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Leavenworth, Kansas.

I landed in Kansas City, Missouri to visit Chelsea Manning exactly three years after she publicly disclosed her identity as a woman named Chelsea.

August 22nd. I remember the first August 22nd that I became acquainted with Chelsea. It was the day her lawyer at the time, David Coombs, read her “coming out” letter on the Today Show — one day after she was sentenced to serve 35 years in prison.

“As I transition into this next phase of my life, I want everyone to know the real me,” Chelsea wrote in that statement. “I am Chelsea Manning. I am a female. Given the way that I feel, and have felt since childhood, I want to begin hormone therapy as soon as possible.”

Since that day, Chelsea has been fighting for that “realness” — to be seen, heard, understood. One of the many things that Chelsea has lost through her incarceration is her ability to publicly shape the narrative of who she is. She writes beautifully and contributes to the public discourse on government accountability and transparency, trans rights, and justice for prisoners. But she is scrutinized and literally locked away and cut off from the world so her voice is always mediated through something or someone else. That doesn’t make her voice or her contributions less real but for a person as beautiful and thoughtful as Chelsea, these mediums don’t do her essence justice.

On this August 22nd, I came to Leavenworth, Kansas to meet Chelsea in person for the first time. Wondering if perhaps I could get a better sense of the “real” Chelsea so that I could better understand how to support and fight for her. This Chelsea — the person who spends hours supporting her friends on the outside process life’s complexities, who sends letters of support to trans kids you write to her pain, who by 28 has lived through and survived enough pain for a dozen lifetimes — is so much more than any one identity characteristic or one action.

I already knew these parts of Chelsea well but there is something different about sitting across from someone and connecting in person. When Chelsea attempted suicide last month, I was reminded of how tenuous our connection to her is and the power of the many forces she is up against. It shouldn’t have taken the possibility of her death to remind me of the fragility of her life. But it did.

I wanted her to see, in person, that my love, support and fight for her was unwavering. I wanted her to see me in all my messy humanness. Because that is what makes our support for people and human connection real.

We have been working together for the past few years — successfully fighting for her to receive hormone therapy and now continuing to fight to ensure that she is treated as the woman that she is and not denied the health care that she needs to survive.

On calls recorded by the government I have heard her cry, laugh and rage against the injustices in the world. We talked at length after the government formally rejected her many requests to follow the hair length and grooming standards applied to all other female military prisoners. Through her tears and the ones that I held back we worked through a plan. We spoke about queer organizing, resilience and tragedy on the Sunday after the Pulse nightclub shooting. We chat about books, politics, family, TV with both the levity and at times, intensity, of any friendship.

I know Chelsea but like so many people who love her, until yesterday I had never actually seen her. There are no current images of Chelsea or recordings of her voice or videos of her that we can see or hear or share.

She is, like so many people held under the unrelenting control of our carceral regimes, locked away from public view.

The power of Chelsea is understated but undeniable. Her charm, charisma and somewhat disarming earnestness is far more evident and captivating in person. So too are the pain and introspection that sit just behind her blue eyes and that smile. A smile that so strikingly reminded me of another friend and trans visionary, Dean Spade. Spade and Manning could be relatives — the shared mannerisms and facial expressions were striking. We talked about that and about how Dean had shaped both of our thinking.

I didn’t ask if I was the only trans visitor that Chelsea has had. She is only allowed visits from attorneys and people who she knew prior to her arrest. It is a limited group, which means that many of the people who know her best and love her most fiercely may never see her.

After five and a half hours, my visit with Chelsea ended. No hugs allowed — another rule that serves to further the many invisible and visible mechanisms of government control and violence over the bodies of people in custody. I felt physically ill walking away from Chelsea. I wanted to stop time. To soak in her realness and to find a pathway to a world where she wasn’t locked up — where no one was locked up. But that isn’t our world and I drove away.

I feel sick writing this, thinking about Chelsea. Locked away.

The thing that always sits with me after visiting someone in confinement (prison, jail, detention, civil commitment) is that we are all responsible for this barbaric system. Our complicity, tax payments and votes, build this horror.

This is a system that descends directly from the chattel slavery that built this country. It is a mechanism of anti-Blackness that stretches into every corner of our national character. Our cages are our cages. We sit among them even as they are so strategically made invisible to most of us.

Leavenworth, Kansas is hauntingly beautiful. But behind the corn fields and train tracks sit our most effective mechanisms of death.

Our captives can’t take in that beauty and are instead served only rules designed to break them. Yet people so boldly and resiliently survive in the face of these systems designed to kill them.

I left Chelsea with thoughts of all my incarcerated community members. The many Black and Brown trans folks struggling like Chelsea to be seen. So many whose names we will never know — who may die by suicide, from neglect, through the slow administrative murder of our carceral systems.

It is for Chelsea and all those people whose names and stories will forever be kept from our consciousness that I resolve to keep fighting.

The real Chelsea is a human being just like the rest of us. She breaths life into our movements and is a gift to our advocacy and organizing.

We can’t lose her.

Lawyer, dad, queer, pats fan

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