture war within the United States. But it certainly feels a lot more restrictive than even the actual legislation itself, since it’s culture. Even though I am not in a concrete box anymore, I am still under an enormous amount of scrutiny. That cloud that’s over myself and the community is a difficult thing to navigate.

Q. You have said that when you hear about “the war on terror” you don’t think of its conventional meaning, but rather of the terror that states inflict on their citizens. When was the last time you felt that fear?

A. I can think of numerous occasions in the last few years, for example, when I was in jail. But also just going to a protest or being out in certain parts of New York. All the increased security measures haven’t really prevented anything, but they have become an all-encompassing aspect of your life. In Brooklyn, there’s a constant self-awareness that you are being watched by the largest single police force in the world. I think there are about 90,000 NYPD officers, which is the size of the militaries of many medium-sized countries.

Even though I am not in a concrete box anymore, I am still under an enormous amount of scrutiny.

Q. So, this morning you left your house and there were police officers.

A. Oh yeah there are police cameras outside my house. They do not personally watch me, but everyone: a Black person, an immigrant...

Q. Just after being released from prison, you said that you felt as though you had been institutionalized. Do you still feel the same way?

A. Yes, definitely. I feel it in the kinds of decisions that I make on a day-to-day basis. I have difficulty regulating my own schedule. I like the action as my personal assistant who sort of keeps me on a semi-rigid schedule, which I do like. I find that is an aspect of being institutionalized. The idea of not knowing for sure what will happen tomorrow makes me anxious. That’s what I mean by being institutionalized. In jail you know what the next day is going to be like; whereas out here, I don’t know who to trust. I don’t know when things are going to change. I don’t know what’s going to work and what isn’t going to work. But I’m doing well, comparatively.

Q. Who has been your main support network over the years?

A. I lean very much on my New York queer and trans community and my friends and my family out in Maryland. I also have a network of people throughout the world, mostly within the United States, but also some people in Berlin, London, Paris and Barcelona. These are people who have been there, who can offer me advice or a good conversation. I can depend on them when I’m feeling tired or sad. I certainly have a very large and diverse support network, which includes political activists, journalists, musicians, artists, filmmakers, YouTubers...

Q. What forms of self-love have you discovered in recent times?

A. Healthy eating [laughs]. It’s been absolutely important for me to stay fit, especially with the pandemic, and the anxiety that I’ve been feeling over the last few years. And self-love for me has been physical health.

Q. You say that the problem is not that society is ill-informed, but rather its failure to act. Is this also a problem in the LGBTQ+ movement?

A. I think it’s different. I think that for queer and trans people, in particular, there’s a lot of awareness that we’re around. But I don’t think awareness has equated to people’s safety necessarily. One of the problems that we’ve had in the trans community is the fact that by having trans people be so visible and be so talked about, our own voices are sort of set aside to the wayside.

Q. Do you think the LGBTQ+ community is involved in discussions that aren’t useful?

A. Sure. I think less so now, but certainly, a few years ago there was a lot more discussion about respectability. There was this idea that if we made the community more relatable to straight people then we would be more accepted. And I’ve been very against that notion. We saw this up until 2015 with same-sex marriage in the US, where there was this projection of, ‘oh, you know, a same-sex marriage is the same as like any other straight person’s marriage.’ We’re not exploring the complexities of queer lifestyle, polyamorous relationships or unconventional family structures.

Q. And if you had to summarize the main points of your fight, what would you say?

A. I have two points. One, and I think I speak for the entire trans community, we want to be left alone. We’re very tired. Burned out. If you want to help and support us, just kind of leave us alone right now, because we’ve been going through a lot, you know?

The second thing – and this is especially critical for the gender-nonconforming part of the community in the United States – we have to be prepared, especially after the potential abortion ban. We have to think about how we are going to protect and defend ourselves. We have to go back to the fights that we’ve already fought. The HIV epidemic in the 1980s, the criminalization efforts in the 1990s. This is nothing new. It just feels really bad because we’ve had some time to build our community in a safer and more progressive period of time, the late 1980s to the mid-2010s. We need to think defensively again. We need to rebuild our ability to fight and defend ourselves through unconventional means.

Getting Biden into power as president didn’t really change anything

Q. You have always been very critical of artificial intelligence. What role do you think it is playing in the regression you speak of?

A. Undoubtedly, algorithms, particularly those that feed social networks, have intensified and incentivized more and more extreme rhetoric in order to turn political topics into controversy. One of the things that gets a lot of clicks and gets a lot of ad time is controversy. It’s the same concept as ratings in the 1990s and 2000s, but it’s down to the microseconds now. I think that almost all of these hot button issues that seem to be intensifying are in a large part driven by the fact that we’re on our phones. It used to be that you would come home and you maybe watch some TV. But now it’s 24/7 that you’re on your phone. I’m having to do more digital hygiene in terms of my time online. I think that a lot of the issues affecting the LGBTQ+ community are coming from our dependence on technology, and that’s driven by an industry that is using artificial intelligence to exploit and incentivize people to engage with these services.

Q. You said that Trump’s victory was not such a big problem, arguing that if the United States had become almost a fascist state it was not because of him, but as a result of its recent history. Now, with Joe Biden in power, do you still maintain that idea?

A. Yes. Getting Biden into power as president didn’t really change anything. It slowed things down a bit. But it’s still trending in the direction towards benefiting the far right. I believe that US politics is actually driven by a conservative undercurrent and that Trump winning the election was not an aberration: it was an inevitable conclusion of the last 40 years, the rise of the far right as an institution. I know some people think he is deeply anti-establishment and maybe he is in his style, but the Supreme Court nominees he’s chosen, and the legislative agenda he brought forth were very much standard establishment positions on the right. And while true progressives oppose many positions on the right, centrist Democrats are in line with them, so everything just keeps going further and further right. After George W. Bush, people used to say to me, ‘Oh, he’s going to be the most right-wing president we’ve had.’ I was skeptical. Then we obviously had Donald Trump. And I think somebody worse than Donald Trump can happen.

Q. You said that in 2030 we will probably laugh at the problems of 2022…

A. Yeah.

Q. Are you partly glad that your bid to enter politics did not work out?

A. Not at all! I learned a lot from that experience. It’s going to sound wild, but I think people should consider running for office. I was given the unique privilege to be able to run for political office in Maryland and I wish more people to experience it. It was so eye-opening to the problems that are occurring in American politics. I went into it thinking I knew a lot more than I did. It was an incredible learning experience for me. Although I wouldn’t subject myself to that experience again.

Q. That was going to be my next question.

A. I’m not discounting the possibility that I may run in a political election in the future, but not any time soon. It’s probably something more for me in my forties.

Q. Did your experience in prison change your relationship with your body and make you think more seriously about transitioning?

A. I had to turn my relationship with my body into a legal matter and, somehow, that forced me to make it a public matter as well. I didn’t really have a choice. So what would I have preferred? A lot more privacy on that issue, certainly. But I did make the choice to fight the legal system, which opened me up to having something extremely intimate made public. One of the most fantastic things about the experience of finally transitioning is that it’s not an issue anymore. I just go about my life. I’m like worried about filing my taxes and things like that.

Q. One of the conditions for this interview was that there be no questions about the leaks. What would you say to someone who thinks that, compared to revealing military secrets that affect world security, fighting for LGBTQ+ rights is not important?

A. I would tell them that it’s all connected. The world is starting to face the climate crisis, which in the early 2000s was discussed in theoretical terms. From my own experience of going out to the Polish-Ukrainian border and helping get queer and trans refugees to Berlin, it is clear that all the causes are overlapping. What is spoken on a geopolitical scale ends up impacting the most vulnerable communities.

Q. Perhaps in Russia or Ukraine, there is already a new Chelsea Manning…

A. There already are.

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