“It Is OK to Be Who I Am”: What We Learned About Chelsea Manning Her Vogue Story

After being incarcerated for seven years for leaking classified military information, Chelsea Manning is finally free and embracing her life as a woman. Here’s everything we learned from her candid interview in the September issue of Vogue

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Activist Chelsea Manning in a plaid dress celebrating at Pride parade

(Photo: Keystone Press)

Chelsea Manning was sentenced to 35 years in prison in 2010 after downloading thousands of classified documents from military servers and sending them to WikiLeaks, an international non-profit that publishes secret information submitted by anonymous sources. But this past May, she took her first steps of freedom, after former U.S. president Barack Obama had granted her clemency in his final days in office in January 2017, releasing Manning seven years into her sentence.

In a public statement regarding her release, Obama said, “I feel very comfortable that justice has been served. Let’s be clear: Chelsea Manning has served a tough prison sentence.”

But the world didn’t always call her Chelsea Manning—she used to be referred to as Private First Class Bradley Manning. As Bradley, she worked for the military as an army private with top-secret clearance. Now, as Chelsea, and out of prison, she’s able to fully embrace her gender identity as a woman—and she did so gracing the glossy pages of Vogue‘s September issue in a retro red swimsuit.

In a moving interview with the magazine, Manning tells readers about her troubled past, growing up too quickly, her seven-year struggle in prison and coming into her own as a woman. Here are six things we learned about Manning in Vogue.

She struggled to fit in when she was growing up

Manning always knew that she was different, but it’s still difficult for her to pinpoint exactly why, she told Vogue. She grew up in a small town of 1,400 people north of Oklahoma City and was always wondering—like many young people do—why she couldn’t fit in with her peers. “I knew that I was different,” she told Vogue. “I gravitated more toward playing house, but the teachers were always pushing me toward playing the more competitive games with the boys.”

The internet provided Manning with a safe, anonymous space as a young teenager grappling with self-acceptance, sexual orientation and gender identity. From the ages of 12 to 13, Manning began considering herself gay after realizing she was attracted to boys. Online spaces gave her a sense of solidarity: “I learned that I wasn’t alone… Because I would actually be anonymous online, I could be more myself.”

Its the freakin #weekend! Chillin with my peeps playing Forza

A post shared by Chelsea E. Manning (@xychelsea87) on

She loves fashion

While in prison, Manning kept her love for fashion alive. “I missed seven years of fashion, but I went through every season in a magazine!” she told Vogue. Throughout the interview, Manning references some of her favourite designers such as Marc Jacobs. “I’ve been a huge fan of Marc Jacobs for many, many years, even going back to when I was wearing men’s clothing,” she said. “He captures a kind of simplicity and a kind of beauty that I like—projecting strength through femininity.” Her first outfit leaving prison was a black-and-white striped blouse and matching Converse shoes.

another beautiful day in the park – trying out my neo-cyberpunk look – like a boss <3

A post shared by Chelsea E. Manning (@xychelsea87) on

She had to grow up fast

At 11 years old, Manning was forced to grow up fast. Her parents split suddenly, and on the same day, her mother attempted suicide. Manning was responsible for making sure her mother was still breathing, while her older sister, Casey Manning, drove them to the hospital. The siblings both had to mature quickly, learning basic chores around the house to compensate for their mother’s alcoholism. “I had to learn how to do all of this stuff with my mother and also deal with the friction between my parents,” she told the magazine. “I loved them both, but they were very angry at each other. I always felt like I was doing something wrong and I had caused it.”

She first considered gender confirmation surgery at 19

Manning began seeing a psychologist at the age of 19, which helped her realize she wanted to consider transitioning: “That’s the part of my life I replay the most: whether or not, living in Maryland and seeing a therapist, I could have finally been able to say, ‘This is who I am; this is what I want to do.’ It was the first time in my life when I really considered transitioning.” But Manning said she got scared, adding, “I really regret the fact that I didn’t know or realize I already had the love I needed, especially from my aunt and sister—just to seek support.”

Okay, so here I am everyone!! . CC BY-SA! . #HelloWorld

A post shared by Chelsea E. Manning (@xychelsea87) on

She came out on the Today show

Manning debuted publicly as a woman in February 2010. She told the guards where she was first imprisoned that she was a woman, but was told that it would complicate her trial. Then, an opportunity arose: Manning was asked to come out publicly on the Today show. “It happened a little bit sooner and a little faster than I hoped it would,” she explained. “I was honestly a bit surprised by the outpouring of love and support that I got.” The show read a public statement from Manning aloud, in which she discussed hormone therapy and her desire to be called by female pronouns.

just hanging out at times square, with @abc jumbotron for @jujuchangabc interview – very meta, huh?

A post shared by Chelsea E. Manning (@xychelsea87) on

She feels free as a woman

On February 13 this year—while still in prison—Manning wrote a column for The Guardian. In it, she talks about her nervousness about coming out to the world as a woman. But now, she told Vogue, her fear is gone and she’s no longer hiding. “It feels natural. It feels like it’s how it’s supposed to be, instead of this anxiety, this uncertainty, this ball of self-consciousness that comes with pretending to be male,” she said. “It didn’t feel right. I didn’t know what it was. I couldn’t describe it. Now that’s gone.”

drank coffee at the starbucks i used to work at a decade ago

A post shared by Chelsea E. Manning (@xychelsea87) on

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