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Getting Private Chelsea Manning’s Gender Right

Whenever a prominent transgender person hits the news, the US media seem to stumble. Not just on the respectful and humane treatment of the transgender community, as ample lascivious, gross, and exploitative features will attest, but on the simple matter of something that should be routine: names and pronouns.

The fact that Private Chelsea Manning is a woman has been known since at least 2011; Global Comment editor Emily Manuel covered this issue here in December of that year, discussing the media reluctance to engage with Manning’s gender identity. Yet, Private Manning’s gender has been a complicated subject to navigate because of her ongoing legal situation; in court, she was using her assigned name and gender, possibly due to legal pressure and advice from her attorneys. Her trans status was certainly weaponised against her by the government during the trial.

This was an issue that should have been attracting global discussion, speaking as it did to the complexities of trans identity and the dangers of coming out. While substantial delicacy was required in talking about Manning’s case in a way that respected her while also engaging with the fact that she was very obviously being put into a situation where she had to live under the wrong gender, it should have been a subject of conversation. It is not a coincidence that Chelsea’s public statement came almost immediately after her sentence, illustrating for anyone in doubt that she had been deliberately withholding definitive public comment on the matter until after her trial was concluded.

There was a curious silence from both the media and much of the ‘progressive’ community about Chelsea Manning, gender, and what happens when trans women encounter the justice system throughout her trial, however. At times, it felt like there was a conspiracy of silence, to pretend that Manning’s gender wasn’t known. Certainly many people acted shocked and startled when Chelsea Manning ‘came out,’ confirming what was already well-established. In the aftermath of Manning’s public statement last week making her gender and name clear, many cis people defended their prior silence as ‘wanting to be respectful,’ referencing the statement made in court about which name and gender should be used. Yet, there was no discussion there as to the circumstances of that coerced statement and why it was that Manning felt unsafe living under her actual gender identity.

Some of those cis reactions went so far as to criticise members of the trans community responding both to Chelsea’s public statement and to the general social response to her statement; trans people who stressed that her gender was not actually ‘news,’ for example, encountered pushback from the cis community, effectively being told how to react to public responses to trans people in the news. A strange reluctance to confront social attitudes about trans women, about coerced gender identity, and about the justice system swirled around ‘progressive’ responses to Manning’s statement. It served as a reminder to at least some members of the trans community that they weren’t the authorities on their own experiences.

And, of course, the media in the US, mainstream and less so, liberal and conservative, showed their usual colours with their reactions, in which many chose to continue to use Manning’s assigned name and gender, and backed it up with heated arguments in their defense.

NPR was one institution that vehemently kept to the use of inaccurate pronouns and Chelsea’s former name, claiming in a statement to the New York Times that it would continue using the wrong identifiers for Manning until she completed transition. The NPR statement was a highly loaded and offensive one; not only was it disrespectful to Manning, who is a woman now and always has been regardless as to what is ‘physically,’ in NPR’s own words, going on with her body, but it also betrayed many hostile social attitudes about trans women.

Gender is not simply about waking up one morning and proclaiming oneself to be a member of one gender or another. It’s a complex, intricate, involved thing that can involve a spectrum of experiences. NPR’s cissexism and gender essentialism showed through loud and clear in a statement which demanded that Chelsea modify her body to their specifications before they would treat her with respect. Every trans woman gets to individually decide what her transition looks like, and NPR’s hostile statement was a reminder that many people think trans women aren’t ‘real’ women. It was also reflective of the attitude that trans woman are simply ‘men in dresses’ or ‘pretenders,’ and evocative of the continual obsession over what is or isn’t in the pants of trans women. Society has a Pope Joan-esque response to trans women, demanding right of genital inspection before it will anoint them.

In response to sustained outcry, NPR made an about face, changing its tune in response to substantial pressure from readers, others news organisations, and, by the sound of it, advocacy within the newsroom as well. Yet, the statement it released on the subject was strangely petulant, and it betrayed a fundamental lack of understanding when it comes to transgender issues and covering trans people with respect and decency.

Our gender is on our birth certificate, our driver’s license, countless forms, and so on. Does an individual’s sense of his or her own identity trump those designations?

NPR asked this in all seriousness, expecting readers to support its initial decision to forcibly misgender Manning and use the wrong name in reference to her in their reports. The framing smacked of irritated whining about ‘special snowflakes,’ the kind of language that often comes up in reference to transgender people and their preferred names and pronouns. Cissexist people and organisations centre themselves in the narrative, demanding to know why they should ‘accommodate’ the trans community, and in the process making it seem as though trans people are whimsical and capricious sprites making utterly unreasonable and comical demands, like a six year old child insisting on being called ‘Princess Lilac Sparklepuff’ for the day.

‘…we should refer to Manning as a ‘she,” the briefing went on to state.  ‘A she’ is a curious turn of phrase indeed, why not just ‘she’? Why is Chelsea Manning ‘a she’? I am reminded of the dehumanising language that often crops up around trans people, women in particular: ‘a transgender,’ for example. This subtle distinction is also a distancing tactic, one used to remind readers that NPR is conferring some sort of favour if it will please its critics, but the agency is not itself entirely convinced that Chelsea is, well, ‘a she.’

Media resources for responsible reporting on transgender subjects are in fact available, leading one to wonder why media organisations cannot consult and adopt these guides. Especially since much of the content is common sense, coming down to using the names and genders that people have clearly stated are to be used in reference to themselves; just as we agree by convention that the President of the United States is to be known by his title, that we should correctly spell the names of article subjects, we should at least agree that we get the names and genders of our subjects right. Otherwise readers might be greatly confused by stories about ‘Barick Obimo’ and ‘her’ latest battle with Congress.

Forcible misgendering is an act of violence, and it takes place within the framework of a culture and society where trans women face beatings, rape, murder, and other vicious acts of hatred because of who they are. The media’s mishandling of trans women is complicit in that, teaching society that abuse of trans women is acceptable. In NPR’s case, the liberal darling’s casual abuse of Private Chelsea Manning was a stark commentary and reminder: in many ways, the allegedly progressive community isn’t nearly as forward-thinking as it likes to pretend it is when it comes to the respectful treatment of trans individuals.

Chelsea Manning faces the horrors of a prison system that punishes trans women and many years of a high profile in the media. And over the course of those years, the media are going to continue to do acts of violence against her by using the wrong name and pronoun, questioning her gender, and making belittling statements about pronoun usage. Will her situation spark an honest conversation about forcible misgendering and the justice system, and about establishing guidelines for responsible trans journalism?

Unlikely. These are issues that tend to sink to the bottom after being briefly stirred up; the media are confident they have done no wrong here, and the cis ‘progressive’ community will move on to other subjects soon while trans activists continue to fight abuses of trans women in the justice system and the myriad other brutalities that come with being trans in a society that hates us.

Photo by Mike Cogh, licensed under Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license