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How Bradley Manning Became a Gay Martyr

Ideologically speaking, supporters of Bradley Manning—the 24-year-old army private expected to face a court martial beginning either in November or January for allegedly leaking hundreds of thousands of classified documents to WikiLeaks—are a fairly predictable bunch: libertarians, antiwar activists, hackers, whistleblowers. (As one Manning supporter put it to me: “Bradley is Welsh, so we started looking around in Wales.”) But what’s sometimes escaped notice is that much of the public support that Manning has received has actually come from certain segments of the LGBT community. After it publicly emerged that Manning was gay (the rumors that circulated after his arrest were confirmed by a New York Times profile in August 2010), many activists offered him their support. In the Washington Blade, Rainey Reitman, a digital freedom activist who is also gay called for the gay community’s engagement: “[A]s queer activists have long known, there is power and transcendence in choosing truth, even when that truth makes others uncomfortable.”

But if Manning—who has endured an extended period of difficult detention conditions, including several months in solitary confinement at the military prison at Quantico, and more than a year in a medium-security facility at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas—has become something of a gay hero, it has not been without heated debate. At New York City’s gay pride parade in June, a motley crew of about 25 assembled under a banner that read “Coming out with the Truth is Never Easy,” and wore neon pink stickers emblazoned with a black silhouette of Manning’s face and the slogan “gay hero.” One onlooker called out “Traitor!” as the threadbare group marched down Fifth Avenue. Clearly, not everyone in the gay community is happy about the association. In fact, the debate over Manning illustrates the discord among gay activists about the direction in which the movement—beyond Manning—is headed.

To his supporters, Manning is an emblem of something larger—a classic symbol of struggle and oppression. Lieutenant Daniel Choi, a gay soldier and outspoken opponent of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell (DADT), expressed solidarity with Manning on “Countdown with Keith Olberman.” “I’m proud of him, as a gay soldier, because he stood for integrity” Choi said, “the gay community is [the] only one that bases its membership … on integrity and telling the truth.” Zack Pesavento, the spokesperson for the non-profit Bradley Manning Support Network, says members of the LGBT community identify with Manning because “many of us have first hand experience with being abused by the state.” 

Manning’s personal history, in particular, resonates. As a recent biography by journalist Denver Nicks and an extensive profile in New York magazine recount, Manning had an unpleasant childhood. His father was verbally and physically abusive, and his mother struggled with alcoholism. Manning came out of the closet at 13—a brave act in the conservative Oklahoma town where he was raised—and left home at 18.  He later joined the military, but once enlisted, he suffered intense bullying; he was fairly transparent about his sexuality and was beginning to question his gender. The harassment wore on Manning, and he responded with angry outbursts—behavior that prompted superiors to question whether he could be trusted with his security clearance. “To gay people who have faced the kind of hyper-masculine bullying that [Manning] endured in the military,” says Larry Goldsmith, an historian and gay activist, the “details of his case … were recognizable as the experiences of many gay people at schools, at work, and in sports.”

Manning’s gay supporters believe in gay activism that connects the mistreatment of gays, the plight of poor people, and the injustices of war. “War is about traditionally, historically, masculine, gender role approach to resolving conflicts through violence and aggression,” says Goldsmith. “Gay people at one time had a critique of that.” For his supporters, Manning’s radical action is a symbol of the anti-war, anti-establishment values the gay movement used to champion before becoming more narrowly focused on marriage equality and the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. “I thought it was a cornerstone of gay sensibility to oppose wars,” Jim Fouratt, a prominent New York City Gay activist who participated at Stonewall, told me. “Manning represents to me that part of the gay spirit.” There is a also a sense, among gay supporters, that Manning does not represent the kind of photo-ready figure that gay activists would like to have at the forefront of their movement. “Manning doesn’t fit into the affluent, we-are-just-like-you vision of gay normalcy,” says Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore, author of Why Are Faggots So Afraid of Faggots? “He’s not the poster boy for the campaign they’ve been running for gays in the military,” says Goldsmith.

But others within the gay community have balked at this association. Mainstream national gay organizations have not offered public support. The Human Rights Campaign did not respond to my request for comment on Manning. The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and the Gay and Lesbian Alliance for Defamation (GLAAD) politely declined to comment via e-mail. Even Lieutenant Daniel Choi, once a vocal Manning supporter, would not talk to me.

In fact, national organizations have only addressed the case critically. To them, his polarizing potential is of limited use—and may even damage their cause. Back in a December hearing, when Manning’s defense lawyers implied that his struggles with his sexual orientation and gender identity could be used as a defense—reportedly suggesting the emotional trauma caused by DADT made Manning unfit to handle classified information—the lawyers were immediately challenged. Army Captain Clarke Cooper, a reserve officer and the executive director of the Log Cabin Republicans, wrote in an op-ed: “This shameful defense is an offense to the tens of thousands of gay service members who served honorably under ‘don’t ask, don’t tell.’ We all served under the same law, with the same challenges and struggles. We did not commit treason because of it.”

Transgender activists also took umbrage at the lawyer’s implication that Manning’s ostensible struggles with his gender identity precipitated his illegal actions. Mara Keisling, the head of the National Center for Transgender Equality, told the Washington Blade: “[W]hether he’s trans or not has absolutely nothing to do with whether he committed treason or whatever he’s accused of doing.” When I spoke to Keisling she said she sympathized with critics of the national gay movement’s increasingly limited agenda, but she didn’t see the point in extending support to Manning: “I’m not sure what I’d be promoting or helping,” she told me. Dru Levasseur, a transgender rights attorney at Lamda Legal, said on MSNBC: “Our opinion is there is no correlation between anything he has done and gender identity disorder. This plays into stereotypes that are not true. There are a lot of people with gender identity disorder fighting for their lives to be respected and understood as human beings who need equal access to the law. This type of scenario just confuses the situation.”

When I attended one of Manning’s recent hearings in June, I didn’t encounter any of Manning’s gay supporters. It was a short hearing that drew a smaller crowd than usual, I was told. Perhaps the upcoming hearings set for next week will be different. But the major national gay organizations aren’t likely to weigh in on Manning’s plight any time soon, much to the dismay of the activists still fighting for Manning and, more importantly, for their vision of justice for LGBT people in America. As Andy Thayer, a gay anti-war activist co-founder of the Gay Liberation Network put it to me: “If we don’t have the solidarity for our own community, then how are we going to go farther than that? I would hope that we would at least look out for our own.”