Chelsea Manning will come back to a world that has changed even more than she has.
When the Army soldier was convicted by court martial in July 2013 for leaking classified material to WikiLeaks, coming out as a transgender woman shortly thereafter, public awareness of transgender issues was nowhere near what it is today.
Transgender soldiers could not serve openly in the military. The word “transgender” had never been uttered in a State of the Union address. There were no landmark transgender rights cases headed to the Supreme Court. Laverne Cox had just started her high-profile role in Orange is the New Black. North Carolina had sparked national backlash with discriminatory legislation that specifically targeted transgender bathroom use, nor had Target publicly defended its restroom policy. Caitlyn Jenner went by another name.
So when Manning is finally released on May 17—much earlier than she would have been had President Obama not commuted the remainder her decades-long prison sentence this January—what place will she find, if any, in the transgender movement of 2017?
“I don’t imagine her living a private life,” said Chase Strangio, Manning’s lawyer and a staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, in an interview with The Daily Beast. “I imagine her being incredibly engaged on issues that she cares about—particularly on issues of trans justice.”
Manning herself is not scheduling new interviews at this time, according to a representative who told The Daily Beast: “We are focused on Chelsea’s security and resettlement now and [in] the months immediately following her release.”
In a lengthy statement released earlier this month, Manning said, “For the first time, I can see a future for myself as Chelsea. I can imagine surviving and living as the person who I am and can finally be in the outside world.”
At the end of the statement, Manning hinted at possible post-release activism: “I hope to take the lessons that I have learned, the love that I have been given, and the hope that I have to work toward making life better for others.”
What shape that work will take, however, remains to be seen. In the immediate aftermath of her release, Manning will remain on active duty as an Army private and be eligible for health care benefits pending the ongoing appeal of her court-martial conviction, as USA Today’s Tom Vanden Brook reported, noting that she could be dishonorably discharged if the appeal is not successful.
In the meantime, Manning will not be paid and Strangio has so far raised $135,000 through a GoFundMe to cover her immediate living expenses.
“The focus for everyone [right now] is just getting her out of custody safely, with tools and resources set up to support her in the coming days, and weeks, and months,” said Strangio.
Manning will be primarily focused on the transition out of prison the immediate aftermath of her release, said Strangio.
Held in a men’s facility at the U.S. Disciplinary Barracks at Fort Leavenworth and forced to conform to male grooming standards, the Army private successfully advocated for access to medically necessary transition-related health care, receiving approval for hormone therapy in 2015 and receiving approval for sex reassignment surgery the following year after a hunger strike.
She has reportedly attempted suicide twice, receiving a solitary confinement sentence after one attempt.
Something as seemingly simple as being able to grow out her hair will be incredibly meaningful to Manning, who made reference to her “routinely forced haircuts” in her statement.
Despite the fact that Manning has been allowed female hormones for years, she has been required to keep her hair no longer than two inches long. This requirement explains why—as the GoFundMe noted—Manning still “prefers” prison photos showing her with short hair rather than other images showing her wearing a wig: “They capture the reality of her prison life.”
That reality is about to change—and so, too, will Manning’s ability to express her gender. For those who have advocated for her rights from outside of prison, Strangio included, merely watching her transition will be gratifying.
“When the commutation came down [in January], I was so emotional for so many reasons,” he said. “But perhaps the most visceral feeling that I had in that moment was this overwhelming relief—to the point that I was feeling physical relief—just thinking about her ability to control her body and her expression of her gender for the first time in so many years.”
But it won’t be too long, Strangio anticipates, before Manning reenters public life. In many ways, she never left it.
Her treatment in prison drew media attention to the plight of transgender prisoners, the vast majority of whom are held in facilities that do no match their genders. As The New York Times reported in a front-page January story, Manning has been reading a diverse array of books and magazines, ranging from the Princeton Companion to Mathematics to Vanity Fair.
“I look forward to her process around deciding what makes sense for her and what feels best,” said Strangio. “But I do feel like she’s someone who thrives on engagement: intellectual engagement, emotional engagement, and just advocacy itself—and the whole driving purpose of her life in so many ways has been about service to others and service to the public.”
Strangio is aware that public opinion is divided on Manning’s disclosures to WikiLeaks and her subsequent conviction under the Espionage Act.
Some consider her a hero; others a traitor. YouGov / Huffington Post polling conducted in January revealed a complex public reaction to Obama’s decision to commute Manning’s sentence: Overall, only 33 percent of Americans approved it and 47 percent opposed.
While Democrats were far more likely to support the commutation than Republicans, a substantial 28 percent of Democrats still opposed it.
LGBT rights groups, on the other hand, have generally stood by Manning. Lambda Legal, the National LGBTQ Task Force, the National Center for Lesbian Rights, and the Transgender Law Center all signed an ACLU letter supporting her application for clemency. The National Center for Transgender Equality sent its own letter.
The Human Rights Campaign praised the commutation decision as a reflection of President’s Obama’s “strong record regarding the humane treatment of prisoners and a long commitment to LGBTQ equality.” The media advocacy group GLAAD has been vocal about bad reporting on Manning that misgenders her or uses outdated terminology.
But Strangio hopes that no matter what people make of Manning’s actions, they will be able to recognize her core humanity and support her transition.
“What’s important is honoring the person that she is and recognizing, whether people agree with what she did or not, that she’s a person of deep conviction, of deep patriotism, and of deep commitment to community and to her vision of justice,” he said, noting that “she has suffered an unbelievable amount at the hands of our government and is living prison with so much grace and without much bitterness.”