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Lessons From Jason Collins and Bradley Manning

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AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File
AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File

For us gays, last week was a big week in the news, but as a gay man, I am pissed off about what two of those news events say about which types of stories of queer bravery and honesty will be celebrated by the country and which will not. I am worried about what their lasting impacts may be within an increasingly sterile American queer political scene.

The first, and apparently more newsworthy, story: Jason Collins, in his coming-out essay in Sports Illustrated, underlines the importance of honesty in his own decision to come out:

If I'd been questioned, I would have concocted half truths. What a shame to have to lie at a celebration of pride. I want to do the right thing and not hide anymore. I want to march for tolerance, acceptance and understanding. I want to take a stand and say, "Me, too."

The second, and less newsworthy, story is that of San Francisco Pride's decision to rescind its invitation to Bradley Manning to serve as a Grand Marshal in its yearly parade.

Queer politics and queer political identity in this country largely revolve around the idea of honesty. The foundation upon which queer identity is predicated, through the inclusive political action of saying "I am _____," honesty is the basis for queer personal and civil action and serves as a force for cohesion within an incredibly diverse community. Over these intervening decades of queer activism and growing political clout, we have developed a specific relation to this revelatory act. It works in two important ways: 1) by asserting a degree of openness and courage on the individual level, and 2) by bolstering the roster of the LGBTQ minority on the collective level. It adds to the overall degree of honesty within our society and acknowledges that increased respect for the truth can actually have an impact on the way that our citizenry comports itself.

Collins' coming out, and the corresponding media frenzy (the majority of it reassuringly supportive, right up to a shout-out from President Obama), underscores the significance of LGBTQ identities operating within the framework of our dominant, masculinist cultural institutions and is a watershed moment in the growing acceptability and downright feasibility of the gay political project. In celebrating Collins' courage and conviction (leaving aside, for the moment, the career and financial considerations that may have been behind his decision, which are probably best handled by someone who actually knows something about basketball), the media and our glitterati have lauded his capacity for modeling a space for gay men within the machismo of professional sports. Pride of place is given to Collins' bravery and conviction in coming out in the potentially damaging climate within which he operates, and for this I join the chorus in celebrating his decision to do so.

However, what is disquieting is trying to square, on the one hand, the celebration of one gay man's courageous decision (however expedient it may be for his career, which anyone would be foolish to fault him for) within the accepted framework of "coming out" as this queer generation's most salient morality play with, on the other, the abhorrent and ethically bankrupt condemnation from some of the most powerful queer political organizations in this country of another queer person's courage in not only sacrificing a career but risking life and liberty with an act committed in the name of honesty and truth.

Much more interesting writers (Glenn Greenwald at The Guardian, Scott Long on his excellent blog Paper Bird and Scott Thrasher of Gawker) have admirably railed against the political kowtowing of SF Pride's Lisa Williams with her scarily militaristic attempt to placate the military-industrial complex and their friends among her organization's donor base. SF Pride should be deeply ashamed by this fiasco, and those of us within the LGBTQ community that organizations like SF Pride claim to represent should hold them accountable.

The narrative of the aftermath of that decision by SF Pride and the swirl around Bradley Manning is that 1) curtailing American empire and economic and political ambition and exposing human rights abuses are not "gay issues," so there's no reason for gay organizations to get involved in any manner whatsoever; 2) Manning is queer but is not one of us "normal" queers who are just interested in civil rights; and 3) OMG AN NBA PLAYER JUST CAME OUT OF THE CLOSET!

Manning has been given little of the adulation from mass media for personal courage that Collins has been given. At 5-foot-2 and of slight build, Manning is a far cry from the traditional standard of masculinity that is embraced in this country's most homophobic institutions, and he is a much less palatable image of masculine courage than Collins (at 7 feet and 255 pounds, as he explains in his essay). Manning is a divisive figure at a time when the established political elite within the queer movement refuse to allow anything to dishevel a homogeneous view of a contemporary, politically benign queer identity (particularly when Manning's liberty is being constrained by a Democrat in the White House). It should be noted that Daniel Ellsberg, the celebrated whistleblower who released the Pentagon Papers, revealing massive campaigns of deception and warmongering by the state during the Vietnam War, had reportedly already agreed to serve as Grand Marshal in the San Francisco pride parade in Manning's stead, given that Manning is currently being held at Quantico.

LGBTQ people, as evidenced by the lovable clumsiness of that acronym, are an incredibly diverse community. I understand that once "terror" or "treason" are invoked, it becomes difficult for us to keep cool heads and discuss who Manning is and what Manning means to "our community" as we simultaneously try to define what "our community" wants. This is precisely why SF Pride, if it had stuck with the democratic process through which Manning was voted to be honored in the parade, would have been taking perhaps a politically dangerous stance, but the morally correct stance in the sense that it would support honesty and the courage to tell the truth. This is precisely the type of moral high ground that our political community should never surrender.

Many of us within this community have experience being victimized by the state. It is precisely the relation between queer identity and the potential for discrimination, defamation and actual physical harm that gives the act of honesty we call "coming out" its power. A large part of that act's power comes from the relation of the individual to the state: that the individual renounces membership in the privileged majority to join a stigmatized minority willingly. What unites LGBTQ people in this country has been precisely a shared experience of difference and victimization based on that difference by groups in power, and that victimization has often come in the form of the legal apparatus of the state itself.

That is why we celebrate a decision like Collins'. Manning's decision should just as readily be lauded by our community, despite (in fact, because of) its deliberate transgression of the line that separates the LGBTQ-identified from the rest of humankind.

We should be the loudest voices of support for Manning, particularly because of how Manning's queerness has played such a commanding role in media discussions. Since Manning's arrest, there has been a focus on Manning's alleged "mental problems," particularly sexual orientation and gender identity concerns. Such a caricature, one of an unstable youth rather than of a soldier with a conscience, has enabled the government and other detractors to maintain that Manning had no clear and legitimate motives with his leaks.

It is shameful how well this media "coverage" corresponds with the right wing's insistence that Manning's queer identity was a basis for what they view as treason, an argument reminiscent of the Lavender Scare, which accompanied the rampant McCarthyism and anti-communist sentiment that ravaged this country during the Cold War. As one particularly egregious example, Cliff Kincaid of Accuracy in Media suggested that the Conservative Political Action Committee should have sponsored "a panel on the dangers of the homosexual movement and why some of its members seem prone to violence, terror, and treason." He added that "there is a homosexual movement that has its roots in Marxism and is characterized by anti-Americanism and hatred of Christian values," and he specifically cited Bradley Manning as among this movement's membership.

Additionally, there exists a tension even among those within the LGBTQ commentariat who support Bradley Manning: Embrace Manning as a courageous figure who happens to be queer, but distance ourselves from or make a non-issue of queer identity as it pertains to the actions that Manning took. For example, Dru Levasseur, a transgender rights attorney at Lambda Legal, said on MSNBC, "Our opinion is there is no correlation between anything he has done and gender identity disorder. This plays into stereotypes that are not true."

These stances, while understandable as a defense against those who would assume that Manning only had some sort of radical queer vendetta in mind, distances the rest of the LGBTQ minority from an incredibly courageous member of our community. It is as damaging to say that Manning's experiences as an oppressed minority within a heteronormative war machine had no bearing on his actions as it is to say that those experiences were the only reasons for those actions. Indeed, we know for a fact that Manning was active in protesting against "don't ask, don't tell" before the WikiLeaks incident. To not ask how the LGBTQ community's experience as a stigmatized minority affects our actions simply reasserts the staid assimilationist politics of "we're just like you, except we're gay." It flies in the face of the whole reason for celebrating Jason Collins' courageous decision to come out, which is "we're just as capable of being exceptional as you, except we're gay."

This is particularly important to keep in mind when we consider that Manning's sexuality and gender identity appear to have played a role in the psychological torture that this individual has undergone. Manning has been subjected to prolonged solitary confinement, which carries the risk of severe psychological damage. On several occasions during that time, Manning was ordered to remove clothing and stand at "parade rest" in front of guards. It is difficult to say that this very specific form of degrading treatment has nothing to do with Manning's gender identity questioning. It should also be noted that such techniques were used in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars on detainees as a particularly culturally inflamed form of psychological torture. We also know the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture was denied an unmonitored meeting with Manning.

Manning is a political prisoner undergoing a show trial. The military has openly denied Manning's rights in order to create a calculated psychological impact, and no doubt to serve as a sharp warning to others who might consider exposing crimes and corruption. Manning is a person who has quite literally sacrificed everything in the pursuit of truth and justice. To assume that this issue is "too hot" for the LGBTQ community is a reflection of how narrowly queer politics in this country has come to be defined, how beholden the community's largest political, civil and cultural organizations have become to big business, and how craven our "leaders" can be in the face of controversy.

SF Pride had the opportunity to stand up for honesty and truth, as Collins did, and as all of us within the LGBTQ community have. The history of this country, particularly queer history in this country, shows that there is tremendous power in choosing truth, even when that truth makes others uncomfortable. Remaining silent or complicit in the continuing injustice perpetrated by our own government on one of our own citizens, simply to avoid "muddying" the queer political waters, is too high a political price for our community to pay.