Bradley Manning, the US soldier who is being accused of supplying classified military documents to Julian Assange’s WikiLeaks, appeared in front of a military court on 17 December 2011. Using a rather unusual strategy, his defence team argues that Manning has been experiencing issues regarding gender identity and sexual orientation, which have made Manning emotionally fragile and unstable. It will be very interesting, for Manning and other people experiencing issues with gender identity and sexual orientation, to see how the US legal system will deal with these statements.
Same-sex sexual orientation and the military are two topics that have a turbulent history. Bill Clinton’s policy of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was only abolished by President Obama earlier this year, which obviously doesn’t make it any easier for individuals with same-sex sexual preference to serve in the US military. The fact that Bradley Manning experienced difficulties with his sexual orientation whilst serving in the army is not surprising. Stories of gay, lesbian and bisexual individuals experiencing difficulties in the military have made the news in multiple cases over the years. Something that is more surprising to be brought up in this context are Manning’s gender identity struggles. Although sexual orientation and the army have a known and troubled history, the history of gender identity issues and the army constitutes somewhat of a dark spot.
“Breanna Manning” is the name of the female identity that Manning assumed on Twitter whilst being stationed in Iraq. Although there can be absolutely no question that gender identity struggles can be an extremely heavy burden on someone’s state of mind, it is highly doubtful whether the court will consider creating an online female alter ego as compelling evidence for experiencing gender identity issues. In addition to the online alter ego however, Manning is reported to have carried medical pamphlets relating to hormone treatment. If the exact reasons why Manning was undergoing hormone treatment can be clarified by medical experts whom Manning would have consulted prior to receiving hormone treatment, and these experts can testify of Manning’s gender identity struggles, then the defence could possibly have a strong point to make.
The reasoning behind the strategy of Manning’s defence team seems to be the following: When an individual’s mental stability can be questioned, it is in turn questionable whether that person can be held fully accountable for performed actions. It’s not a plea for insanity, but a plea for mental fragility and instability. This might be the most effective strategy that the defence team can come up with, and it might potentially be beneficial for Manning, but whether it will benefit the LGBT community is another matter.
Although it could be argued that Manning’s case might raise public awareness with regard to sexual orientation and gender identity issues, these factors are at risk of being completely overshadowed by the seriousness of the charges and the inhumane detention regime. The fact that Manning has been ill-treated since has was arrested is widely known, and although the prosecutors will not push for the death sentence, the grave acquisitions would indeed allow such a horrific appeal. The problem with this defence strategy is that it is highly unlikely that the responsible US governing bodies will consider Manning’s gender identity and sexual orientation struggles to be of much significance in relation to the charges. The US military and governing bodies need to save face, which will not happen when someone that is accused of ‘aiding the enemy’ is let off the hook by acknowledging mental fragility and instability caused by gender identity and sexual orientation issues.
Not only could this defence strategy work out bad for Manning, it might also have a negative impact on the wider LGBT community. For a start, those who are quick to judge will argue that Manning’s case shows that the army is no place for people from the LGBT community. In addition, by showcasing Manning as an individual who is mentally fragile and unstable due to his gender identity and sexual orientation issues, there is a significant risk of shortsighted stigmatisation of individuals in the wider LGBT community as exhibiting the same character treats by default. In order to avoid these potential adverse effects of the chosen defence strategy, Bradley Manning’s legal team must make it very clear that Manning’s issues, and similar issues experienced by members of the LGBT community, are not by default inherent to the LGBT community or its members, but find a catalyst in the conservative and un-accepting surroundings that LGBT people live and work in.
The defence team will argue that Manning’s fragile mental state should have permitted Manning from receiving access to the US classified information network in the first place.
They will ask why a thorough psychological assessment of Manning wasn’t performed, and if it was, why Manning’s gender identity and sexual orientation issues weren’t flagged. These questions answer themselves. Elaborating on personal issues like these, in an environment like the US military, is a challenge that many would rather avoid. And if the US military wasn’t aware of Manning’s issues, they were being plainly ignorant judging by the picture featuring above. So where does that leave the defence of the case?
If the defence team is aiming to steer the court towards a situation in which it is forced to choose between A) LGBT individuals not being suitable for the army, or B) the US army culture being too conservative to deal with LGBT matters and being in urgent need of progressive reforms, then they will ultimately find themselves disappointed. The aforementioned schism is too much of a hot potato for US governing bodies and American society as it is, so if anything, US governing bodies will desperately try to avoid these topics during Manning’s trial by deeming them irrelevant.
Where does this leave all the stakeholders involved? Manning is in all likeliness facing a long jail term. The US military and governing bodies will save face whilst avoiding handling the LGBT-Army hot potato topic. The ignorant masses will be none the wiser about LGBT issues, and any existing prejudice is likely to be strengthened. The LGBT community will have to try and deal with the stigma of mental fragility and instability as a default character treat, instead of being the result of external pressures by conservative environment being an instigator and catalyst of these issues.
Let’s hope I’m wrong.