Chelsea Manning's announcement that she will henceforth live openly as a woman has been big news in the US for over a day now. The various U.S. media outlets have been tripping over Chelsea's name, gender pronouns, and themselves in their rush to publish. The political leanings of many a publication can be discerned by their choice of pronoun, the more socially conservative publications tending to note Chelsea's announcement but then continuing to refer to her as Bradley and he. Not even the more typically moderate and liberal media have been immune, with National Public Radio notably using male pronouns. Overall there is confusion all around, once again showing that although U.S. society has gotten used to people coming out as gay, it has a long way to go before a person coming out as transgender seems ho-hum.
WikiLeaks and the Manning case have been in the background of my mind for some time. I don't believe that anything I wrote as a Foreign Service Officer (FSO) was in the materials leaked by Manning, but I would not have to go far to find a colleague whose writings were among those that made their way to WikiLeaks. As an FSO, I recognize that we write our reports in the expectation that they will be circulated only to a small, select readership. It's that expectation that allows us to write candidly to educate and influence decision makers about conditions in the countries where we serve. Some of the materials leaked did make our work more difficult. What foreign government official will want to speak openly with an embassy official if a summary of the conversation might appear in a mass-circulation publication? As an FSO, I tended to look at WikiLeaks as an embarrassment, but then I moved on, allowing the Manning case to drift into the background of my consciousness.
I don't remember when I first heard that the defense had begun to make an issue of Manning's gender dysphoria. I know I grimaced slightly at the time, thinking that this is just what the transgender community needs, a controversial figure who may be coming out as transgender. Then I turned the page and went about my own business.
In the aftermath of her announcement and the ensuing media frenzy, however, Chelsea Manning has been very much on my mind. I believe Jennifer Finney Boylan has it just right in her Washington Post article when she writes that she wishes for the day when "Chelsea and I seem boring." Amen to that.
It seems that many of us who make the difficult decision to be public and live in the gender with which we identify do so after loss. I know I did. Turning around the words of Janis Joplin, "Nothing left to lose is another word for freedom." It was that sense of having lost most everything I had spent a lifetime trying to build and preserve that propelled me forward in 2010. Most of my life savings were gone. I expected my career would soon follow. After all, in my lifetime I had seen that this was the usual fate of transgender persons who came out or who were outed. I felt I truly had nothing further to lose, and that is what allowed me to walk across the threshold and to begin living as I had always wanted to live. With a 35-year prison sentence awaiting her, could that be Chelsea Manning's feeling as well?
My transition in Romania was not as public as Chelsea Manning's, but it was news. It took a number of weeks following my announcement in November 2011 before it dawned on me that I had, indeed, become a public figure of sorts. I was not and am not an actress on the main stage, but go around that stage to the more distant meadow or nook stage in this theater of life, and you will find me in the lineup there. It was not a place I ever expected to be, but finding myself there, I have tried to be an example to others even though I know I am not above reproach in this life. In my new role as president of Gays and Lesbians in Foreign Affairs Agencies, I am aware that my mere presence is a validation, a statement to other State Department colleagues in our far flung posts that is OK to be transgender. If that makes life even slightly easier for someone who might otherwise hide as I did for decades, then my visibility is worth the price.
Since transition, however, I have found that the most gratifying, happiest moments have nothing to do with being a public person. They have been the private moments, the family moments. Being called mom and working side-by-side in the kitchen with my emotionally adopted daughter in Bucharest, chopping and preparing vegetables for roasting -- those are my precious memories. A little stuffed donkey named Buffy sits by my bed and greets me each morning as a reminder of close friends on the other side of the ocean.
Chelsea Manning is giving U.S. society a teachable moment. With time the publicity will fade. Although it may be many years in the future, the time will come when she, too, will find herself at peace and happy in the private moments that make up our lives. May the time come for all transgender persons when we are seen as boring, left in peace to roast our vegetables and live our lives without fear.