Reactions to a Sketch of Chelsea Manning Reveal Transmisogyny

What’s wrong with this picture? 

Screengrab from Guardian website.

Chelsea Manning, the transgender former solider currently imprisoned for her involvement with WikiLeaks, has spoken out against President Obama’s ISIS strategy, penning an opinion piece for the Guardian titled “How to make Isis fall on its own sword.” Responses to the article were predictably heated, in some cases focusing more on Manning’s genitalia than on her U.S. foreign policy insights. But Manning’s words weren’t the only aspect of the op-ed that drew criticism: In fact, according to a round-up on Twitter curation site Twitchy, many readers seemed more offended by the sketched image of Manning beside her byline than by anything she said.

Instead of the typical photograph, Manning’s “headshot” is an artistic rendering, which critics on social media and commenters described as “horrifying,” “laughable,” and drawn by “pissed off police sketch artists.” When the piece initially appeared online, most everyone seemed to assume that the Guardian had created the apparently distasteful image on its own. But according to editor Matt Sullivan, that wasn’t the case. “Just to clarify,” Sullivan later explained in a comment, “the illustration that accompanies the author bio on this piece was made in cooperation with Chelsea Manning, as an artistic representation of how she sees herself.”

Manning is currently serving a 35-year sentence at the United States Disciplinary Barracks in Ft. Leavenworth, KS. In an interview with Slate, Emma Cape, Campaign Organizer for the Private Manning Support Network, explained that photographs aren’t really an option at the maximum-security facility. In addition, Manning has repeatedly been denied medical treatment for gender dysphoria, despite being diagnosed by military doctors who recommend immediate treatment.

Because Manning is unable to transition as she would like, she felt it best to present her image through an artistic representation. Cape explained that the first draft was actually based on a Manning self-portrait. The self-portrait was sent to a professional artist who sketched a first draft. The image was sent back to Manning for input, revised one last time, and then sent for her final approval.

That the Guardian put this much time and effort into portraying Manning as she would like to be seen is evidence of the organization’s sensitivity to transgender issues. And yet, many readers found the image lacking, presumably because it wasn’t “attractive” enough. This sort of response, whether it comes from someone who doesn’t believe in the legitimacy of trans identities or from someone who thinks of themselves as a trans ally, is a prime example of transmisogyny.

If you aren’t familiar with the term, simply removing the prefix should clear things up. Transmisogyny is essentially old-fashioned misogyny applied to the trans community. Much as some men like to tell women how they should look or feel authorized to decide what is appropriately “pretty” or “feminine,” so too do many people feel empowered to police the looks of transgender individuals. Julia Serano, trans activist and author of Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity, explains that jokes about trans people tend to focus on trans women—as opposed to trans men—because of the “cultural assumption that a woman’s power and worth stems primarily from her ability to be sexualized by others.” It is possible to affirm the existence of transgender people—in other words, to not be blatantly transphobic—and, in commenting on whether a trans woman is conventionally “attractive” enough or not, still be a transmisogynist.

Failing to contest Manning’s opinion on ISIS through intellectual discourse and instead expressing disapproval of her byline image is a pretty clear-cut example of the sort of ingrained prejudices trans people continue to struggle against. Let’s hope that the ignorant backlash doesn’t discourage actions similar to the Guardian’s going forward—actions that honor and affirm trans self-conception regardless of what others may find palatable.