At her lowest moments during her seven-year incarceration for passing more than 700,000 government files to WikiLeaks, Chelsea Manning would turn to music to find the strength to persevere, even when it meant singing a favorite song to herself—such as Rihanna’s “S.O.S.” That track, from 2006, conjures another difficult period in Manning’s life. “I was out in Chicago living homeless, but it reminds me of good moments even during hard times,” she says.
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Indeed, it’s often the hardest times from which Manning has drawn the most penetrating insights. In Iraq as an intelligence analyst, she witnessed tremendous suffering, but seeing the fragility of life also taught her to appreciate its preciousness. “I really got to understand that I needed to be myself,” she recalls. Galvanized, she began to explore her identity during military leave. “I wore women’s clothes in public for the first time and started experimenting with different identities and names as a trans woman,” she says.
Manning demonstrates a whistle-in-the-wind tenacity that belies the trauma she’s had to contend with. Her Twitter account is a joy to follow—crowded, as it is, with emojis, and punctuated with her signature hashtag #WeGotThis. In prison those were the words she deployed as a coping mechanism: We got this. Released on May 17, some four months after President Obama commuted her 35-year sentence, Manning wasted no time in adapting to social media, a space that suits her rousing bonhomie. “There’s a lot of commentators out there, but I don’t feel that’s my role,” she says. “My role is to motivate people and remind them that there are ways in which we can defend ourselves.” She illustrates her point with a powerful example of community activism. “One of the most inspiring moments for me was when that Confederate statue was taken down in Durham, North Carolina, after Charlottesville,” she says. “I look to that and just see normal people who are engaging in an action against hatred.” She had a similar experience in prison, where the entire apparatus is designed to humiliate the incarcerated. “I was influenced by shows like Law & Order when I was a kid: There’s a bad guy, they get arrested, they go to jail, and that’s the end of the story,” she says. “But it’s not the end of the story. People live their entire lives in prison and have to survive.” She recalls the endless red tape that inmates must navigate just to get simple necessities like soap and toilet paper. “If there was a problem with your paperwork or it went missing, you wouldn’t get your rations—because someone screwed up somewhere,” she says. “So, the inmates would offer each other help, to make sure people had basic necessities in order to survive.”
Dress: Christian Siriano
As with prisoners, so with the wider trans community—endlessly forced to justify their needs. “We face struggles and challenges in so many aspects of our life that are about more than just visibility and being out there,” says Manning. “The bathroom bill has turned into a battleground, but trans people didn’t start that battle—it wasn’t an issue until it was turned into one, and it’s a way to undermine our ability to even exist.” For Manning, the first 10 months of Trump’s presidency have served to illuminate what was always there. “This is not a new reality—this is what reality has been the whole time,” she says. “It’s more in our face than it’s been before, but after this we’re still going to be facing the same threats—they just seem bigger now.” Taking it in her stride, Manning is hard at work: She’s been penning op-eds for The New York Times and headlined The New Yorker Festival in October. “There’s no way they’re going to shut me up,” she says. “The more they intimidate me, the louder I get.”
Photography: Roger Erickson
Styling: Michael Cook
Makeup: Angela DiCarlo
(Cover) Dress: Christian Siriano
Photographed at TriBeCa Journal Studio, New York, on September 21, 2017