By: Keegan O’Brien—
CeCe McDonald and Pvt. Chelsea Manning (formerly known as Pvt. Bradley Manning before recently coming out as transgender) are queer freedom fighters and political prisoners. The movements to free and defend them are two of the most significant queer struggles of our time, but have remained largely sidelined from the mainstream LGBTQ movement. CeCe McDonald is a black transgender woman from Minneapolis who faced life in prison for defending herself against a racist transphobic hate crime. Activists built an international solidarity campaign to free her, and although they did not win her release from prison, they managed to get her sentence reduced to two years. Pvt. Chelsea Manning is a name most Americans are probably more familiar with, as her case has become international news in recent years. Pvt. Manning leaked thousands of “classified” military documents to Wikileaks, and as a result helped expose hundreds of war crimes and violations of international law the U.S. had committed.
While grassroots movements have emerged in recent years to free these brave women, shamefully, both have been largely ignored by mainstream LGBTQ organizations, often times referred to as Gay Inc. But why do they ignore these causes and what should we do about it? To answer that, we need to address why these cases should even concern the LGBTQ community, let’s start with CeCe McDonald. On the most basic level, this is a case regarding the rights of oppressed people, including queer folks, to defend themselves, by any means necessary, against hateful and bigoted violence. No one should be punished for defending themselves against a hate crime–it is that plain and simple. But it’s more than just that. CeCe McDonald’s case is just one example of an all too frequent reality of discrimination and violence experienced by trans women, disproportionally trans women of color. According to a 2010 National Center for Transgender Equality Study, trans women make up 40 percent of hate crimes victims every year. For many trans women, simply walking out the door and stepping into the public world puts them at a tremendous risk of violence, harassment, and sexual assault.
But the problems don’t stop there. CeCe McDonald’s case illustrates how racism and transphobia permeate every level of America’s criminal injustice system. While George Zimmerman was set free and eventually found “not guilty” for racially profiling, stalking, and then murdering Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager, CeCe McDonald was immediately arrested and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law for defending herself against a racially motivated transphobic hate crime. George Zimmerman was considered within his right to stand his ground and kill an unarmed black teenager, but CeCe McDonald who defended herself against a hate crime was not. The message is clear: in the eyes of the criminal injustice system people of color, queer folks, and trans people have no right to defend themselves against racist, homophobic, or transphobic violence because our lives are of little value. There is no excuse for the neglect by Gay Inc. that has been shown toward CeCe’s case, and the important issues of racism, transphobia, and discrimination inside the criminal justice system that it involves. These issues, and therefore CeCe’s case, should be considered central to any LGBTQ organization, which seeks to address the multiplicity of problems that affect a broad and diverse LGBTQ community. [pullquote]While George Zimmerman was set free and eventually found “not guilty” for racially profiling, stalking, and then murdering Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager, CeCe McDonald was immediately arrested and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law for defending herself against a racially motivated transphobic hate crime. [/pullquote]
At first glance, Pvt. Chelsea Manning’s case seems less directly connected to LGBTQ politics. But, that is only possible if we operate on a narrow framework of what defines queer struggles. Pvt. Manning’s case is about protecting the right of ordinary people to speak out against institutions of political power without fear of repression and retaliation. Transparency and accountability in government are necessary for the healthy functioning of any democratic society. We should be holding accountable politicians and military figures who were responsible for these injustices in the first place, not punishing those who exposed them. If those in power can silence Pvt. Manning, then that only gives them more power to marginalize us when we speak out for sexual and gender justice. Defending civil liberties and the right to dissent need to be cornerstones for every progressive movement, including those for sexual and gender minorities.
Pvt. Manning’s decision to leak these documents was rooted in a profound empathy she held for people both inside and out of American borders. This kind of international solidarity represents a politics that the LGBTQ movement should strive toward as well. We are not free in the U.S. until LGBTQ people are free and equal everywhere, that includes freedom for queers in the Middle East from the violence and destruction of American war and occupation, something Pvt. Manning was aware of. Gay Inc.’s failure to recognize this, and their continued support for U.S. militarism at home and abroad, hampers our ability to build truly international solidarity between movements for sexual and gender justice.
Pvt. Manning’s treatment as a prisoner at the hands of the military justice system and the corporate media, first as a gay man, and then as a trans woman, have been deplorable and obscene. Pvt. Manning has been subjected to physical and physiological torture, solitary confinement, ongoing homophobic and transphobic violence and harassment while being locked inside military prison. Since coming out as trans, Pvt. Manning has continually been ridiculed and denigrated by the corporate media. The unwillingness of media outlets like Fox News and CNN to respect Pvt. Manning’s chosen gender identity and use proper pronouns contributes to fostering an overall transphobic culture where the very existence and legitimacy of trans people’s identities are not taken seriously or respected. In a society already plagued with high levels of anti-trans hate crimes and trans suicides, this only makes matters much worse. While the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) and the Gay and Lesbian Advocates Against Defamation (GLAAD) have released public statements condemning the media’s miss-gendering of Pvt. Manning and the overall transphobic response, this is not nearly enough in comparison to the resources they have and what is actually needed to win Chelsea’s freedom. We should be demanding and expecting much more from organizations that fundraise millions of dollars from the LGBTQ community and claim to represent us. [pullquote]The unwillingness of media outlets like Fox News and CNN to respect Pvt. Manning’s chosen gender identity and use proper pronouns contributes to fostering an overall transphobic culture where the very existence and legitimacy of trans people’s identities are not taken seriously or respected. [/pullquote]
Why do mainstream LGBTQ organizations continue to remain silent in the face of these injustices? Answering this question requires taking a critical look at Gay Inc.’s politics. Mainstream LGBT organizations like the Human Rights Campaign, have pursued a narrow marriage centered agenda that views social progress and change coming from politicians, judges, and lobbyists inside the halls of power for over two decades. As a result, they long ago abandoned any commitment to building grassroots protest movements that could challenge the political power structure and pressure them from below. Protests, civil disobedience, and speak outs have been replaced by expensive black-tie fundraisers, professional lobbyists, and corporate sponsors. Instead of holding politicians accountable to our goals as a movement and demanding more of them, particularly the Democratic Party, Gay Inc. has continued to employ a “don’t rock the boat” strategy whose goal is to assimilate into the neo-liberal status quo, not dismantle and transform it. Unsurprisingly, this has meant that most mainstream LGBTQ organizations have completely abandoned any real efforts at addressing the range of political issues that affect LGBTQ people, such as racism, labor rights, economic justice, the criminal justice system, transphobia, queer youth issues, and more. While marriage equality is an important civil rights issue and deserves to be defended and fought for, social justice and equality for LGBTQ people also includes many other struggles, something Gay Inc. seems to have forgotten a long time ago.
Like the fight for same-sex marriage equality, CeCe McDonald and Chelsea Manning deserve to be important causes championed by the LGBTQ movement. It is shameful that they are not. Pvt. Manning and CeCe McDonald are examples of ordinary people’s capacity to challenge oppression and to stand up for justice in the face of extraordinary odds, and in the process inspire the world. From the Gay Liberation Front to the AIDS activism of ACT UP, these brave trans women’s willingness to challenge the power structure and remain firm in their convictions for justice, stands in the best traditions of our community’s history. [pullquote]Gay Inc’s decision to stand on the sidelines of these important campaigns only contributes to further marginalizing them. At best, Gay Inc’s silence lends legitimacy to the idea that their struggles are unimportant, and at worst it reinforces the argument that these women, not the system, have done something wrong. [/pullquote]
Gay Inc.’s decision to stand on the sidelines of these important campaigns only contributes to further marginalizing them. At best, Gay Inc.’s silence lends legitimacy to the idea that their struggles are unimportant, and at worst it reinforces the argument that these women, not the system, have done something wrong. This is unacceptable. Gay Inc. holds onto millions of our community’s dollars and has access to a mainstream audience radicals dream of; it is our responsibility to pressure them in whatever ways we can to focus on these issues and continue to build these women’s campaigns. CeCe and Pvt. Manning are queer freedom fighters who deserve the support of their own community. Their neglect at the hands of Gay Inc. is a betrayal to the values and principles that we as a movement should stand for. We owe it to everything Pvt. Chelsea Manning and CeCe McDonald have sacrificed, to LGBTQ people everywhere who continue to face oppression, discrimination, and violence, to our right to dissent and fight back against institutions of power and systems of injustice without fear of retaliation, and the future of our movement and the principles it will stand for, to stand by their side and demand their immediate release.
For more information on Cece McDonald, click here. For more information on Private Chelsea Manning, click here.
*Keegan O’Brien has been an LGBTQ activist since high school and is a Boston native. He is a former youth steering committee member of BAGLY, was an activist with Join the Impact-MA, a student organizer for the National Equality March in 2009, and is a graduate of the University of Massachusetts Boston in American Studies. He is invovled in a range of social and economic justice and anti-war issues, is a member of the International Socialist Organization and is currently living in Brooklyn and attending Hunter College’s Masters in Teaching Adolescent Social Studies program. He plans to return to Boston and become a public high school teacher. He has written extensively on LGBTQ social justice issues, his writings have appeared in The Rainbow Times, TheNation.com, The New Civil Rights Movement, and SocialistWorker.org. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Mr. O’Brien seems to be using a carbon-based beings version of mixed metaphors, as well as wallowing in socialist rhetoric well past its shelf life.
I distinctly remember the CeCe M. case and I absolutely agree that her incarceration is an indictment of the penal system, and that the racial division is still alive and well in our society. But to make her a poster child for all that is wrong with hetero-normative society’s treatment of LGBTs is ridiculous. To begin with, she just wanted to be left alone; at the time of the crime. There were enough witnesses to have put the other participants in her harassment away for a goodly while but it was Ms. McDonald who ended up getting the shaft. No doubt about it. But she is not the new face of the revolution. The system failed her because no one EVER listens when it comes to something uncomfortable and that is exactly what she represents – the uncomfortable truth about the on-going biases of the global public at large.
As to the matter of Pvt. Manning, FIRST AND FOREMOST it doesn’t matter what the reason behind the crime was; she is no better than Edward Snowden for her act of treason. To use Manning’s transition as an EXCUSE for leaking thousands more documents (probably ones that Snowden is smacking his forehead for having neglected to release)is worse than ludicrous; it reduces trans people to simpering, weak-willed idiots who will do anything in the name of goodness, except take responsibility for their own actions.
And before Mr. O’Brien or anyone else elects to jump down MY throat……I am a trans woman, more warrior than powder puff for sure, but all trans woman just the same.
I AM OFFENDED that people keep finding excuses for the aberrant behavior of transgender people of any stripe who cannot control their own impulses. What does Manning’s transition have to do with treason, other than both words beginning with the letter ‘t’? And why is Inmate McDonald elevated to God-like status for getting screwed by the legal system? She wasn’t the first and certainly won’t be the last!
Let’s keep the rhetoric down to a listenable level and stop trying to co-opt people in unfortunate/dire circumstances because you found a way to make them icons for YOUR cause(s)! Nothing will ever get fixed until we fix the perceptions of hetero-normative society that we deserve equal rights and representation!
Start there, Mr. O’Brien, and leave Manning’s sad future to the hands of whatever court(s) eventually take the issue of her crimes.
Petition Obama to free Manning
Really Tom? So it’s okay to hound Edward Snowden to the pits of hell for doing the exact same thing but Manning should get a pass because (s)he was confused about her gender orientation?
If (s)he isn’t going to take responsibility for her actions, let’s then leave it to the courts. But A PARDON? Get real!
Manning was a whistle blower revealing widespread government corruption, cover up, and war crimes. She should be pardoned. And Snowden shouldn’t be hounded any further, as he did all of us a favor by revealing the truth behind NSA spying. We are still a free country that values an informed citizenry. Aren’t we?
Manning LEAKED CLASSIFIED DOCUMENTS. There are reasons they are classified; often good ones, sometimes not so much. But when the line between the need for secrecy and the clamor for transparency collide, a mess ensues.
While I don’t really believe that ignorance IS bliss, there are already too many private matters being made public, for people who have their own clashing ideologies.
Are you (also) advocating that we should hold press conferences to lay out the plans for ‘secret’ missions? I’m not a hawk but I know what a secret agenda is supposed to look like.
Once again………Manning LEAKED highly sensitive and classified documents and for that she needs to be held accountable. Whining about her gender identity just makes the rest of us look nearly insane.
Chelsea, regardless of one’s opinion regarding her actions, approve or disapprove, is ill and needs intensive psychotherapy. She has a diagnosis of borderline personality, narcissistic personality, and other behavioral disorders. She needs help, because people with these disorders suffer with them. I say let her out and allow her to make her transition. But she needs intensive psychotherapy regardless of anything. These disorders are treatable but require the person suffering from them to be honest and committed to therapy. I wish Chelsea the best, but she needs help. Pretending otherwise is the worst thing that could happen to her.