Manning's Online Confidant: "I Was Concerned"

On Wednesday, Chelsea Manning was handed down a 35-year prison term by military judge Denise Lind.

One day later, she released a statement: "I am Chelsea Manning. I am a female," she clarified, officially identifying her gender after a trial that saw psychologists testify to her struggle regarding her sex. "I want everyone to know the real me. Given the way that I feel, and have felt since childhood, I want to begin hormone therapy as soon as possible. I hope that you will support me in this transition."

Over in Florida, a witness used by Manning's defense team — Lauren McNamara, a transgender activist and an online confidant of Manning — was happy for her, but concerned about what's to come. The Kansas military prison in which Manning will serve her sentence doesn't provide its inmates with hormone therapies or sex-reassignment surgeries, and will only provide counseling. Even if Manning is released on parole after eight years, as policy stands now, she won't have the opportunity to transition until then.

McNamara spoke to Manning online for several months back in 2009, after Manning came across McNamara's popular YouTube channel. Under the pen name Zinnia Jones, McNamara (who is in the process of transitioning into a woman herself) has posted a number of videos about religion, LGBT issues, and more. The two discussed Manning's struggle with her gender, and transcripts were later used at trial by Manning's defense lawyers. Bustle spoke to McNamara to find out how she is reacting to Manning's announcement.

How did you get to know Manning?

She started messaging me in February of 2009. She saw my YouTube videos, and she was a fan of them. I talk about politics, religious issues, LGBT issues, computer science topics, and so on. Those were things that interested her, too.

We talked for a period of several months, until August of 2009. She really opened up to me. She told me about what it was like to serve in the military, and some of her issues she had had during this time. Overall, she seemed to have a pretty positive outlook about it. She seemed to be someone who believed in her job as an intelligence analyst, and at the time, there was no indication that she intended to leak any sort of classified material. That happened way after we fell out of contact.

Did politics ever come up?

Based on my understanding of her, based on our conversations, she was someone who was very deeply concerned about world issues. On a personal level. She had a very personal empathy for that. When she spoke to me, she would talk about preventing civil war in Iraq, and how to deal with Guantanamo detainees.

She wanted to make sure that everyone was able to get home safely to their families — whether they were American soldiers or not. There was a very strong sense of empathy, even if they were very distant from her. This might have emotionally affected her so deeply that she might have reached a point where she thought that the only way she could put an end to this conflict, in the larger sense, would be to take drastic action. Which she did.

What was it like to testify at Manning's trial?

It was a very moving experience to actually be there. That was the first time I had seen Chelsea. Before that, we had only spoke online. Actually seeing her in person, for the first time, and realizing — this is not some abstraction, this is not some debatable issue of ethics and national security, this is a real person who's facing such a long sentence and such heavy charges — it was an incredibly emotional experience.

During the first part she seemed to be just staring straight ahead. I was concerned, because after everything she had been through, the conditions she had been detained under, and knowing what effect solitary confinement has on a person's mental health... I was very worried.

After I read out our chat logs, I was left alone — just me, and Chelsea, and her lawyers, and her guards. I didn't get to chance to talk to her, but she was talking and laughing and joking with her attorneys, and that was quite a relief. I could see that still, under everything, there was still a person there who had survived. That helped me relax — to know that this was still the person I had known and talked to.

How did you feel about her sentencing?

I felt it was an unnecessarily severe sentence. It didn't sufficiently take into account the isolation she was placed into, by the army, when they did not allow her to receive adequate mental-health treatment. There had been a history of incidents between 2008 and 2010, at least half a dozen. Anything that would lead to her being separated from the army would lead to them losing another analyst, when they were already understaffed.

How does mental health need to be factored in?

The denial of the care she needed? Don't underestimate the severity of this. According to studies, 41 percent of transgender people in the U.S. will attempt suicide at least once in their lifetime. Without treatment, that's co-morbid with depression, anxiety, substance abuse, self harm. With treatment, [being transgender can be] incredibly successful. It allows you to feel normal and comfortable for the first time in your life, even if you weren't sure why you always felt so anxious, why something always felt so wrong. This is exactly what kind of treatment she was denied access to, and the treatment [military prison] seeks to deny her that well.

There is no other effective treatment.

The issue of how trans people are treated in prisons is an extremely pressing one, even in civilian life. Trans women are often held in prisons with men, because they reduce it to issues of anatomy. It is very unsafe. A lot of sexual assault occurs in prison, and you put a woman in a men's prison? It's a disastrous situation to put them into.

How do you feel about the fact that transgender soldiers are still not allowed to openly serve?

Many of our allies — Canada, Britain, Spain, Israel, allow transgender people to serve openly. It's worth questioning why Israel can do this successfully, and not have an issue with it, but [in the U.S.], we're somehow incapable.

A study found that trans people are twice as likely to have served in the military as the rest of the population. Some trans women, fighting it internally to some degree, think they can overcome it if they just fit in hard enough. The military is a very hyper-masculine environment. Femininity is discouraged. So they would, for instance, join the military to be part of that hyper-masculine environment, and try to rid themselves of that.

Do you think transgender activists will seize upon this moment?

I can see people rallying behind Chelsea, and it's a good opportunity to have a conversation about how important this is. I'm hoping this does get more attention, and more press, so people are aware that this is something that matters.