Less than a year after being released from military prison, Chelsea Manning is fighting back. 

The Penny Stamps Speaker Series hosted Manning, a queer and transgender advocate and former intelligence analyst for the U.S. Department of Defense, Thursday night at a packed Michigan Theater. Manning spoke about her experience helping create a portrait of herself using her DNA, and the path forward for social rights movements in today’s society.  

Manning is widely known for being sentenced to 35 years in military prison after releasing classified documents relating to the U.S.’s military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, but later had her sentence commuted by President Barack Obama. Amid her sentencing, Manning came out as a transgender woman and demanded her legal rights to medical therapy.

The Penny Stamps Speaker Series focuses on bringing in speakers from different fields to the University to discuss their innovations in their respective fields. Past speakers have included poet and playwright Claudia Rankine, sculptor Christo and more. 

The talk, co-presented by The Institute for Research on Women and Gender and the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, was a discussion between Manning and Heather Dewey-Hagborg, a bio-political artist and educator. During their discussion, Manning and Dewey-Hagborg highlighted their experience of using Manning’s hair and swabs of her cheeks to create DNA-derived sculptural portraits while Manning was in prison.

At the beginning of the discussion, Manning highlighted how she had planned on doing a photo shoot with Paper Magazine while in prison but was ultimately denied to do so. However, Paper Magazine reached out to Dewey-Hagborg, seeing if she would be willing to create a DNA-derived sculptural portrait of Manning’s face.

When discussing her motivation to joining the project, Manning detailed how she wanted to make an image of her public because there were no legitimate portraits of her besides court sketches, which she saw as false.

“There was no other photos of me,” Manning said. “There were photos of me going in and out of trial, there were these drawings … Nothing actually foundationally based on an image of me and this was sort of a hack.”

The campaign was launched in the fall of 2016, and Manning and Dewey-Hagborg created a comic illustrating their work together and their communication throughout the process. Dewey-Hagborg noted, throughout the process, she was captivated by Manning’s resilience in jail.

“Obviously, this courage that you had carried with you even after … five years or longer,” Dewey-Hagborg said. “Still you had this unrelenting optimism.”

After being released from prison, Manning was finally able to see her own DNA-derived sculptural portraits in an exhibition, and was captivated by the work.

The discussion then shifted to Manning’s thoughts on political issues today. Manning touched on her fears of today’s society, citing President Donald Trump’s calls for a wall between the U.S. and Mexico to curb illegal immigration, which has seen resistance in Ann Arbor, as similar to incarceration.

“Now we live in a world where we are building a prison,” Manning said. “We’re building walls, we’re building barbed wire fence walls around ourselves and we’re creating this prison world.”

Manning stressed the root problem of many of the country’s problems is the rigid institutions that bound society.

“I can imagine a world without prisons,” Manning said. “I can imagine a world without ICE … Just because this is the way its been done … doesn’t mean it can’t … We can come up with new ideas, new visions, new possibilities.”

Manning continued to discuss her disdain for institutions and how they relate to queer and transgender rights. Manning asserted the gay rights movement’s impact has been limited, as it only focused on gaining legitimacy from the government through legal gay marriage, and not on changing the society’s cultural prejudices.

When discussing her hopes for the LGBTQ rights movement going forward, Manning stressed the need to go outside of traditional institutions to be the most effective.

“It needs to be a movement … based on solidarity and I think it needs to have a vision, a goal, that goes beyond the systems and the institutions,” Manning said.

Manning and Dewey-Hagborg wrapped up their talk focusing on issues relating to the University. Manning expressed her support for protesters who rallied against white supremacist Richard Spencer’s potential speaking engagement at the University, and criticized the University’s response to the issue.

“The schools are not doing a really good job handling it,” Manning said. “I can tell you that … they encourage the conflict so that way they can justify their security budget.”

In October, Spencer requested to speak at the University without invitation, and after a lengthy negotiation process, the University announced in January Spencer would not be speaking this semester, though they would offer him potential dates to speak once the semester is over. After last week’s protests at his speaking event at Michigan State University, Spencer announced he would not be holding any more public speaking engagements “at least for the foreseeable future.”

Art & Design senior Alexa Gordon said she enjoyed Manning’s forward initiative and opinions on society at large, and grappled with Manning’s attack on institutions, seeing both pros and cons of the argument.

“The prison institution has a lot that needs reworking … And there are parts that definitely need restructuring,” Gordon said. “But I don’t know about the rest. I think it’s an interesting thought.”

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