The subject of Chelsea Manning is something I’ve returned to many times. Her selfless bravery is something we should all aspire to, even if we shamefully understand that we could never endure the treatment she has received as a result of her actions. Yet Chelsea hasn’t been broken and even from her cell she speaks out against the evil in our midst. She is a living example of moral courage and strong character; she is also testament to a brutal system which continues to persecute those though oppose it using whatever means possible.
If you’ve read any of my previous writing on Chelsea you’ll probably know that I’ve found it fascinating, and not a little disgusting, that much of the mainstream LGBT community and media have largely ignored her. Groups like Queer+ Friends of Chelsea Manning are very much in the minority, with none of the big LGBT charities, organisations or magazines seeking to highlight her cause in any major way. Indeed, they’ve been more likely to actively support her erasure, as with the San Fran Pride furore which only resulted in the eventual honouring of Chelsea due to the campaigning of queers who would be labelled ‘radical’.
This response to Chelsea is particularly striking to me when contrasted with that afforded to Alan Turing, the brilliant gay mathematician and scientist who is widely credited as playing a pivotal role in World War 2 by breaking the German Enigma codes. Turing has recently been played by Benedict Cumberbatch in a Hollywood film, was given a ‘Posthumour Icon Award’ by Attitude Magazine (above) and is the totemic figurehead of a campaign to have the historical convictions of gay men for indecency quashed.
While few would deny that Turing was a remarkable individual, and a wronged one, I can’t help wondering why he is such an attractively ubiquitous prospect against the currently existing oppression faced by Manning. I think there are a combination of factors at play but there are two I’d surmise are crucial: Turing ‘fought the Nazis’ and Turing is dead.
The Nazis remain the ultimate reference for evil in our society, as evidenced by the many recent comparisons of ISIS to them. They’ve become less a historical reality than a grotesque caricature of villainy, a comparison point against which we can all feel morally superior. I’ve argued before that this is a facile, dangerous approach but it is nonetheless one which dominates. In being viewed as centrally important to the defeat of the Nazis, then, Turing is viewed not only as heroic but almost as saintly. Just look at that Attitude headline above: ‘The Gay Man Who Saved The World’. It is befitting a Saint that he is seen to have been persecuted not for anything he did but for ‘who he was’ – he is a Jesus-figure, an innocent betrayed by those he saved.
It’s not difficult to see where his death fits into this tragic narrative: Turing is more appealing symbol than flesh and blood person. It’s no coincidence that the recent Cumberbatch film largely elided the reality of his sexuality and instead used it to further frame him as tragic– we can’t have Jesus sullied by lust, desire and the distinctly unsaintly mix of bodily fluids which are so associated with gay sex. Turing is and must remain an innocent untainted by sex or even agency – an idealised victim who died for our sins.
If the successful campaign to have Turing pardoned has the air of asking Pontious Pilate to admit he got it a bit wrong, its extension to encompass deceased gay men convicted of indecent behaviour seeks to symbolically cleanse all of our sins. This government introduced legislation in 2012 allowing living gay men people to have their convictions quashed; the fact that extending this to the deceased has only become a cause célèbre post-Cumberbatch raises fascinating questions as to its motives and messages. It’s an uncontroversial, easy take on ‘social justice’. Fewof the victims are around to make things awkward; some of them might say that they don’t want or need a pardon from the homophobic authorities which persecuted them; some may point out that a ‘pardon’ suggests they did something worth pardoning in the first place. Most importantly, the crimes are seen to be in the past – there is literally zero discomfort for us alive today, who can basque in our moral superiority without having to consider, for example, how authority or indeed wider society treat LGBT people now. Only last week, for example, the Albert Kennedy Trust released a report suggesting that around a quarter of homeless youth are LGBT.
And so to Chelsea Manning. There can be no denying that Chelsea’s sexuality and gender status has been used against her. It of course shouldn’t be the case that we as LGBT people need only concern ourselves with injustices concerning others ‘like ourselves’ but as this is largely how the modern movement works, we must ask why Manning’s case is ignored. Well, for a start Manning didn’t fight an evil as obvious as the Nazis. No, instead Manning raised her voice to oppose evils perpetrated by our own governments, today. Manning highlighted our own hypocrisies and she challenged our own authorities. This is not behaviour which lends itself to a society and LGBT movement obsessed with pointing the finger at ‘acceptable’ evils (Russia, Uganda, ISIS) while believing ourselves to be morally superior. Manning’s actions are disruptive to the idea that we are the goodies in a great battle between light and dark and thus get in the way of our ability to feed good about ourselves.
Worse, even when locked up Manning won’t go away. She keeps holding a mirror up to our society, forcing us to wallow in our own vomit. Who’s responsible? We fucking are. Our response to Manning’s revelations and to our treatment of Manning offers us no comfort, no opportunities for smug righteousness. It’s no surprise, then, that we would rather eagerly pursue a campaign to pardon the innocent dead than one to free the persecuted living. Even in 2015 you have to be the right kind of victim and that is one which serves the notion that we as a society are the best we have ever been and, indeed, the best the world has ever seen. However right it may be, the pardoning of historic indecency offences is allowed to become a dominant demand because it threatens nothing and no-one. Rather it allows the system which still today oppresses queer people of colour, poor queer people, non-binary queer people, sex worker queer people, queer victims of imperialism and, indeed, Chelsea Manning, to claim that it is now accommodating and tolerant. All this once again demonstrates is that much modern LGBT politics is about securing a place at the table for comfortable white people, no matter how rotten the table may be. Even in 2015 you have to be the right kind of victim and that is one which serves the notion that we as a society are the best we have ever been and, indeed, the best the world has ever seen.