TRA(NS)I(S)TOR: Bradley Manning and the Fear of the Technoqueer

There’s nothing like a good, ol’ American dose of anti-queer hate and transphobia to wake you up in the morning (see above image).

Nothing is remarkable about the above attempt at political critique and kneejerk ad hominem condemnation (I actually am troubled about having to repost it), but rather what is remarkable (in the light of my introductory dissertation chapter) is the way that the furor over Bradley Manning, who now identifies as Chelsea, is and has become inextricably wound up with fear over sex, gender, bodies, technology, and information.  Mad Magazine‘s riff on the G.I. Joe brand and pop iconography conflates Manning as soldier, Manning as traitor, Manning as man, woman, with manhood, without masculinity, media sensation, news story, and finally, toy.  The text that frames the above “joke” reads:

PRIVATE’S PARTS DEPT.

In what is surely a new standard for chutzpah, convicted traitor Private Bradley Manning announced that while he’s serving prison time for betraying his country, he would like that same country to pay for hormone treatments so he can become Chelsea Manning! Ironically, such an outrageous demand does take balls. Science can transform a person’s gender — it’s too bad it can’t transform a person into less of a douche.

Though Manning was not technically convicted of being a traitor (re: “aiding the enemy”), they are clearly being convicted of being a traitor to their gender, their “god-given” body, and their normative role as a good soldier, a good American, and so on.  The irony is the play with masculinity.  Manning has all too often been described as small, weak, feminine — in other words, queer and all too stereotypically “gay” — which indicts them further in the eyes of the culture-at-large and the culture of the military.  They are already feminized by their work with digital technology (rather than perhaps the guns-and-tanks of “real war”).  But what masculinity Manning is perceived to possess is still undercut and used against Manning.  Mad Magazine’s calling attention to Manning’s “chutzpah,” “balls,” and gall to seek gender-reassignment surgery on the taxpayers’ dollar is “ironic” and laughable (though there is no thought here to the hetero- and cisnormative things “we” pay for all of the time: pregnancy and childbirth, football injuries, gun violence, corporate douchebaggery).  Again, Manning cannot live up to the standards of masculinity as a man and is exceeding the standards of femininity by seeking to be a woman.  And in some further twist of transphobic logic, I would argue that Mad Magazine inadvertantly articulates the further gendered fear over woman/feminine as national traitor in its blase acceptance of science’s transformative power.  In other words, what is worse than a man being a traitor to his country?  A woman (but she is already-always a traitor).  So, Manning’s moral, patriotic, and technological lapse is explained and written off as the product of their queerness.

I guess Manning’s case and treatment (in all senses) extends the lines of thinking from my dissertation work.  Sadly, their case and treatment do not alter much of what I surmised and critiqued.  I leave you with an excerpt from my first chapter on the “technoqueer” (this was written and submitted before Manning’s trial and sentencing):

What is remarkable about Manning’s case, for the purposes of this chapter, is the way speculation about his sexuality and gender identity have surfaced in recent months and how his confusion, exploration, and persecution over these identities are inexorably linked to his use of cybertechnologies and his alleged cybercrimes.  According to reports, Manning sought refuge online, chatting via AOL’s instant messenger service under the nickname “Bradass87,” searching out like-minded and like-identified others.  According to Steve Fishman’s New York magazine profile, Manning used the Internet “to transform himself.  On the web, he could be whomever he chose.”  Fishman continues, “Among fellow soldiers, Manning had to conceal the basic facts of his sexual orientation.  On the web, he was proudly out and joined a ‘Repeal Don’t Ask Don’t Tell’ group.  He’d even begun to explore switching his gender, chatting with a counselor about the steps a person takes to transition from male to female.”  In the world of computers and hacking, Manning could live and imagine the possibilities of selfhood and self-fashioning that transcended his limits and limitations, both personal and societal.  Fishman identifies Manning’s embodied tensions saying, “In the gravityless world of the web, Manning could be all he wanted to be—gay, patriotic, and powerful, too…When his computer was turned off and his Army comrades returned, his superpowers disappeared.  The members of his platoon didn’t consider Manning a warrior, not like them.  He’s five foot two and 105 pounds, as ‘tiny as a child,’ one former soldier said.”

Manning’s continuing story and media representation—both as hacktivist darling and cyberterrorist pariah—reveal the varied and often conflated layers of a technologically mediated subject.  Manning’s body, mind, and motivations complicate any discrete and unitary definition of man, soldier, homosexual, son, hacker, transgender, patriot, criminal, and victim.  His struggles with his own identifications and his place in the military are complicated by his proficiency with computers and the cultural narratives, both positive and negative, told about cyberspace.  Even as the United States is on the eve of repealing “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell,” Manning’s case underscores a long legacy of institutionalized homophobia and transphobia most dramatically and colorfully set into motion by the “Lavender Scare”[1] of the 1940s and 50s, which dovetailed with McCarthyism in the rooting out of “Communists and queers” from the government and military and the pathologization of homosexuality as “perversion” and “sickness” by medicine and psychiatry.  Moreover, the longstanding ban on and criminalization of homosexuality in the US military reinforces the idea that homosexuality and the armed forces are incompatible as outlined by the U.S. Code Title 10 Subtitle A Part II Chapter 37 Section 654 entitled “Policy Concerning Homosexuality in the Armed Forces,” what is now referred to as “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”  The section reads, “The armed forces must maintain personnel policies that exclude persons whose presence in the armed forces would create an unacceptable risk to the armed forces’ high standards of morale, good order and discipline, and unit cohesion that are the essence of military capability” (a.14) and “The presence in the armed forces of persons who demonstrate a propensity or intent to engage in homosexual acts would create an unacceptable risk to the high standards of morale, good order and discipline, and unit cohesion that are the essence of military capability” (a.15).  In other words, homosexuality is read as incommensurate with the good of the nation and queerness is equated with corruption, failure, and risk.

Like Alan Turing, who succumbed to Britain’s version of the “Lavender Scare,” Bradley Manning’s sexuality cannot be decoupled from his masculinity or perceived lack thereof, his expertise, his role in the war effort, and his arrest as a traitor.  Like Turing, Manning’s sexuality and difference are seen as security risks.  And like Turing, Manning’s ability with and affinity for technology, particularly computer technology, made him an even greater risk and danger to the safety of the nation and the technologies of war.   It is these circuits, these practices, these technologies that the technoqueer must unpack and understand.  It is not surprising that Manning is currently awaiting a “706 board” inquiry.  Manning’s attorney says, a Rule for Court-Martial 706 board “is comprised of three Army mental health professionals.  Their task will be to conduct a thorough mental examination of PFC Manning to determine if at the time of the alleged conduct he suffered from a severe mental disease or defect, whether he was able to appreciate the nature and quality of his conduct, and whether he is presently suffering from a mental disease or defect” (“PFC Manning”).  It is not difficult to make the interpretative leaps here to connect Manning’s struggle with his sexuality and gender identification to his liability and security risk to his confidence in cybertechnologies.  If Manning is found to be mentally “defective,” a term historically used to describe those queer, the very system he sought to escape through cyberspace and the very technologies of war he sought to disrupt will both condemn and recuperate him.

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