I was happy to see Chelsea Manning on the cover of Vogue – but let's not pretend it isn't problematic

Two years ago, Caitlyn Jenner made headlines by becoming the first major transgender woman to appear on the cover of a national American magazine. Posing for Vanity Fair, in a shoot by the renowned celebrity photographer Annie Leibovitz, she simply and boldly stated: “Call me Caitlyn.”

Several years later, Leibovitz has again photographed a famous American trans woman, but one who could not be further removed from Caitlyn Jenner. 

Corporal Chelsea Manning has been a figurehead of trans activism globally for the last seven years. Ever since her imprisonment for leaking and distributing military information through the Wikileaks network, Manning has a been a torch paper for activism around trans prisoners, the military industrial complex and American aggression abroad. Her release, as a result of the commutation of her sentence by former President Obama in his last days, was rightly celebrated and heralded as a victory.

I remember openly crying on seeing Chelsea’s first selfie; getting a glimpse of the woman she had become, in spite of horrific violence and abuse, was an emotional moment. It is incredibly rare that we as a trans community are afforded victories; our heroes are rarely living. This is why Chelsea Manning matters. This is why her freedom is a crucial and defining moment in the fight for trans rights. 

Upon her release, Manning has been again thrust into the spotlight. In the age of Trump and his continued foreign aggression and assaults upon the American trans community, she has become a necessarily pivotal figure. Her Twitter presence shows a mixture of the same progressive leftism that defined her long struggle for freedom, and a new strain of joy and wonder, a chronicle of her emergence as a young trans woman. She speaks freely of the excitement and joy of emerging from prison able to live her as her authentic self.

In this context, Leibowitz’s shoot for Vogue must be understood as incredibly important. It is, after all, the first time a trans woman has appeared on the cover of Vogue. And yet its focus is troubling. It would be churlish to expect the world’s most prominent fashion magazine to offer a fully rendered and complex depiction of Manning’s entire life – after all, by its nature, Vogue celebrates the superficial and the surface-deep. 

It is, additionally, fair and right to allow Manning to indulge in that superficiality, to allow her to act up as the glamorous fashion icon after years of brutal attacks on her bodily and gender autonomy. To be clear, I have no issues with Manning whatsoever – I, and nearly every other trans person, owe her a debt.

But what concerned me, when I saw this iconic front cover, was how it feels like it has served to rewrite Manning. Under the lens of Leibovitz, she is no longer the fierce and committed anti-imperialist, no longer the survivor of grievously unfair judgment, no longer a champion for the silenced and those whose human rights have been abused.

She is instead repurposed as an easily consumable story of redemption, comforting any feelings of complicity and guilt that Vogue’s ostensibly liberal audience may have. She is redrawn in broad strokes, removing those elements of committed leftism which have defined her personal and political struggles – in Vogue, she becomes a politically neutral anti-war campaigner. There is no commentary on her frequently expressed anti-imperialist beliefs; more attention is paid to her reading habits within prison than to the ways her story has highlighted transphobia across the US. 

When we tell Chelsea Manning’s story, we must understand that it is one inherently informed by passionate activism and beliefs. It is one that cannot be reduced to become more palatable, a tale of swimsuit shoots and books read in prison, a smiley happy woman who can have hardship Photoshopped away. It is a complete disservice to the importance and bravery of Chelsea to do so – so when you cast your eyes over your latest copy of Vogue, I would kindly ask you, as a trans woman, to remember that.

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