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Letter From Leavenworth: Chelsea Manning Discusses ‘Personal And Emotionally Tough Letters’ From Trans People

Editor’s Note

Chelsea Manning and Kevin Gosztola exchanged letters in September and October during and just after she was punished by the Army for having expired toothpaste and LGBTQ literature. The second round of letters appears below. The first round of letters were published on November 3.

Dear Chelsea,

I greatly appreciate your response to my first letter. Unfortunately, I do not have an answer for why I waited more than two years after your trial to write you. I do know I am glad I finally wrote you a letter.

In this letter, I will ask you a few questions about what you shared and raise some new subjects I did not touch upon in my first letter.

When you reply, you will no longer be on “recreation restriction.” What was it like to live under this punishment in Leavenworth for 21 days? I imagine the punishment piled on top of the military’s refusal to let you grow out your hair may have been rather agonizing at times. And, also, if you can answer, why were you unable to get a more formal trial as you requested?

I saw your first post for Medium where you recount how you handled the news that the military will require you to keep your hair short. If I understand correctly, your ACLU lawyer, Chase Strangio, will fight this in court. What are the next steps to ending this prohibition against growing your hair? And what gives you hope that you will prevail and one day be able to grow out your hair?

Some victories against the Army have already been won. That you managed to battle and push the Defense Department to provide hormone treatment was momentous. You are in one of the worst places to live openly as a trans person—a United States military prison—yet you maintain the fight to be yourself. How do you see what you are doing as a model for other trans people, who face adverse situations?

I was particularly struck by the statement in your letter, “I can’t be myself. Every time I try to assert my existence, or define myself on my own terms, I get beat up by the world. I’m really scarred, bloodied, and bruised at this point.” While it is easy to want to give up, there are hundreds of thousands of people out there, who support you in your continued struggles, including your effort to live openly as a woman and your appeal in your case.

I imagine you sometimes have trouble finding the time to read all the mail you receive, but it must provide you considerable strength to connect with people on the outside, who are inspired and grateful for what you’ve done over the past five to six years. What is it like to read a letter from a supporter?

There are artists who have been inspired by you. Singer Graham Nash wrote a song called, “Almost Gone” and brought significant attention to your case. Singers Cass McCombs and David Rovics wrote songs about you. A play about you was developed by Tim Price and performed at the National Theatre Wales. A short featuring 8-bit retro video game animation was created by Adam Butcher, who is based in the United Kingdom. An array of actors, musicians, and other well-known people in the world have previously expressed support.

What, if anything, were you most amazed to find out had been inspired by you and your case? And who were you most pleased or shocked sent you a letter? Anyone you never imagined would write to you?

In my previous letter, I asked about the Army confiscating your copy of the Senate intelligence committee report on the CIA’s torture program. The issue of censorship of reading materials in prisons is critical. There are a number of well-known books banned from Guantanamo Bay military prison, including An American Slave by Frederick Douglass, The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank, The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare, Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh, and one I recall was on your reading list, A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn.

It now would appear some of the books confiscated from your cell could be considered banned books. In addition to that episode, are there any specific books the Army has ever refused to let you read? On a much less serious note, what are you reading now? And is there anything on your list you are looking forward to reading?

I very much enjoyed the response you gave to my questions about movies, and it is good you have chances to break up the monotony and misery of prison every now and then with a movie.

“Die Hard” is a brilliantly conceived action movie. “Mean Girls,” which was adapted into a script by the extraordinary Tina Fey, left a huge mark on our generation. In fact, I wonder if you have ever felt like the Army must draw inspiration from “Mean Girls” when deciding how to treat you.

I cannot say I have a favorite high school “coming of age” comedy, but I do have a favorite “coming of age” comedy: “Big.”

“Big” with Tom Hanks is great because we all have moments as kids where we wish we could be adults. We become adults and experience life’s regular trials and tribulations and wish we could be kids again. The film also reminds us not to take life so seriously all the time. Those moments when we get to play and have fun are to be treasured.

The Marvel films can be excellent popcorn entertainment. I rather enjoyed “Captain America: Winter Soldier.” However, it has a bit of a subversive message, as it somewhat deals with the effect of the security state on privacy and liberty. Has the Army screened that one at the prison?

Back in 1999, The Wachowskis set the bar for science fiction films with their techno-dystopian vision. “The Matrix” popularized the idea of taking the red pill or the blue pill. Most of your supporters would probably say you took the red pill. For making that choice, you live a more difficult life, but at least you now know the truth of reality.

It has been a delight to exchange letters. I will anxiously anticipate another letter from you in the not-so-distant future.

Best,

Kevin Gosztola

Chelsea Manning’s Reply

Kevin,

You are absolutely welcome to write to me! It is always a pleasure to hear from you.

I’m glad you asked about my recreation restriction last month and earlier this month. The timing was awful emotionally. The day that I started the restrictions lined up in such a way that the awful news about the fact that I’m going to have to go through another long, drawn out legal battle over something very simple and personal happened about the same time.

I felt very hurt—a lot more than I expected. To make matters much worse, my main outlet for emotional support and comfort when I’m feeling depressed, anxious, lonely, or hurt is music. I don’t have access to anything that stores music whatsoever, but I do have a radio—and that was taken away the same day. It compounded everything by making me sit alone in a quiet, empty cell. I felt really, really small and insignificant. I haven’t felt that bad in years.

I was denied a formal trial regarding the charges this summer because the prison claims that the charges are “administrative” and not criminal. They argued that because they are created by a regulation and not by law they are purely administrative. Yet, an administrative board in lieu of a court-martial outside of prison affords far more protection for personnel in the military than these boards for inmates. This is troubling because these boards for prison discipline yield far, far more power than most other administrative boards in the military, such as the “non-judicial punishment” boards under Article 15, Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ).

The problem with these boards, as we saw in August, is that they are basically rigged by the senior staff. You cannot win once your charges go to a more serious “three member” board, because the board must be approved by the senior staff to go ahead. So, unless you provide the senior staff of the facility with the information, typically by informing on other inmates, then you are going to serve “SHU time” (pronounced “shoe”)—time in the “Special Housing Unit” where inmates are normally held for months and years in conditions of solitary confinement. The way that board members see people at a “three member” board is that you must have done something to make it to such a board so they will always dole out some kind of punishment.

I believe that there are two reasons that I didn’t receive anything beyond recreation restriction—(1) the public scrutiny and fear of pressure from the military leadership; and (2) to prevent me from being able to appeal to a higher authority within the regulation.

As to how to answer your question regarding being a “model” for other trans people in adverse situations—I have absolutely no idea. I am really only fighting a very personal battle that quickly gets dragged into the public no matter what I do. For example, when I tried to petition for a change of name in Kansas in early 2014, I tried to do it quietly—and succeeded for awhile. Then, with only a few weeks until the actual hearing, it spilled over into the news. I wanted my name change to be nothing more than a formality, but it turned into a little bit of a circus. Even the spokesperson for the Army at the time had to comment. I have since stopped trying to do things quietly anymore. I am a little more forthcoming regarding my battles now.

I wrote the statement saying that “I can’t be myself” while I was still on recreation restriction so it’s really raw and emotional—actually the whole letter is probably more raw. This is a reflection of just how personal these battles really are. I spend nearly an hour to an hour and a half every week in psychotherapy talking about even more than this.

Reading letters from supporters has become a personal pastime in the last few years. At first, when I was at the Marine Corps Brig in Quantico, I was not allowed to read them because I had to add people to a list of names and addresses to send and receive mail, and they were from complete strangers. I was a little perplexed and curious. Who were these people? Why are they writing to me? Why are there so many letters?

Since then, I am allowed to go through every single piece of mail—and I have made it a (sometimes challenging) policy to read through every single one. I don’t have the resources to respond to everyone, and the majority of letters and cards don’t have return addresses anyway—but I read every single one.

The really personal and emotionally tough letters to read are the ones from other trans people. I really relate with all of them. I try my best to reach out to them because I want them to know that I appreciate their support. I especially tear up when I get letters from queer and trans kids and teenagers. I was one of them once, and I remember those years intimately. I’m glad the world has changed a little bit—but it still worries me that these young kids are growing up with such a disadvantage. Ugh, I’m getting emotional just thinking about it.

Right now, it does not appear that there is any kind of “ban” on political books. However, I believe that the investigators and senior intended to send a message and prove a point by confiscating them. I still haven’t received the books and magazines back. I have read many controversial books over the years, as well as books that are basically the backbone to any formal philosophy and political science education. It wasn’t until around the last week of May of this year that friction over such books started, but I haven’t seen any formal “bans.”

Yes, they did play Captain America: The Winter Soldier here at the prison. It’s typically the movies with a lot of strong or violent sexual content that don’t get played here—movies like David Fincher’s version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. I was only able to watch that movie during a break in the trial. At trial, guards brought portable DVD players for the long breaks and we would eat food—and popcorn—while watching movies. The scary looking guards taking me into and out of the courthouse in 2013 were great guys. I liked them a lot!

I just watched The Avengers: Age of Ultron this weekend! Another fun treat of a movie to just sit, watch, and enjoy—preferably with snacks (I saved a bag of Doritos from the rations order just for the occasion).

I think it’s very interesting that all of the comedians and actresses that the late Christopher Hitchens cited as being “unfunny” once—like Tina Fey and Amy Poehler—are some of the ones that I find the funniest. I wonder what he would have thought about Amy Schumer!

With Warm Regards,

Chelsea Manning



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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof Press. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."