Chelsea Manning Is Putting the Pieces Back Together
The renowned whistleblower and activist opens up about transphobia, Grimes dating rumors, Elon Musk, and her breakup with “dangerous” Glenn Greenwald.
In February of 2019, just four months after undergoing bottom surgery, Chelsea Manning received a grand jury subpoena demanding she testify in the U.S. government’s case against WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange. Her brave refusal to participate in the witch-hunt landed her $256,000 in fines and a year behind bars, which a top U.N. official determined had “all the constitutive elements of torture.” On March 11, 2020, she attempted to take her own life once more in prison and was released back to her adopted home of Brooklyn, New York, the following day—only to then find herself at the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Since then, Manning has been trying to reclaim ownership over her life. Though only 34, the former Army intelligence analyst has spent nearly a quarter of her years behind bars, much of it in solitary confinement—persecuted by the U.S. government for leaking classified information to WikiLeaks that exposed a number of U.S. war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the extent of U.S. spying on those at the U.N., among other things. She announced that she is female in 2013, transitioning into “the next phase” of her life whilst still imprisoned.
“Where is home now?” she asks herself. “I’m 34 years old, and I’ve lived outside the U.S. before where it’s felt not like home. And this is home. I’m so glad I have a relatively normal life now. I’m grateful for that. I just ride my scooter around town and do errands.”
She’s also been busy with speaking engagements, producing a film about the precariousness of crypto, doing consulting for the privacy startup Nym, and putting the finishing touches on her memoir, a “coming-of-age story” that’s scheduled to be released in October. Manning recently learned how to cook and has been known to cameo at the occasional Brooklyn rave—though she often finds herself getting recognized, even in a mask.
Last month, I sat down with Manning outside a Brooklyn coffee shop for a wide-ranging discussion on everything from her upcoming memoir and rise of the far-right to her public split from one-time confidant Glenn Greenwald back in September.
I heard that you got COVID in September. Have you had any lingering effects?
I did have some lingering effects. I didn’t have anything nearly as serious as some of my friends—just lethargy, exhaustion, fatigue, those lingering things. By around December, I got the booster, and everything went away. Immediately afterward, no more symptoms. I got it again in March, but it was negligible.
In the springtime, I’ve tried to be more active. I’ve been traveling a lot. I don’t like traveling. I’m not a big fan.
Do you have issues with being screened at the airport?
Oh no, I’ve never had issues at the airport. I’m a normal traveler—I just can’t get TSA Pre, although TSA Pre is a scam anyway. But I’ve been in Europe quite a bit. One of the companies I work for [Nym] is based in Switzerland, and I’ve been to Paris, spent time in Berlin, and because the invasion of Ukraine popped off, I was at the border and did some volunteer work out there in March, so pretty early on.
What volunteer work were you doing at the Ukrainian border?
Just anything that was needed. There were just so many refugees and there weren’t enough volunteers. One of the biggest problems I saw on the ground in the initial phase was there was a lack of translators, so there were a lot of hand-movements and using Google Translate on the phone. The volunteers would fit in with that immediate need of helping refugees pouring in across the border unexpectedly, in very quick fashion. I rotated out of there pretty fast, because the intensity of it was you were basically working for five days without sleep. It was non-stop.
Not everyone is like you and sees something wrong and has a burning desire to help out. Where do you think this comes from?
That’s like asking a firefighter, “Why do you go into a burning building?” It’s what I do. It’s what I know how to do. Sometimes it doesn’t make sense, and I don’t. If I can provide assistance or resources, I’m willing to do that. I’ve been in situations before. I was a houseless person in Chicago for months, in 2006. I got kicked out of my house by my father and his amazing wife/my stepmother at the time—they’ve since divorced—but I wandered the Midwest after and ended up in Chicago, eventually moving in with my aunt and working at Starbucks.
What was that period like for you? Because you must have been quite young.
I had just turned 18. I convinced myself it was fate—that’s how my brain registered it. I wrote a book years ago and it’s just going through the process.
Ah yes. Your memoir is coming out in the fall, right?
Yes. We’re trying. The logistics of the book-publishing process have finally been smoothed over. The slowdown was the government-review process, and as far as I’m aware we’ve finished that process.
Did they have heavy redactions, as they are wont to do?
No. We just decided that we’re not going to delve much into the government story. It’s very much my personal life story, which is why my time in Chicago is in there. While we do delve into [the government story], we weren’t trying to pull a fast one there. There are redactions, and we’re going through that. But it’s not the centerpiece of the book. The centerpiece is my life story up until 2017.
What was it like to write for you? Was it cathartic?
No, it was a nightmare. The book-writing process was very retraumatizing for me in a lot of ways. It was an exhausting process. I went through weeks and weeks and weeks of having to relive things and put them down on paper. I don’t know if I would do it again. I had a lot going on, and I was doing this book-writing process while trying to set up a life, trying to get an apartment, trying to get furniture.
Did you start the book-writing process when you got out of prison in March 2020?
I started well before, in 2015. I just thought, well, I guess I’ll just get started writing my life story since I’m going to be here a while.
What was the toughest part to revisit?
My youth. A lot of people want to know the stuff around 2010, prison, stuff like that—which I’ve discussed. But the first half of the book is just my childhood—my experiences growing up and being in this weird space where I have access to the internet and live in Central Oklahoma, and my father’s taking me out to Paris, and my mother’s British so we’re going to the U.K. every few months. I have a very unique life story in that I’m not really tied down anywhere. This is the longest I’ve been in one spot, here in New York. I’ve lived in Maryland most of my life, but even there we were moving from apartment to apartment. New York is very much like a second home.
How’s that stability been for you?
Well, COVID was a huge factor. Also, I do see the warning signs—insurgencies, conflicts. I see red flags all over the U.S. right now. I’m like, OK, y’all! It can happen here! Every indicator is that, unless something drastically changes—which it isn’t—we’re gonna have a very dark era here in the U.S., whether that’s a civil conflict or something on the scale of a depression. We’re living in a very gilded age. I’m very alarmed by the state of things in the U.S.—and the state of things in the world in general—but the U.S. has very little experience, and very little self-awareness of the precariousness of the situation. [People are] literally trying to pretend away an attempted coup.
Was that the big sign for you, the Jan. 6 insurrection?
I saw it before that. Charlottesville was the turning point for me. Obviously, I care about a lot of issues, trans issues especially, but the shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, got me paying attention. And I was in prison then. When that [Emanuel AME] church shooting happened and nine people were killed, I thought, OK, something deeper and more harmful is going on—and it’s only gotten worse since then. And that was around the time Donald Trump started running for president. I think he tapped into something that existed, and a lot of people saw this individual as the cause, but he was just a symptom of this systemic trend.
I’ve always viewed him as this giant turd that attracted all the flies.
Yeah. And being a trans person, our community has been targeted in this really intense way. I think the younger [trans] people have been a little caught off-guard, because things were doing better, but now all of a sudden you don’t know if you’ll be able to have access to hormones or if your family will be criminalized. There’s a lot of fear and anxiety going on, which is something we’ve seen before during the HIV crisis. I think it’s a centerpiece of the [right-wing] rhetoric, but it isn’t the centerpiece of the strategy. The centerpiece was going after Roe v. Wade with the Dobbs case.
People think they may go after Obergefell next.
Yeah. People are debating about that. I just see things in the U.S. in general coming to a head.
And there’s the “don’t say gay” bill in Florida as well.
Yeah. And all of these culture-war things are symptomatic of an underlying, reactionary, fear-driven, anxiety-driven, fragility-driven movement that’s very real. The way I like to put it is that, for the far-right, they view everything as an existential threat. They don’t know what an existential threat feels like, so whenever they start to feel that they can create this rhetoric around it—even though they’re not facing it. I think the anxiety they tap into is very real, but the anxiety is not based in fact.
I think a lot of it is about conserving the white patriarchal order. Back in the day, a largely unimpressive white guy could walk into a factory at 18 and walk out 60 years later with retirement money and a large family. Now, if you’re a largely unimpressive white guy, you have to actually work to get that job, or that wife, because other people who didn’t now have access to those things.
And if they say viewpoints that they could say thirty years ago they now have to face consequences for it.
Speaking of the far-right, a few years ago you became enmeshed in a far-right clique—including with Mike Cernovich and others.
That was a genuine attempt to get information. I thought, these people are a threat, what are they up to? They don’t hide it. The optics were horrible. I fucking regret that. It was dumb. People have talked with me and said they were very upset about that, and I take full responsibility for that, because it was dumb. My heart was in the right place, but it wasn’t that smart. It was in the right direction. These people ended up being so incredibly dangerous, and they started to fall apart as they started to face pressure—especially after 1/6—but that hasn’t stopped the far-right from recoalescing into a more established order. You don’t have the Trumpian core anymore, but you have Ron DeSantis and whatever Elon Musk is up to. But there were people [in that clique] who I didn’t know were sliding into the far-right.
Like Cassandra Fairbanks, who you briefly befriended?
Definitely. I always saw her as a left-wing Bernie Bro type until she started going off the deep end. I know a lot of people who have gone down this way, and I’ve gone down a very different direction. Like, Glenn Greenwald is certainly in that camp too. I saw that trending a certain way and I decided to go in a very different direction.
Can we talk about Glenn Greenwald?
I can’t tell you how hard that was—how deeply hard that was. It took me years to navigate me saying something about him.
So it was something you’d been struggling with for a while.
Yeah, definitely. One of the problems I’ve been having is that one of the things he does is he feeds off the engagement and the fighting. I wanted to go on record: I don’t want a beef with Glenn. I don’t want to feed his fire. I don’t want to engage with that. I said what I said, and I meant what I said. I have many reasons. I think that he is a dangerous person. The people he’s aligned himself with are very dangerous.
Like Peter Thiel, Marc Andreessen, and Tucker Carlson?
Exactly. A lot of people have been trending this way—it’s not just him—but he was the hardest. He was the hardest.
And his response to you was pretty disgusting.
That’s the funny part, is that I read his response and was like, oh, okay. And I had agonized over this thing. It literally took a disaster in my neighborhood. Rains came down the night before and the basement of my building flooded. I wake up the next morning, and my doctor’s appointment was canceled because their office had been flooded. I found that a number of things I tried to do that day were thwarted because of the flooding. The only thing that was there was the internet service, so I was kind of stuck there. And the first thing that I see is Glenn tweeting something about ivermectin, and I was just like, it’s time. I had agonized over it for years and it came from a very personal place, and I emotionally struggled to come forward with this. It truly was a very deep, personal moment for me.
His response appeared to validate what you said. And to invoke your mental-health struggles in the way that he did, as an observer, struck me as pretty appalling.
[She begins to tear up] Yeah. He interacted with my family, close friends for years, visited me in prison. I thought he was somebody else. That’s my biggest regret: I looked the other way. Whenever I saw warning signs, I looked the other way. People were telling me things, and I ignored it. It’s the most problematic relationship that I’ve ever had in my life. I was quiet for years, and I regret that. I should have said something sooner.
I follow him on Twitter and have been following his work for years, and there does seem to have been a change in the last seven years or so. He now almost functions as an attack dog for the right and seems to particularly relish going after women. He’s constantly targeting a former colleague of mine, Taylor Lorenz—now of The Washington Post.
Yeah. All these people are my friends. Ken Klippenstein and Taylor Lorenz are people that I respect and who’ve done tremendous work, and have faced a tremendous amount of backlash for things. And… it hurts so much. It’s fine if it’s valid criticism, but these are not valid.
We’ve recently seen Elon Musk responding a lot to members of the far-right on Twitter, including Mike Cernovich. Cernovich is one of the people Musk’s responded to with perhaps the most frequency on Twitter, which is pretty alarming considering Cernovich is best known for being accused of rape and as one of the central figures behind the Pizzagate conspiracy theory.
And Musk may well own Twitter soon. It’s all very weird.
I’m doubtful of that. But it’s not weird at all—it’s just the power levels being revealed. This isn’t a new thing for him or any of these people. They’ve just been quiet. They’re thinking, OK, where did the Trump thing land? And now, what will help my ambitions? I’ve been keeping tabs on that. The Musk far-right angle is a very Silicon Valley-libertarian one. I’ve known a lot of these people and been around them for a very long time, and so I’ve seen the warning signs. This is not a new phenomenon. And I’ve been open about this, but in the 2000s I leaned libertarian. I didn’t really have politics when I was young. I like to say that my politics in 2007, before I enlisted in the military, were Britney [Spears]. I was way ahead of my time. [Laughs]
I wanted to ask: What was it like to go from prison straight into a global pandemic?
I was like, I guess I’m ready for the lockdown! [Laughs] The funny is that my behaviors didn’t change between the regularity of jail and the regularity of quarantine. The only difference was that my bills were higher because I had to pay rent. It was definitely a tightening of the belt financially, but I was prepared. I ate a lot of ramen noodles.
The government hit you with a $256K fine when you refused to testify in the grand jury going after Julian Assange, which was just insane to me. Though you thankfully managed to raise enough to pay it off.
The funny thing is that, in 2017-2018, I was just buying furniture, finding an apartment, establishing credit for the first time, and then the grand jury subpoena hit me just after I’d had this mess of a trip in Australia, which made the news. There’s a legal distinction here: The Australian government didn’t deny me entry on paper, they set my date for consideration so far ahead that I would have missed my events there. So, we just withdrew. But it cost me an enormous amount of money that I didn’t really have, because I’d just got set up for bottom surgery—October 2018 was when I got bottom surgery—so I was still recovering from surgery, and that’s when I got the subpoena. And then they were like, “We’re going to fine you $500 a day,” and I was like, “I don’t even have $500 in my bank account right now! I’ve got nothing but debt right now.” It was pretty wild. I’m not a rich person. I’m only just coming out of pandemic bills—and now the economy is tumbling. Thank goodness I’m not invested in crypto. I know a lot of people who wouldn’t stop talking to me about crypto and NFTs. I know a lot of these NFT artists who would try to pitch it and sell it to me and I’m like, “You know it’s a scam, right?”
To go back to the Elon Musk of it all, I feel like a lot of his fans ride so hard for him because he personally enriched them during the pandemic by pumping Doge and various other altcoins, not to mention bitcoin, and also that Tesla’s stock price skyrocketed at the height of it.
I don’t disagree with that. I view it as a lot of assigned value, and a lot of these people aren’t buying into the financial aspect of it. Do you remember the coke-snorting dude from Die Hard? In 2021, he would be a crypto bro. I called crypto culture a rehashing of ‘80s yuppie culture.
Mixed with hypebeast culture, I would say.
Exactly. I think the number of people who enriched themselves off these things was not that high. The whales own most of the crypto and the market capitalization for the largest coins is still around a trillion, which is not that much in the grand scheme of things. And Tesla’s stock is essentially so overvalued compared to its output. Every other car company is manufacturing more cars, has a greater supply chain, has more infrastructure. It’s entirely assigned value, brand value, and cultural or aesthetic value. And that only lasts so long.
I’m curious if the Grimes dating rumors are real.
I’m not gonna get into my dating life. There’s been a lot of speculation and a lot of news stories. I have not changed my perspective on this: I don’t like speculation about my private life. I prefer to keep my private life private. I don’t want to create a precedent either. Another concern that I have is I don’t want to confirm or deny anything in my private life because I don’t want to make it seem like I’m open to having people digging into my personal life, real or imagined. I see a lot of people struggling with this, and I don’t want to get sucked into celebrity-culture stuff. The one thing I will say is that I live entirely in New York. I don’t know where this idea came about that I would live remotely close to Texas. I travel a lot, but I’m based in New York.
To go back to Elon Musk’s Twitter activity, the timing of everything struck me as odd because around the time these rumors surfaced [of you dating Grimes], he began tweeting more memes attacking the use of pronouns, and the transgender community, and liberal attitudes toward gender. Those seemed like subtweets about you, and that struck me as pretty bizarre.
Yeah, sure. My response was a meme back. The one thing I will say is: he around that time definitely seemed transphobic, and rumor or speculation aside, that’s off-limits. I’m going to respond to it. Any transphobia in a transphobic environment is not OK.
When it comes to transphobia, I feel like the Dave Chappelle stand-up special was an important cultural flashpoint, and I wrote the first piece on it criticizing its transphobic jokes. And I’m sure you deal with far worse on a daily basis, but the response to the piece was nuts—a lot of vile, transphobic messages. It seemed like an attempt to mainstream transphobia, making it the centerpiece of a Netflix special by the biggest stand-up comedian in the world.
This is the far-right playbook. This is what they’ve done in other countries and other situations. You look at Germany in the 1930s and it was a very similar thing with the Institute of Sexology and Magnus Hirschfeld’s work. It has happened in the past, and it doesn’t stop with trans people. The far-right strategy has always been to go back to the 1950s. One of the things that alarms me from a personal perspective is that everybody is pining to go back to a more traditional time in the past that never existed, which means that trans people aren’t even in the picture.
I wanted to ask you about Julian Assange. I’ve found it strange when the person who helps break the story becomes—
That’s a good way of putting it. It feels like the amount of credit or adulation Julian’s received for publishing the materials feels disproportionate to that which you received for assuming most of the risk.
Well, I know what I know, and I’m limited to that. I’m not sure what I can share or expose, and I don’t know what I can and can’t talk about. And especially since the grand jury, I’ve been very hesitant to discuss it. I’ve been very careful about how I can respond to this, and I’m going to continue to do so. The federal government has made it very clear that I can’t, and it sucks, because it’s not like I don’t want to talk about it. Is Chelsea Manning gagged by the U.S. government? Yes. I’ve been gagged by the U.S. government since 2007. I’m forever gagged until the U.S. government declassifies everything and gives me permission to discuss it.
Since Lady Gaga’s played a rather significant role in your story, have you ever gotten to meet her?
No, I don’t think so. Pop superstars tend to be very private. There are plenty of musicians who I’ve met and are fans of. My favorite one is, I went to Moogfest in 2018 and got to see and meet KRS-One. I was very excited for that one. Me, Michael Stipe from R.E.M., KRS-One, and a bunch of my synth-electronic friends got to hang out. There are two people I really want to hang out with but haven’t gotten to just due to the world and scheduling: Tom Morello and Trent Reznor. I’ve been wanting to meet both of them. But KRS-One was a big one. He went down such a different path than the rest of hip hop with the commodification of the art form. I respect artists who stick to the art and try to veer away from all the other stuff.
To go back to the present, you’ve stayed in one spot—Brooklyn—for longer than you ever had, so how are things right now in the life of Chelsea Manning?
I have found some footing. I’ve found some stability. The book is coming out. I’ve gotten some work, I’m lecturing, and I’ve been doing a little less activism lately just because I’ve been very busy trying to get my footing post-pandemic. I will be back to it. I’m trying to get healthy. I’m running again, and I’m out and about again. My goal to this day is to try to do two miles in under 14 minutes, which is very hard. I get mistaken for someone who’s in their early 20s all the time, and I’m hoping it stays that way for as long as it can.