Commentary LGBTQ

The Latest Example of Trans Baiting at the New York Times Is a Testament to How Far We Have to Go

Katherine Cross

That we can be seen as a "cause du jour" even as we're in the midst of a terrifying rollback of our rights is ludicrous.

If the New York Times is publishing a trans-baiting op-ed, it’s probably a day ending in ‘Y.’ Take, for example, “When Transgender Trumps Treachery,” the almost-alliterative effort last week by the Brookings Institution’s James Kirchick to argue that Chelsea Manning is a traitor who’s only being feted because of a perverse moral affirmative action.

Progressives only adore her as a hero—and even as fashion icon, he laments at curious length—because she’s a trans woman, Kirchick argues.

“It’s hard to imagine,” he wrote in his conclusion, “Ms. Manning receiving such a positive reception—never mind a spread in Vogue—if she still identified as Bradley, transgender being the liberal cause du jour.”

It boggles the mind that someone from so lofty a perch, in possession of a wealth of inside information about the inner workings of national politics, could think that transgender people are so favored a group. That we can be seen as a “cause du jour” even as we’re in the midst of a terrifying rollback of our rights, or that Kirchick could even suggest that caring too much for trans people is in any way a mainstream position, is ludicrous. Yet the tenacity of this absurd idea among liberals and centrists is a testament to how far we still have to go.

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It’s certainly a classic right-wing gesture to engage in this denial of abuse by declaring those in the most danger to be the most cossetted and celebrated. And Kirchick isn’t alone in his arguments. It’s worth rebutting his specific accusations regarding Manning, however, as they cut to the heart of certain liberal myths that are impeding the current, urgent fight against fascism.

To review: Manning was convicted in August 2013 of violating the Espionage Act with her leak of more than 750,000 classified or sensitive military and U.S. State Department documents to WikiLeaks. She was sentenced to 35 years in prison, a sentence commuted by President Barack Obama after three years and nine months of imprisonment, often in solitary confinement. For all this, Kirchick has an ax to grind.

For instance, he blames Manning for empowering Julian Assange who, Kirchick says, is responsible for the dubious acts of cyberwarfare that helped propel Trump into office while crippling Clinton’s campaign:

Not only did Ms. Manning violate her oath by assuming the right to determine what classified information should be made public, but she also did so in cooperation with a megalomaniac who would go on to play an outsize role ensuring Mr. Trump’s defeat of Hillary Clinton.

This argument has even been uttered by a few transgender people I’ve known. I wish I could say I was shocked at the popularity of a line of thinking that blames a woman for the deeds of a man she’s connected to, certainly. There’s more than a little quiet misogyny in this. Assange alone is responsible for his actions and for the ugly ideological transformation he’s undergone over the last few years, from erstwhile leftist rebel to darling of Trumpists, Putin apologists, and white supremacist trolls everywhere. Manning played no role in that transformation, nor has she so much uttered a word of support for it.

At the time she gave documents to WikiLeaks, back in 2010, the organization did not have the reputation for right-wing extremism it now possesses. It’s certainly true that Manning’s leaks built Assange’s and WikiLeaks’ reputations—a point I and others have been at pains to make—but that doesn’t mean she created Assange as a right-wing creature. Neither she, nor any of us, had any idea what was coming in late 2016.

To damn a woman acting under duress in dire circumstances—who, need I remind you, already suffered mightily for that choice—for lacking the foresight we all lacked, is something I can read only as misogyny of the highest order.

Most of the rest of Kirchick’s editorial amounts to rhetorical head shaking about Manning’s popularity, as well as sniffing at her emoji-filled tweets as the “doodles of a freshman peace studies major [which] belie her portrayal as the moral conscience of our time.” To the extent he makes substantive points in this cavalcade of resentments, however, they’re further rebutted by the facts, as trans activist Lauren McNamara, who participated in Chelsea Manning’s trial, makes clear in her response to Kirchick’s piece.

Kirchick argues that Manning’s legal team undermined the standing of all trans people in the U.S. armed services by using gender dysphoria in her defense: “The decision by Ms. Manning’s defense team to argue that untreated gender dysphoria was a factor in her decision to leak classified information unwittingly aids those who say that L.G.B.T. people cannot be trusted in sensitive government jobs.”

By contrast, McNamara ably argues that this is a gross mischaracterization of the defense, and one that itself aids current efforts by the Trump administration to bar trans people from military service while initially appearing to do the opposite:

Her struggles were magnified, and appropriate treatment withheld, because of homophobic and transphobic policies that forced her into isolation and secrecy as a transgender woman. Acknowledging this reality does not constitute an argument against open integration and affirming care of transgender troops. It’s an argument for that.

The issue, in other words, was not that her trans status made her a danger. Rather, it was the military’s refusal to attend to her full suite of mental health needs (including anxiety disorder), placing her in a precarious position. Further, dysphoria left untreated (i.e. forcing a person to live as the wrong gender), hardly leaves one in a good state of mind. As McNamara makes clear, this isn’t an argument against the existence of trans people, it’s an argument for ensuring we receive the care we need. That Kirchick so badly confuses this issue does a profound disservice to transgender people, in no small measure by scapegoating Manning for a larger structural problem that President Donald Trump is only exacerbating by putting targets on the backs of all trans service members.

Kirchick also tries to cast himself as a defender of trans soldiers by saying that Manning’s anti-imperialist/anti-militarist politics make her their natural enemy:

The cognitive dissonance required of L.G.B.T. activists in celebrating Ms. Manning while denouncing Donald Trump’s transgender military ban is considerable, not least in the case of Ms. Manning herself, who simultaneously condemns the ban while also tweeting that “we need to dismantle the military/police state,” without appearing to recognize the contradiction.”

If Kirchick cared to listen to trans people, we’ve already been having this particular discussion. Many of us recognize that any attempted purge of trans folk from the military is the thin end of a long, painful wedge—it is the start of an attempt to erase us from public life altogether. We can say this is wrong and fight for the rights of our community members in the military, without endorsing what this country uses its military for. It’s baffling, further, that a man who presumes to lecture Amnesty International for its support for Manning (“an organization ostensibly committed to freeing political prisoners, not those who assist their jailers”) should, in criticizing that particular tweet of Manning’s, suggest he’s in favor of a police state.

In any event, we can firmly establish that it’s possible to walk and chew bubblegum here.

But blaming Manning for “discredit[ing] the L.G.B.T. cause” is, in any case, perverse and shocking. For someone who claims to care about injustice, Kirchick spends next to no time examining the morality of the solitary confinement and denial of health care Manning was subjected to while imprisoned. Was this a proportional punishment to the crime for which Manning was convicted? He doesn’t venture an opinion, despite its moral salience.

Kirchick does, however, devote ample space to blaming Manning for a man’s choices. Assange was also viciously callous about possible harm to Afghan translators—who had been endangered by leaked State Department information—resulting from Manning’s memos. Kirchick lays this callousness at Manning’s feet. Presumably there’s nothing so awful a man can do that a nearby woman can’t be found to blame for it.

But in any event, there’s no evidence of direct harm being meted out to anyone connected to these cables. The Zimbabwean incident Kirchick mentions—where an opposition party was harassed on the basis of a State Department meeting detailed in a leaked cable—would arguably have transpired with or without the leaked cable cited; Robert Mugabe was never terribly big on “evidence” to begin with. I would add, yet again, that any risk posed by indiscriminate publication was Assange’s to mitigate. Manning provided him and his team with the information, but as WikiLeaks was the conduit for public dissemination, it was their responsibility to curate it.

At worst, Manning can be blamed for naivete in her choice of WikiLeaks, but even this already weak argument relies on her having the benefit of hindsight no one possessed in 2010. And when set against what Manning revealed through her leaks, and what caused her to blow that fateful whistle in the first place, Kirchick’s complaints cross the line from being petty to outright obnoxious and callous.

The thrust of his article is that Manning is being accorded a heroic status she would’ve been denied if she had been cisgender, ignoring how Manning had already been lionized as a hero by the left (including the LGBTQ movement) before her trans status was widely known. In so doing, Kirchick perpetuates an extremist argument that suggests trans people, or other “causes du jour,” are given carte blanche to do as we please because of misguided “political correctness.” It’s an argument conservatives, right-wingers, and neo-Nazis are quite happy to make, for all its mendacity. In his petty attack on Manning, Kirchick implicates all trans people.

While he probably didn’t pen the headline “When Transgender Trumps Treachery,” it is a neat summary of his thesis, and a deeply prejudicial one that blatantly argues a trans status is a get-out-of-jail free card for even the high crime of treason itself. This is especially poisonous considering the fact that Manning was imprisoned, a status she shares with far too many other trans people incarcerated under brutal conditions—where trans women are generally interred with men.

That Kirchick should pen this asinine, self-indulgent piece at a time when actual Nazi and Klan terrorists are killing people, and use wretched arguments to justify his misplaced focus (e.g. that political correctness grants vulnerable groups impunity), is a moral failure beyond words that can only grant succor to the ugliest forces in Trump’s United States.

This is an article so staggering in its poorly reasoned and petty resentments that one must stand amazed at the fact that it was given space at all. Kirchick literally spends half of his article going on with thinly concealed scorn about the fashion spreads Chelsea Manning has starred in, particularly Vogue‘s, likening her to the wife of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, pearl clutching at how she’s “dispensing fashion tips like state secrets.” Of course, this slots neatly into longstanding cis obsessions with trans women’s appearance.

Blaming Manning for a fig leaf, and implying she deserved her torture as a result, is a stretch at best. Attacking the wider LGBTQ community for supporting her in the face of mountains of global abuse is perverse. And attacking her for a Vogue spread is just plain weird.

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