6 min

Sex and security

Why are gay media in the US ignoring Bradley Manning?

Bradley Manning was accused of espionage and arrested by US authorities in May 2010.

In the rush to accuse or excuse WikiLeaks figure Julian Assange, most of the media has avoided what is a potentially larger and more interesting story. Bradley Manning, a 22-year-old gay US soldier, has been in solitary confinement in the US Marine Corps’ brig at Quantico, Virginia, since last July. It is alleged that, while stationed in Iraq in 2009, he downloaded the 250,000 secret US diplomatic cables that eventually wound up being distributed by WikiLeaks.

Manning was arrested and charged in May of 2010 and originally faced as many as 52 years in prison. On March 2, 2011, MSNBC reported that 22 new charges had been filed against him, including “aiding the enemy.” Though prosecutors say they won’t seek it, a conviction on that charge could get Manning the death penalty. The WikiLeaks documents include the Apache gunsight video taken at the July 12, 2007, Baghdad air strike, the now-called “Collateral Murder” video and some F-18 gunsight video of the Granai air strike in Afghanistan. It is difficult to tell whether the US government is more embarrassed by the content of the material or the fact that so much of it leaked at once and seemingly so easily.

Much has been made of reports that Manning’s treatment by the US government is cruel and unusual and that his mental and emotional state is deteriorating because of it. He is reportedly sequestered alone for 23 hours a day in a 72-square-foot windowless cell in which he’s not allowed to exercise. The only furnishings are a bed, toilet and sink. He has no contact with other prisoners and is allowed only one book and one magazine at a time. He is not permitted to keep writing materials – though he can access them at times – and he is shackled during attorney and family visits.

On March 4, The New York Times reported that Manning’s clothing was occasionally taken from him and that he was made to stand naked outside his cell for inspection, a humiliating punishment inflicted on no other inmate. First Lt Brian Villiard, a Marine spokesman, told The Times, “A brig duty supervisor had ordered Private Manning’s clothing taken from him,” that the move was “not punitive” and that it was “in accordance with brig rules.”

“It would be inappropriate for me to explain it,” added Villiard. “I can confirm that it did happen, but I can’t explain it to you without violating the detainee’s privacy.”

The sheer meanness is stunning, as is the irony in the protection of personal privacy argument posed by jailers who confirm stripping and humiliating Manning. But the issues here are larger than just petty officials acting out.

“I’ve actually asked the Pentagon whether or not the procedures that have been taken in terms of his confinement are appropriate and are meeting our basic standards,” US President Barack Obama told a White House press conference on March 11. “They assure me they are. I can’t go into detail about some of their concerns, but some of this has to do with Private Manning’s safety as well.”

Marjorie Cohn, professor at Thomas Jefferson School of Law in San Diego, and past-president of the National Lawyers Guild, wrote on her blog on March 26 that Manning’s treatment resonated with an inclination to torture that has infested US government thinking and action over the past decade. And certainly Manning’s forced nakedness resonates with the treatment by US military personnel of prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq that came to light in 2004.

“Obama’s deference is reminiscent of President George W Bush, who asked ‘the most senior legal officers in the US government’ to review the interrogation techniques. ‘They assured me they did not constitute torture,’” wrote Cohn.

All this brings to mind the history of homosexuality perceived as a national security risk. Those fears – that gay people were likely targets of blackmail by foreign spies or otherwise generally pitiful, weak and untrustworthy – were the basis of endless discrimination and harassment after World War Two. It led, in 1953, to Eisenhower’s Executive Order 10450, which banned homosexuals from working for the US government.

In their new book Queer (In)Justice: The Criminalization of LGBT People in the United States, Joey Mogul, Andrea Ritchie and Kay Whitlock explore how queer identities are – consciously or unconsciously – conflated in the mainstream with dangerous criminality. It’s a perception that influences how queer people are treated by the criminal legal system and government agencies in the US.

While no one could reasonably claim that queer Americans are inherently less patriotic than straight ones, there is a case to be made that people confined to the margins of any system are more likely to be wary of that system. One of the things that is notable about the WikiLeaked documents is how benign and routine most of them are. In fact, there seems little that someone bent on attacking US interests would find of any use. Except, of course, that some of the most inflammatory documents Manning is alleged to have leaked are about barbarous and careless acts perpetrated by members of the US military against innocent civilians.

Assange and Manning are caught up in espionage charges, and both are painted as sexual deviants, but the public presentation of the details of their separate cases seems to vary. Assange’s sex life is openly discussed, yet even as an accused rapist, the sexual content here seems somehow presented with intent to titillate. Manning’s sexuality, and his forced nakedness, seems to emphasize his humiliation and emasculation.

Did Manning’s position as a gay man in the armed forces, or even in the US, lead him to make a moral decision about the actions of his government? It is impossible to know at this point – certainly he is in no position to say for now – but one thing is clear: the connections between sexuality and national security, between outsider status and national loyalty, are much more complicated than the media has allowed.

Outrage over Manning’s treatment is finally pushing some people to more direct action. US congressman Dennis J Kucinich, interviewed on MSNBC said, “It appears they’re trying to break him. This is not defensible. There is no way, stretch of the imagination that this could be allowed, or that this should be happening in America… I just want to say one thing if I had a chance to talk directly to Secretary Gates: he’s at the end of his career. It would be a shame to have a blot on his record that suggests he suborned human rights violations. There will be consequences under the law for Secretary Gates for continuing to be complicit in the way this soldier is being treated.”

Amnesty International has sent a series of letters of protest to US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. Filmmaker Michael Moore and Pentagon Papers whistle blower Daniel Ellsberg have lent their names to The Bradley Manning Support Network. Kucinich wrote to Gates arguing that solitary confinement will exacerbate Manning’s “mental problems” – military mental health specialists recommended against sending Manning to Iraq in the first place. Kucinich asked Gates to investigate the conditions under which Manning is being held and to supply him with mental health treatment.

That Manning is being held as some sort of pretrial symbol of how seriously the US government takes confidential documents is kind of a no-brainer. It is also no surprise that Assange’s arguments against his own extradition to Sweden are predicated on his fear that Swedish officials will then ship him off to the US, where he is likely to be subjected to the kind of mistreatment Manning is enduring.

It is not as though journalists have ignored Manning altogether, but developments in his case are rarely lead stories. Reporters often skew the timeline of events, mix rumour with fact and otherwise flub details, but after Manning’s sexuality became public a month after his arrest, it was usually mentioned in the news stories. He was outed in a pure exploitation piece on the Gawker website. Entitled “Was WikiLeaker Bradley Manning Betrayed by His Queer Identity?” it asserted that Manning might be transsexual, an unsubstantiated rumour. The report goes on to allege that Manning was turned in to the FBI by a man with whom he had flirted online. The gay-trashing quickly became a staple on some conservative blogs.

“Have you seen a picture of Bradley Manning?” Ann Coulter wrote on Dec 10. “The photo I’ve seen is only from the waist up, but you get the feeling that he’s wearing buttless chaps underneath. He looks like a guy in a soldier costume at the Greenwich Village Halloween parade. With any luck, Bradley’s court-martial will be gayer than a Liza Minnelli wedding. It could be the first court-martial in US history to feature ice sculptures and a Wizard of Oz-themed gazebo.”

More responsible journalists have downplayed Manning’s sexuality, perhaps in an attempt to avoid the nonsense in which Gawker indulged. But the US gay press has written very little on Manning at all. The Advocate did a brief non-committal article on Manning on Dec 25 that garnered a mass of reader comments in support of Manning. Many readers called him a political prisoner. Readers were clearly engaged, so why the dearth of coverage in the US gay press? Is it an attempt to dissociate Manning from his stated sexuality in order to dissociate the US gay movement from Manning’s alleged crimes? Are publishers of gay publications in the US afraid to defend Manning, or even examine his case, because doing so could complicate the assimilationist fights for same-sex marriage and Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell?