“I'm going to figure that out,” Manning told JuJu Chang in the exclusive interview, which aired on ABC News’ Nightline late Thursday night. “I’m going to find my place. I’m going to find out what I can do, what am I good at—what’s available as an option.”
She added: “I don’t know where this road’s going to lead me.” Instead, Nightline’s special episode on Manning spent much of its runtime re-litigating the path that first took the U.S. Army private to prison, specifically her controversial decision to leak classified information about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to WikiLeaks in 2010.
“Traitor or hero?” was the tagline used to promote the episode on Twitter—a question that has been continuously asked of Manning for eight years now, with no signs of public opinion on that topic growing any less bifurcated.
Still, Manning defended her actions, telling Chang that she felt a “responsibility to the public” and that her “intention” was to “do the right thing” by leaking the files.
More revealing were Manning’s responses to Chang’s questions about being a transgender woman confined in a men’s military prison, having to fight for access to hormone therapy, female undergarments, and cosmetics—all while being required to keep her hair cut short to conform to male dress and grooming standards.
“Health-care is something that prisoners have a right to,” Manning said, when asked why taxpayers should cover the cost of hormone therapy, going on to explain to Chang that “trans health-care is necessary… because if we don’t get our treatment, we die.”
Despite the fact that major medical associations have long attested to the necessity of this care, no one had received transition-related medical treatment in a military prison until 2015, when Manning won the right to undergo hormone therapy following a lawsuit, as Mother Jones recently reported. But Manning continued to dispute the hair length requirement and petitioned to receive sex-reassignment surgery, ultimately attempting suicide twice in 2016 as she lost hope for the future.
“And you grew so despairing that you tried to take your life,” Chang reminded her during the exclusive sit-down.
After a long pause, Manning said, “Yes.”
“You just want the pain to stop,” she continued. “The pain of not knowing who you are or why you are this way. You just want it to go away.” Manning’s sentence was ultimately commuted seven years into her 35-year sentence by outgoing President Barack Obama in mid-January—a development Manning first discovered, as she revealed on Nightline, when she saw a CNN chyron about Obama’s announcement on a prison TV.
After being released from Fort Leavenworth in May, Manning has been tweeting regularly and released an updated photo of herself to replace the grainy black-and-white selfie that has dominated news coverage of her prison plight. But she has only done limited press, posing for a New York Times Magazine cover story and now granting her first television interview to ABC News. Her release from prison was also captured by a documentary crew that has already spent two years filming, as Variety reported. (In response to a previous request for an interview, a representative for Manning told The Daily Beast that she is not scheduling new interviews in the immediate aftermath of her release, noting that they are “focused on Chelsea’s security and resettlement.”)
While imprisoned, Manning became something of a transgender icon—a status to which she is clearly still adjusting, as the Nightline interview revealed. In the interview’s most powerful moment, an emotional Manning read some of the letters she received from transgender children while in prison.
“They were seeing in me what I was looking for when I was their age,” she told Chang, voice faltering, “and that’s a lot of responsibility to have.
“I was in their shoes once,” Manning continued. “And I needed to have somebody to have the courage to do that too.”
But asked by Chang how she would fulfill the sense of responsibility she clearly feels toward a younger generation of transgender people, Manning said, “I don’t know yet. I just know they’re watching.”
The world is watching, too. But by every indication, Manning will take her time deciding what’s next.
As she told ABC News, “I haven’t even moved into my apartment yet, fully.”