War is a Queer Issue, but Bradley Manning being Queer is a Non-Issue

(This speech was given in full at the We Support Bradley Manning Concert in DC on May 21, 2013, and in part at the Mass Demonstration to release Bradley Manning in Ft. Meade on June 1, 2013.)

Hello everyone, and thank you for inviting me to speak here tonight. To avoid any speculation later, and because I have the privilege of being able to speak openly and for myself, I’ll just come right out and say that I am genderqueer and use they/their pronouns. I have the privilege to be able to talk about my identity in an open setting without a lot of speculation and without people co-opting my identity for their own agendas.

I would like to express the radical notion that war is a queer issue, but Bradley Manning being queer is a non-issue. There’s a lot of discomfort and debate around Manning’s identity. For some, this comes from a place of wanting to be respectful of Manning’s identity during a time in which we are unable to hear from him directly. Fair enough. Others have been using it to further their own agenda. But ultimately, his sexual orientation and gender identity are completely irrelevant in this case, and the focus on his queer and possibly trans identity has actually detracted from the real queer issue: that our military is being used to promote and push forward an imperialist and neoliberal agenda that is damaging to people all around the world, including (and perhaps especially) non-heterosexual people.

Through military invasions, sanctions and drone strikes, our government is punishing those who refuse to fall in line. People are being killed, queers and trans folks included. Furthermore, these acts are being justified through the rhetoric of gay rights, as the shift in global discourse about how we judge other countries has gone from the woman question to include the gay question. The question of how other countries treat their women has become “how well do you treat your homosexuals,” and this question has been used to wage war, deny aid or impose sanctions, without examining how women and queers are treated in this country.

Every movement should be anti-occupation, anti-criminalization and anti-punishment, because these are the most common tools of oppression. There is a fantasy of the efficiency and righteousness of law enforcement and human rights and legal systems. But these systems break their own laws constantly to engage in or support violence. Why do we focus on human rights and democracy when talking about other countries? This rhetoric is used as an excuse to violate those very values. US moral superiority does not bare scrutiny when we look at the death penalty, killing and incarceration of children, stance on LGBTQ rights, and human rights in general.

Between the torture and humiliation Manning endured in prison and the media interest in his sexual orientation and gender identity, the content of the leaks themselves seemed to lose some of their importance. This certainly worked to the administration’s advantage: it is easier to justify the mistreatment of a traitor who “aids terrorists” (and is a fag at that) than try to justify and spin the killing of innocent civilians in a war that had long lost its popularity. Despite his military background, the right won’t support Manning on account of him being a traitor and a fag. Despite him being queer, the left hesitate to support him because he exposes the war crimes of Obama and his administration. The left seems much more eager to speak out against war when it’s the right committing the crimes.

Manning is important to the LGBT movement not because he is queer, but because he brought home the realities of war. He complicates the mainstream gay agenda by exposing the atrocities of the US government, forcing us to have a more nuanced approach to gay rights than the right to serve. The ways in which the mainstream gay movement celebrated the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell is contradictory on several levels. The mainstream gay movement celebrated the fact that gays and lesbians were now able to serve openly in the military, without acknowledging how US military presence negatively impacts the lives of gays and lesbians in the countries we are bombing. The mainstream gay movement celebrates gay and lesbian service members, but abandoned Manning when he attempted to show the true face of war. In fact, the celebration of the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, while intending to be a mark for gay equality, has had the effect of enforcing a policy of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell for our government: Don’t Ask about the impact of our foreign policy, and Don’t Tell about our violations of human rights.

Manning needs our support not because he is gay but because he followed his conscience and is being punished for it. It is easier to lock one person up than to take a critical look at the leaks and ask the important questions: how did we get here? Is this the impact we want to have on the world? How will the people whose lives have been affected ever heal from this?

This would be a queer issue whether or not Manning was gay. But the fact that he is just makes him more of a convenient scapegoat. If Manning wasn’t queer, I hope there would still be queer folks invited to speak, because it would still be a queer issue.

Dooler Campbell is a genderqueer organizer and educator working on their Masters degree in Social Justice. They spent over two years studying and working in the Middle East, including a year doing direct action and solidarity work in Palestine. They are passionate about social justice, intersectionality, and dismantling systems of oppression. Read other articles by Dooler.