Having a birthday around the holidays was never easy and, with every successive year, it felt more and more as if celebrating my birthday got thrown into the December holiday mix as an afterthought.
But now, Decembers are becoming the hardest month of the year to endure.
The most obvious reasons are physical: the temperature drops; here in Kansas, it rains and snows a lot more; the colors outside my window turn from the greens, yellows and blues of summer to the browns, grays and tans of winter, with the occasional white on the rare days that it snows. I spend more time indoors, trying to stay warm and dry. The hills and trees I can see seem still, silent and lifeless.
I feel myself becoming more distant and disconnected as the color leaches from the world outside these walls. The chasm between me and the outside world feels like it’s getting wider and wider, and all I can do is let it happen.
I realize that my friends and family are moving on with their lives even as I’m in an artificially imposed stasis. I don’t go to my friends’ graduation ceremonies, to their engagement parties, to their weddings, to their baby showers or their children’s birthday parties. I miss everything – and what I’m missing gets more routine and middle-aged with each passing year.
The changes that occur as I sit here can raise doubts about my very existence. I have no recent snapshots of myself and no current selfies, just old Facebook photos, grainy trial photos and mugshots to show for the last six years of my life. When everyone is obsessed with Twitter, Instagram, SnapChat and WhatsApp, it begins to feel like I don’t exist in some very real, important way. Living in a society that says “Pics or it didn’t happen”, I wonder if I happened.
I sometimes feel less than empty; I feel non-existent.
Still, I endure. I refuse to give up. I open the mail I receive – which spikes in December, as people send me birthday and then Christmas cards, but I get letters and well-wishing cards all year – and am happily reminded that I am real and that I do exist for people outside this prison.
And I celebrate, too, this time of year, in my own little way: I make phone calls to family, I write letters, I treat myself with the processed foods and desserts I all but gave up during my gender transition.
This holiday season is the first since I won the right to begin hormone therapy for that gender transition, which I began in February. The anti-androgen and estrogen I take is reflected in my external appearance, finally: I have softer skin, less angular facial features and a fuller figure.
Even though I’m still not allowed to grow my hair to the female standard in prison – a battle I’ll continue to fight with the ACLU in 2016 – I know that my struggles pale in comparison to those faced by many vulnerable queer and transgender people. Despite more mainstream visibility, identification and even celebration of queer and trans people, the reality for many is that they face at least as many, if not more, obstacles as I do in transitioning and living their lives with dignity.
And, however improbably, I have hope this holiday season. With my appeals attorneys, Nancy Hollander and Vince Ward, I expect to submit my first brief to the US army court of criminal appeals next year, in support of my appeal to the 2013 court-martial convictions and sentence.
Whatever happens, it will certainly be a long path. There may well be other Decembers like this one, where I feel at times so far away from everyone and everything. But when faced with bleakness, I won’t give up. And I’ll try to remember all the people who haven’t given up on me.
*Private Chelsea Manning is a US soldier sentenced to 35 years in prison for leaking classified US diplomatic cables, videos, and documents. Published on the whistleblower site Wikileaks, they exposed US war crimes around the world including mass killings, torture, corruption, and the government`s attempted cover-up of their atrocities. For more info visit: www.chelseamanning.org
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