Editors’ note: Chelsea Manning has been making headlines since 2010 — first for leaking diplomatic cables that led to Manning’s conviction under the Espionage Act, and then, beginning the day after she was sentenced to 35 years in 2013, for coming out as transgender. After she spent seven years in prison and attempted suicide twice, then–President Barack Obama commuted her sentence. Manning was released from prison in May and immediately began documenting her new life of freedom on Instagram. Here, she shares exclusively with Yahoo Beauty what it’s like to finally be open in the world with her identity, and how her expression of that, through her approach to beauty and style, is ever evolving.
When President Trump announced the transgender military ban, I happened to be 10 blocks from the White House. There was a spontaneous protest going on, and before going I spent a split second considering what I was wearing — all-black clothing, Doc Martens, women’s pants from 5.11 Tactical — and if I should change.
But I realized I don’t have to dress a certain way, I can just be me.
For the Instagram picture, I put on my dark lipstick, and I choose my lipstick colors carefully. I’m not just saying, “I like this edgy color.” This is an expression of my humanity. And beauty, to me, is self-expression.
Now that I’m out and free, I love experimenting with makeup. I use it to project different moods and emphasize what I’m trying to say in a particular moment. Most days I put on a liquid foundation, some powder for highlights, eyeliner, a mascara base, and mascara, with either a lipstick or gloss for the day. I’m wearing a lot of bold lipsticks, because I’m trying to make bold statements: I’m here and I’m free and I can do whatever I want.
The first time the world saw me as I see me is that picture that went viral of me in the blond wig, which I sent to my superior. I took that picture for myself when I was on leave in January of 2010. I took it as a little memento of who I was at that moment. I never intended it to be shared with the world.
When I look at that picture now, I see me — but I see me in a phase of trying to figure myself out. I’m much closer to who I am today than I was in that photo. But it was a process to get here.
By the time I enrolled in the military at 20, I had spent years in denial about who I really was. I was openly gay and would go through periods of cross-dressing, and had even thought about transitioning, but I was in such complete denial. To overcompensate — and because I was constantly being reminded of how inadequate I was as a male — I enrolled in the military. My thought was, “I must enlist and man up.”
That thought really wears on you.
The one place I never felt at all comfortable in the military was in private circles of conversation. There’s a tendency, especially among young men, to objectify and denigrate women behind closed doors. They’d say ridiculous, raunchy things about women — call them sluts and whores, basically just treat them like objects. It was a line I just couldn’t cross. I’d try to avoid those kinds of macho conversations, because that’s inevitably what would come up. I’d get very, very distant.
That said, I loved my job and I took my military career very seriously. There’s this idea out there that, had I not been trans, the leaks and stuff would never have happened. But to my mind those are two completely separate things. Had I been out, I think I still would have been attracted to the military, but I would have been more comfortable and gotten along with people better. Being closeted often put me in situations where I couldn’t concentrate or even think straight.
I loved my job, and had I been out, I think I would have been even better at it.
Now I try to be bold. I try to be myself. I really believe in this notion that we can’t have anybody speak for us. But what’s happened over the last 20 years is that the queer and trans community has depended on people who are not queer or trans to speak for us in places of power, whether that’s a state legislature or a courtroom. We need to show up and speak for ourselves now more than ever.
People ask if I’ll eventually run for office and be that voice, but the truth is I’m not ready to make bigger decisions just yet. Right now I’m just settling into my new apartment, I’m watching the Handmaid’s Tale. I’m not discounting any of the bigger things, but I need to buy a couch and a coffee table first.
I’m also fine-tuning my style, perfecting my makeup skills. I suck at eyeshadow, and that’s why I haven’t worn it, but I’m watching YouTube videos and practicing. I’m borrowing a lot of elements of punk and pop culture and incorporating a lot of the cyberpunk look. People tell me I’m like the protagonist of a cyberpunk movie or something, so I may as well dress for it.
But here’s the thing: There’s no public Chelsea and private Chelsea, there’s just Chelsea. I’m still the same person that I’ve always been on the inside. Everything I’ve gone through has just strengthened my sense of self and my sense of who I am. I can’t pretend to be anyone else. I don’t have a public persona. The person you see is the person I am.