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SF celebrates Manning's freedom

by Heather Cassell

Chelsea Manning's new photo after her release from<br>prison. Photo: Courtesy Twitter
Chelsea Manning's new photo after her release from
prison. Photo: Courtesy Twitter  

Chelsea Manning's release from a military prison last week was celebrated in San Francisco at the annual International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia rally in the Castro.

Manning, a former Army intelligence analyst, was convicted of releasing some 700,000 sensitive documents to WikiLeaks. She was sentenced to 35 years in prison in August 2013 following a court-martial.

President Barack Obama commuted her sentence in January, just days before he left office, and Manning was released May 17.

Manning, 29, came out as transgender just after her conviction.

At the San Francisco IDAHOT rally, gay former Assemblyman Tom Ammiano rallied the crowd of about 400 with laugher.

"I'm glad that she got out today because if she had remained in jail any longer her cellmate could have been Donald Trump for doing the same fucking thing," Ammiano said, referring to news reports that the president unveiled classified intelligence information to Russian officials in the Oval Office.

"I long to hear her say, 'Walk a mile in my bucks, bitch,'" he said to the roar of the crowd.

Manning's plight â€" she was serving her sentence in a men's prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas and was not allowed gender confirmation surgery â€" drew supporters from around the world. Last year she attempted suicide twice, according to media reports.

However, Manning now faces new challenges. For one thing, she is still in the Army. It was widely reported â€" incorrectly â€" that she was dishonorably discharged after her conviction.

Ryan Karerat, communications strategist at the American Civil Liberties Union, which is part of Manning's legal team, confirmed in a May 18 email to the Bay Area Reporter that Manning is "still considered to be on active duty in the Army until her criminal appeal is complete."

Manning's dishonorable discharge hasn't gone into effect. The discharge is still pending until the "Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces has either denied a petition or granted it and issued a decision," wrote Karerat.

Manning won't be paid a salary and it's unlikely that she'll be called up for active duty. However, she does have to follow military policy, including being careful about speaking and writing.

Being on "voluntary excess leave rather than discharged" makes her "vulnerable to new military punishment or charges if she steps out of line," David Coombs, Manning's military defense counsel, told NBC News.

"She wouldn't be charged again for the same offenses, but if she committed a new crime, the military would still have jurisdiction over her," Coombs told the outlet.


The Chelsea Manning Flashmob Dancers made a special appearance to celebrate the release from prison of Chelsea Manning at the May 17 IDAHOT rally in Harvey Milk Plaza. Photo: Rick Gerharter

Manning seemed to relish her newfound freedom. She tweeted "First steps of freedom," with a photo of her legs and feet, upon her release.

Chase Strangio, Manning's attorney and transgender advocate at the ACLU, told NBC News that her current focus is on "building her life."

"She is looking forward to eating pizza, swimming, playing PlayStation, and meeting the many friends who have supported her over the years but who were never allowed to visit in person," Strangio, who has become Manning's close confidant and conduit to the LGBT community, told the media outlet.

"Beyond that, she is waiting to experience life outside of prison before declaring any future plans," Strangio added. "After so many years of government control over her body and gender, I know she is eager to grow her hair, express her gender, and negotiate decisions on her own terms."

Her few tweets shortly after her release and a brief statement are the only engagement with the public that Manning will make for a while, except for a few exclusive media events, her advocates said.

"Chelsea does not plan to do any interviews in the coming months outside of a few pre-set exclusives," wrote Karerat, adding that Manning's "legal team are also unavailable at this time."

Fans and supporters celebrate

Fifteen different celebrations were organized for her release coinciding with IDAHOT, including the gathering in San Francisco.

At Harvey Milk Plaza in the Castro, it was a day to call out the horrors happening to gay and bisexual men in Chechnya and the Trump administration's effort to undermine LGBT rights in the United States.

However, it was also a day of celebration for Manning.

"This community here in San Francisco is at the forefront of not just defending her but speaking up," Jeff Paterson of Courage to Resist told the crowd.

Gary Virginia, emcee and coordinator of this year's IDAHOT rally in San Francisco and a representative of Gays Without Borders, agreed, adding that it took years of challenging the U.S. government on the "harshest sentence" given to a whistleblower in U.S. history.

"A lot of speakers spoke to the power of people," he said. "It wasn't some elected official [and] it wasn't some government group that eventually led to the release of Chelsea Manning. It was public pressure from around the world and seven years of hard work to try to keep an issue like that on the front burner."

Conscientious objector J.P. Kempkes, a 71-year-old transgender individual, applauded Manning, along with former defense analyst Daniel Ellsberg and former Central Intelligence Agency employee and contractor Edward Snowden.

Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times, in 1971. Snowden leaked National Security Agency surveillance practices on U.S. citizens in 2013.

"It was illegal what the government was doing," said Kempkes, who believes the American people have the right to know what their government was doing, especially running surveillance on average citizens.

Kempkes, who served in the military during the 1960s and who is a Manning supporter, told the B.A.R. that she would love to see Manning at San Francisco Pride this year.

"People from all over the country, and maybe all over the world, would come to support her for what she did," said Kempkes. "I know I would come to support her."

Manning was selected as a grand marshal for the 2013 San Francisco Pride parade, but the San Francisco LGBT Pride Celebration Committee board rescinded the decision.

It is unclear whether San Francisco Pride officials have reached out to Manning's representatives this year, or if she would appear at the Trans March.

Neither organization responded to the B.A.R.'s a request for comment by press time.

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